Secret Agents and Espionage in the 21st Century

Espionage is certainly not an activity that exclusively belongs to James Bond or the era of the Cold War. Recently Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he wants the resurrection of the KGB, the former Soviet Union’s powerful secret police service.¹ On the other side of the ocean, the United States intelligence agencies are expanding their spying operations against Russia on a larger scale than ever before, because of the fear that Russia might interfere in the US elections through digital espionage.² What exactly is espionage, why are states spying on each other and which forms of espionage can we expect in the 21th century contrary to the era of the Cold War? (Featured Image © Carol M. Highsmith)

What is espionage?

Espionage can be defined as the collection of secret information from foreign countries by illegal means. This secret intelligence usually contains political information, but can also include military, scientific and economic intelligence.3 Sovereign nation states are spying on each other in order to find out secrets that are relevant to their own national security.4 Logically, this kind of information is not publicly available. Therefore, human sources in the form of spies or technical means, like hacking, are being used.

There are reasons why certain information should remain secret. Information on key services such as gas, oil and transport could enable terrorists to seriously damage these important economic sectors.5 Also the attitudes of countries towards international organisations, such as the European Union (EU), North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), might be interesting information for spies.6 Humans engaging in espionage are being called spies and it is important to indicate that spies can be divided into three categories.

There are reasons why certain information should remain secret. Information on key services such as gas, oil and transport could enable terrorists to seriously damage these important economic sectors.

The first category consists of field officers who get specific tasks from intelligence services that can be done in the home country or from an embassy. Secondly, there is the case officer who has the task to develop a relationship with a foreign national in order to convince this person to engage in spying, so that the intelligence agency can be provided with information that cannot be obtained by open sources.7 Finally, the person who is recruited by this case officer is called secret agent.8 The secret agent has access to the information that the case officer and the intelligence agency need.

Human Intelligence (HUMINT)

As already indicated, espionage is the collection of secret information. One might wonder who exactly needs this secret information. National intelligence agencies are probably the most prominent stakeholders. The gathered intelligence enables policymakers to assess threats against the security and stability of the state.9 Therefore, secret information gathered through espionage can give policymakers a good insight in security threats.

In the world of intelligence agencies, espionage is called HUMINT, which is the abbreviation of Human Intelligence. HUMINT is one of the methods of information gathering and includes intelligence derived from information collected and provided by human sources.10 To the public HUMINT remains synonymous with espionage, but most work is performed by overt collectors, such as diplomats and military attachés.11

Only clandestine HUMINT is similar to the classical spies, moles or agents from spy fiction.12 It is important to note that, diplomats and military attachés are not de facto spies, as they are just briefing their sending country about events happening in the receiving state. Only if the information was obtained illegally, it can be considered espionage. By illegal means, one can think for example of tapping telephones and installing listening devices.13

Clandestine HUMINT

Clandestine HUMINT became very popular in books and films, like the many James Bond movies. For intelligence agencies this type of information is the best way to figure out plans and intentions of the other hostile side.14 Although it is just 10- 20 percent of intelligence that is derived from clandestine sources, the insights being provided by it are truly valuable.15

Despite of that, it is not easy to set up a clandestine operation. It requires a large and complex infrastructure from which to operate and most of the time it includes areas at the other side of the world. Therefore, you also need overseas offices, safe houses for the secret agents, cover legends and specialized training. In many cases, the case officers and sometimes the secret agents as well, need to familiarise themselves with a foreign language and culture to be fully effective in spying.16

Although it is just 10- 20 percent of intelligence that is derived from clandestine sources, the insights being provided by it are truly valuable.

The high times of espionage: American CIA vs. Soviet KGB

Many illuminating examples of clandestine HUMINT can be found in the period of the Cold War, when thousands of professionals worldwide were working for intelligence agencies.17 When the Second World War was over and almost immediately was followed up by the Cold War, the Americans realized that they had little intelligence on the Soviets. Information given by diplomats and military attachés from the American embassy was not that valuable, due to the fact that there was much secrecy about the Soviet society.

In 1949 the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) tried to fill up the missing pieces, by dropping agents by plane into the Soviet Union. To legitimize these secret agents in the Soviet-Union, the CIA set up legends or fictional stories around those people.18 The secret agents had to know the smallest details about their fictional life. But not only the CIA was busy with trying to figure out the secrets of the hostile side, also the Soviet KGB (Committee for State Security) was doing this. The KGB expanded its foreign intelligence operations to become the world’s largest spy network. Researchers estimate it had over 480,000 personnel at its height19. Therefore, both the CIA and the KGB set up clandestine intelligence operations to prevent a surprise attack from the other side.20

Both organisations were sending case officers to the hostile part to recruit secret agents who could start working for them. The case officers were charged with the task to recruit the secret agents, in giving them assignments and helping with the translation of the gathered information into usable intelligence reports.21 Secret agents as the case officers made the Cold War the era of espionage, by providing the big state leaders the essential information which enabled them to pursue the war, but also to prevent the Cold War from becoming a ‘hot’ war.

Espionage in the 21th century: cyber-espionage

The end of the Cold War did not mean that the USA and Russia ceased their spying activities. U.S. officials claim hundreds of Russian spies are operating today inside America’s borders, perhaps even more than during the Cold War. The Russians are thought to be busy trying to obtain U.S. economic, military and political secrets.22 Traditional espionage is likely to continue in the 21th century. However, already some decades ago the focus of traditional espionage moved more towards a new realm: cyber-espionage.23

Traditional clandestine operations get their intelligence mainly by HUMINT. Cyber-espionage on the other hand, obtains secret information via signal intelligence, better known as SIGINT. The world of signal intelligence is all-encompassing. While referring to cyber-espionage this means intercepting communications between computers as well as breaking into somebody else’s computer networks in order to get the desired data. The overt form of SIGINT encompasses telephone traffic, satellite links an9d mobile conversations.24

Due to the fact that new threats are emerging, for instance from non-state actors such as Daesh, SIGINT is becoming more and more important. Also because of the fact that Daesh, but also terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, are giving instructions to their fighters for example through Arabic websites.25 HUMINT however still remains important, because specialists in decryption and cryptanalysis need to decode the information which is found on the internet. The encoded information also need to be correctly understood and put in a certain context, before conclusions can be drawn from it. That is something that can only be done by humans and not by technology.26 Therefore, intelligence professionals want HUMINT and SIGINT, as much as possible, working together seamlessly in order to protect countries against security threats.27

Cyber-espionage on the other hand, obtains secret information via signal intelligence, better known as SIGINT. The world of signal intelligence is all-encompassing. While referring to cyber-espionage this means intercepting communications between computers as well as breaking into somebody else’s computer networks in order to get the desired data.

Despite of the fact that espionage is more moving towards cyber-espionage, reports of caught spies are still appearing in the media. Recently, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) caught a Ukrainian journalist, who is accused of spying in Russia on behalf of Ukraine.28 Earlier this year, the Swedish State Security Policy reported that it had tracked people who were affiliated with Russian intelligence services. These Russians were participating in conferences about further Swedish cooperation with the NATO, where they tried to negatively influence the debate.29 In 2013 the Russian spying techniques also hit the headlines when it was claimed that Russia spied on foreign powers during the G20 summit. The delegations were given USB drives that were capable of downloading sensitive information from laptops.30 These examples demonstrate that traditional espionage still exists, but that spies are using more digital methods to obtain the desired information.

Even in the 21st century when spying is becoming more advanced and anonymous because of technology, spies still need to keep their identities hidden and that is a thing Bond would not succeed in, because he has already build up a worldwide reputation.

The myth around James Bond

Finally, we can reject the assumption that the world’s most well-known spy, James Bond is the stereotype of an excellent spy. Firstly, the former Director of the Israeli Mossad, Tamir Pardo, said that there is an equal number of men and women working for the Mossad. This means that spies aren’t always men, which is an impression we might get while watching famous espionage movies. Pardo also added that women are better at playing a role and superior to men when it comes to ‘suppressing their ego in order to attain the goal’.31

Ian Fleming, the author of the Bond books once admitted that the Bond character that he invented was a compound of all the secret agents and commando types he met during the Second World War when he was working for the British Naval Intelligence. This means, that a spy like James Bond, could never exist in real life.32 Besides that, everybody knows Bond, even though spies need to keep their identities secret. Bond causes a scene wherever he goes, from car crashes to shootings with his enemies. Real spies work discretely and (almost) nobody knows what they are doing.33 Even in the 21st century when spying is becoming more advanced and anonymous because of technology, spies still need to keep their identities hidden and that is a thing Bond would not succeed in, because he has already build up a worldwide reputation.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Perspective. Please be advised that all works found on International Perspective are protected under copyright, more information in the Terms of Use.

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By | 2017-09-13T13:21:05+00:00 November 10th, 2016|Categories: Insight|Tags: , |1 Comment

About the Author:

Claudia Dominicus
Claudia is a Dutch student of International Relations & Diplomacy, and graduate in Journalism. She is interested in intelligence agencies and terrorism, migration, security and foreign policy.

One Comment

  1. Cynthia 10/11/2016 at 18:52 - Reply

    Nice article!

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