The U.S. has recently jeopardized the lives of some of its spies by its careless handling of their classified information, as evidenced by documents retrieved from Mar-a-Lago by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Those spies put themselves in danger for the love of the United States. Now their beloved country may be putting them in harm’s way and motivating them to quit. It is critical for the U.S. to protect the identities of its agents for its own good.
The U.S. employs more than 100,000 spies, consultants and foreign nationals to support its national security information needs. Many live under cover, leading double lives, lying to family and friends about who they are and what they do, living on edge thinking about what might happen to them if they were to be exposed.
Spying is as old as biblical Moses and Joshua. Spies (or espionage agents or covert investigators) gather and provide intelligence about their targets to policymakers to benefit their country. That is what Moses’s and Joshua’s spies had done, and that is what U.S. spies have been doing.
The elimination of Osama bin Laden, responsible for killing almost 3,000 Americans in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, as well as the termination of his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, earlier this year would not have been possible without the intelligence provided by dedicated agents and their informants.
Until recently, American agents could be confident that their identities would be kept secret by the U.S. to protect their safety and their effectiveness at work. No more. The trust has been broken, as has the willingness of some agents to engage in clandestine work.
In my recent book, “Cyberwars,” based on true events, a CIA “consultant” is sent to Russia on an assignment for a dummy corporation. When he needs help, he realizes that he’s been hung out to dry. Trust broken, he took steps to protect himself. This may now be the case with some American agents and their human sources, relationships that took years to cultivate.
The purpose of spying is to give one country an edge over another, especially at times of war. In modern times, spies can enhance world stability by reducing the prospects for war. There is almost a tacit understanding among many countries that spying is acceptable, even beneficial, because if a country knew what its enemies were up to through information culled by its agents, it could respond appropriately and peacefully.
This way, countries could deter each other and avoid war. It is no secret that most countries have spies embedded in their embassies, aid programs, economic delegations and even universities. For example, China is infamous for sending students to American campuses to conduct industrial espionage.
How can the U.S. assure its assets that their identities will never, ever be compromised? How can the U.S. make sure that breaching asset information, like the one that occurred in Mar-a-Lago, won’t happen again?
I propose two strategies. One is to encrypt agent data and guard it by a select unit so that fewer people have access to the encoded information, and even when they get to see it, they will not be able to decode it easily. This may complicate the handling of such information, but it would assure agents that their country has their backs.
Another is a complementary strategy designed to reduce the country’s needs for human assets in favor of using more technology to collect intelligence. Computer deep learning, artificial intelligence, big data and drones can do some of the tasks of human agents, thus reducing the number of spies whose information can be compromised.
Fundamentally, however, human assets who put their lives in danger every day must be promised protection by America’s leaders. And that promise must be kept.
Avraham Shama is the former dean of the College of Business at the University of Texas, The Pan-American. He is professor emeritus at the Anderson School of Management at the University of New Mexico. His new book, “Cyberwars: David Knight Goes to Moscow,” was recently published by 3rd Coast Books. See: avrahamshama.com.