Israeli intelligence officers caught on camera moments before carrying out an assassination of a HAMAS terrorist.
“Information wants to be free” – Stewart Brand
You do not need to be Alvin Toffler or Marshall McLuhan to have noticed that as a result of the information revolution that in the past decade, much like individual privacy, secrecy has taken one hell of a beating. While Wikileaks document dumping demonstrated that much of what governments overclassify as “top secret” are often simply diplomatically sensitive or politically embarrassing material, the covert ops raid that killed Osama Bin Laden was a reminder that some actions, operations and lives are critically dependent on secrecy.
Secrecy in the sense of intelligence agencies and other actors being able to carry out clandestine and covert activities is rapidly eroding in the face of ominpresent monitoring, tracking, hacking, scanning, recognition software and the ability to access such data in real time, online, anywhere in the world. A few examples:
Col. TX Hammes at Best Defense -The Internet and social networks are making it harder to work undercover
It is virtually impossible for an agency to provide sufficient cover for a false name. If you provide information like where you went to school, what posts you have served before, etc., the information can be quickly checked. (Most yearbooks are online; graduates are listed in newspapers; property records, etc.) If you don’t provide that information, then your bio sticks out.
Giving an intern the list of names of personnel at an embassy and telling them to build the person’s bio from online sources — with cross-checking — will quickly cut through a light cover. It will also challenge even a well-constructed cover. I think this is going to be one of the challenges for human intelligence in the 21st century.
What makes the security camera shots released last night by the Dubai police interesting is the professionalism exhibited by the suspected assassins of senior Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.
They arrived on separate flights from different destinations; one of them flew in via Munich and Qatar. They stayed in different hotels and were careful to make phone calls using international routers. They wore clothing that makes them difficult to identify. One is seen with a mustache and a hat, others wearing hats and glasses. They try, throughout, to appear to be innocent tourists or business people, there to enjoy themselves and even play some tennis…
Pity the poor intelligence officer operating without diplomatic cover. A false beard and glassses will no longer suffice.
What kind of adaptions are possible or likely to take place by intelligence, law enforcement, military and corporate security agencies in the face of an emerging surveillance society? First, consider what clandestinity is often used for:
- To avoid detection
- To avoid identification even when detected ( providing “plausible deniability” )
- To facilitate the commission of illicit acts or establish relationships under false pretenses
- To conduct covert surveillance
- To collect secret information of strategic significance (i.e. – espionage)
- To facilitate long term influence operations over years or decades
Taking the long term view will be required. Some thoughts:
One effect will be that marginal subpopulations that live “off the grid” will be at a premium someday for recruitment as intelligence operatives. These “radical offliners” who have never had a retinal scan, been fingerprinted, had their DNA taken, attended public school, uploaded pictures or created an online trail, been arrested or worked in the legal economy will be fit to any false identity constructed and, if caught, are unidentifiable.
Another will be the creation of very long term, institutional, “false front” entities staffed by employees who will never know that the real purpose of the enterprise is to provide airtight legitimate covers and that the economic or other activities are merely ancillary. They won’t be standing jokes like Air America or the various business activities of Armand Hammer, but real organizations with only a few key insiders to facilitate periodic use for intelligence purposes. A similar tactic will be intel agencies “colonizing” legitimate entities like universities, law firms, consultancies, media, financial institutions, logistical and transhipping corporations and NGO’s with deep cover officers who are intended to make ostensible careers there. This of course, is part of basic intelligence history but the scale, subtlety and complexity will have to significantly increase if authentic “legends” are to stick.
Then there’s the creepier and less ethical path of intelligence agencies stealing and using the identities of real citizens, which hopefully a democratic state would eschew doing but which bad actors do now as a matter of course in the criminal world.
Speed will also be an option. As with the Bin Laden raid, fast will increasingly go hand in hand with secret, the latter being a transient quality. If you cannot avoid detection, like the Mossad agents out playing tennis on survellance video, beat the reaction time. Clandestine may also come to mean “Cyber” and “Robotic” moreso than “HUMINT”
Being invisible in plain sight is an art that will grow increasingly rare.