In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Amy Zegart, the Morris Arnold and Nona Jean Cox Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Professor of Political Science at Stanford University about her new book, “Spies, Lies and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence.” Morell and Zegart discuss the impact of emerging technologies on intelligence collection and analysis, both of which, Zegart says, have been fundamentally changed by developments like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and commercial satellite imagery. Zegart also outlines the five “mores” – more threats, more speed, more data, more customers and more competitors – that she says have made the work of intelligence newly challenging.
ON THE BROAD EFFECTS OF TECHNOLOGY ON INTELLIGENCE: “[T]echnology is increasing the scale and speed of counterintelligence problems, right? Robert Hanssen took years to ferret documents to the Russians, whereas now counterintelligence breaches like Chelsea Manning, like Edward Snowden, can take minutes to access millions of pages of documents, for example. So technology is affecting everything. It’s affecting what we collect, how we collect, how we analyze and how policymakers use information.”
ON KEY TURNING POINTS: “I think the real canary in the coal mine…was the 2016 presidential election and Russia’s election interference. And the part of that campaign that the intelligence community missed was Russia’s use of social media masquerade accounts masquerading as Americans to sow divisions. So we think about this new technological landscape where adversaries are using tools in different ways to undermine our country from within. That, to me, was a threshold moment that the world had changed in some fundamental ways that were dramatically affecting sense-making, right, which is what the intelligence agencies do. How do we make sense of the world?”
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF OPEN-SOURCE: “The long pole in the tent for advantage in the future is Open-source intelligence. And Open-source intelligence…will never get the attention, the resources, the importance that it deserves without its own agency. Secret agencies are always going to favor secrets. And so I think an Open-source intelligence agency is absolutely necessary, and not only will it give attention to Open-source, but it can provide a testbed for new analytic tools to see how we can take more advantage of emerging technologies in analyzing Open-source data. And it could forward-deploy to areas where technical talent wants to live; places like Austin, Texas and Silicon Valley. So I think for all those reasons, an Open-source intelligence agency is a key enabler to what I think is really a radical transformation that we need in intelligence.” Download, rate and subscribe here: iTunes, Spotify and Stitcher.
PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS
INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – AMY ZEGART
MICHAEL MORELL: Amy, welcome. It is about time that we invited you to join us on Intelligence Matters.
AMY ZEGART: Well, I am so glad to be here, Michael, and really glad to be talking about a book I finished rather than one I’m still writing.
MICHAEL MORELL: You know, I say it’s about time to have you on the show because – and I don’t want to embarrass you here, but I consider you to be the leading academic anywhere on the U.S. intelligence community. And I’ve been remiss in not having you on the show before, and that’s my bad. And we’re correcting that today, and I’m so excited that we could do it with a conversation around your new book, “Spies, Lies and Algorithms: The History and the Future of American Intelligence.”
Really looking forward to that discussion. But before we get to that, I just want to ask you about a couple of other questions. What made you decide to focus on intelligence and on the U.S. intelligence community as something you wanted to to to spend a good chunk of your career studying?
AMY ZEGART: Well, Michael, let me just say that it is really means a lot to me that you think my work is good. It’s a strange thing to study intelligence as an academic from the outside. I got into intelligence completely by accident; so I had worked in the summer while I was in graduate school at the National Security Council staff, and I decided I wanted to write my doctoral dissertation on the NSC. And I came back to Stanford and I told my Ph.D. advisor, ‘I know what I’m going to write about: I’m going to write about the National Security Council staff.’
And she said, ‘You know, it’s really not great research designed to write about just one thing. So you should go back to the library and find other organizations that were created at the same time and try to explain why some developed in some ways and some developed in other ways.’
So I went to the basement of the library and was poring through microfiche at the time and came across the National Security Act of 1947, which, as you know well, created not only the National Security Council, but the CIA. And so the CIA became one of the case studies for my Ph.D. dissertation at Stanford, and I got hooked ever since. I never wrote another thing about the National Security Council staff and wrote and spent the rest of my career really looking at the intelligence community.
MICHAEL MORELL: So you never thought twice about focusing on a subject area where much of the information is classified. You didn’t find that to be intimidating from a research perspective.
AMY ZEGART: I think it’s really intimidating, but apparently I’m quite a masochist when it comes to research. I started it off, Michael, as a China person, so I studied East Asian studies in college and I went to China right after Tiananmen. And I remember thinking at the time, ‘I can’t study China anymore because it’s too opaque. It’s too hard to understand.’ And I end up studying something that’s even more opaque, I think, than China, and hard to get it from the outside. So I think I like trying to penetrate these difficult topics, and I really am drawn to the mission of the intelligence community, too.
MICHAEL MORELL: I should tell people that we first met in the late 1990s when I was working directly for George Tenet on his personal staff, and you visited the agency and I was assigned the task of making your visit a success. That’s what I was told by by George. You know, ‘You’re going to take care of her. I just want her to feel that her visit was a huge success. So make that happen.’ Do you remember that?
AMY ZEGART: I didn’t know that that was Director Tenet, but it was. And here we are talking 20 years later.
MICHAEL MORELL: OK, the book What’s it about? By the way, the title sounds familiar.
AMY ZEGART: Yes, we should probably tell your listeners. So the title actually was taken from a Foreign Affairs article that you and I wrote together. So we’ve been noodling for many months actually about how is technology changing every aspect of the intelligence business. And then when I wanted to write the broader book – and I’ll get into in a minute how the book project started – I loved the title so much that you graciously allowed, said it was OK to use it and so did Foreign Affairs. And so that’s how the book ended up with the same title.
But I started the book project really years ago in a class I was teaching at UCLA, where I polled my students to see where they got their information about the intelligence business. And the answer was, ‘spy-themed entertainment.’ And that so alarmed me that I decided I wanted to write a textbook that others could use to teach people about all things related to intelligence. It took a while and the world changed and technology became a much bigger driver of changes in intelligence. And so the book that I ended up writing turned out to be a very different book than I started out writing.
MICHAEL MORELL: So there’s a couple of different pieces to it. Can you talk about those?
AMY ZEGART: So the first piece is really, what do most people want to know about intelligence but don’t know about intelligence? These are things that you know like second hand, Michael. But, what is intelligence? How does counterintelligence work? Why do all presidents authorize covert action, even those that say they don’t want to do it? Why is it that presidents do that? And why do Democratic presidents often authorize covert action even more than their Republican predecessors, which is what I found. So the first part of the book is really about everything you wanted to know about intelligence, but were afraid to ask.
The second piece, though, is that technological overlay. So as you and I have talked about a lot, emerging technologies from A.I. to quantum to internet connectivity to the commercial satellite revolution are fundamentally challenging every aspect of intelligence. And so I wanted to take a harder look at what that means. And so part of the book is really dedicated to looking at Open-source Intelligence, for example, and how it’s being used in nuclear threat intelligence and how it’s offering both promise and real risks to to the intelligence community.
MICHAEL MORELL: So one of the things you do in the first piece that you talked about is you tell some day-in-the-life stories of real intelligence officers. Why did you do that?
AMY ZEGART: I wanted the book to include a human element to it. So, we professors tend to be very sterile in the books that we write and we are very Spock-like in how we treat subjects. But intelligence is such a personal endeavor. And in doing my interviews with many current and former intelligence officials, it really struck me that they needed to tell their stories.
So my students, for example, want to know, ‘When do you tell your family what you do? How do you deal with ethical challenges? What are your best and worst moments in your lives?’ And so I put those questions to a number of current and former intelligence officials, and I wanted readers to understand what it was like to be them.
MICHAEL MORELL: Are there a couple of those day in the life story, Amy, that stand out to you that really resonate with you, that you could share with us?
AMY ZEGART: Yeah. So one of the interesting things about writing this book during COVID was that I did a number of my interviews on Zoom, and I thought that that would be less personal. Right? Because when you interview someone, you really want to see them in person. And so it turns out that wasn’t the case, that I found that there were really personal moments with several people that I talk to and I’ll share one in particular.
So I asked Sue Gordon, who you know well, a veteran former intelligence officer, what her best and worst day was in her career. And she said it was the same day. She said that she often would meet the families of fallen intelligence officers when their loved ones arrived at Dover, and she felt that it was important for her to be there when her colleagues made their final journey home after giving their lives to their country. And she said it was awful. It was, you know, small families there, and the reason it was her worst day and her best day is, she said it was the grace of the families telling them, telling her that their loved one did what they loved doing, what they wanted to do and the grace they showed her in their moment of grief was what she carried with her forever.
MICHAEL MORELL: You know, that really resonates with me because unfortunately, I had to do that way too many times. And I walked away from every one of those conversations with a spouse or with kids or with parents or with siblings, and they somehow bucked me up, right? They somehow strengthened my resolve right at a moment when it might be a little shaky rather than the reverse. It was a remarkable, remarkable thing, and I know exactly what she’s talking about. Great story.
So Amy, the heart of the book, I think, from my perspective, is where we are today and where we’re going. And you write, and I quote you here, ‘The U.S. is losing its intelligence advantage.’ That’s a big statement. What makes you say that?
AMY ZEGART: Well, I think, Michael, I think in terms of drivers of the threat landscape. And when I really thought about how emerging technologies are converging, I think about what I call the five ‘mores,’ right. So the convergence of all the technologies that we talked about is creating number one, more threats that are threatening the United States from across vast distances, like cyber threats, right. So the threat landscape has never been more challenging.
The second ‘more’ is more speed. So intelligence has to operate at much greater speed, the speed of relevance for decision-makers who are getting their information on Twitter, not just from classified sources.
The third ‘more’ is more data. You know this well, right: intelligence analysts are drowning in data.
The fourth ‘more’ is more customers who need intelligence to keep the country safe and to advance our interests, like voters, tech leaders, critical infrastructure leaders.
And then there’s the fifth ‘more.’ And that gets to the point of, you know, why are we losing our edge? More competitors. So now anybody with a cell phone and an internet connection can collect and analyze intelligence – not as well, necessarily, as the intelligence community, but the name of the game from now into the future is how to harness insight from what’s openly available. That is a radically different world from what the intelligence community has confronted in the past.
And so when you think about the democratization of data and the democratization of intelligence capabilities, think about navigating in your car and the access to imagery that you can get for free, right? It’s not that the advantage that spy satellites once conferred on the United States is eroding – and that’s true across the board with technology in the hands of individuals and organizations and weak states, not just powerful states.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Amy, these ‘mores,’ I mean, it’s a very interesting list. What’s the time horizon here on these things? When did these things start? When do these ‘mores’ start emerging or did they emerge at different times? When did they all come together? When was this crisis really visible to most folks who look at and think about the intelligence community?
AMY ZEGART: Michael, you always ask the tough analytic questions. I think the convergence has happened really in the past decade or so. So I think about a few key indicators that, you know, ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore.’ One was when the CIA went on Twitter in 2014. So when a secret agency joined social media, you know times are changing.
I think the real canary in the coal mine, though, and this is something you and I have talked about, was the 2016 presidential election and Russia’s election interference. And the part of that campaign that the intelligence community missed was Russia’s use of social media masquerade accounts masquerading as Americans to sow divisions.
So we think about this new technological landscape where adversaries are using tools in different ways to undermine our country from within. That, to me, was a threshold moment that the world had changed in some fundamental ways that were dramatically affecting sense-making, right, which is what the intelligence agencies do. How do we make sense of the world?
So I know that’s a long answer to an excellent question.
MICHAEL MORELL: You know, the other thing that I think about when I think about where we are today – and we just had Dawn Meyerriecks on the show and she was very open about the threat to human operations from ubiquitous technical surveillance.
So it’s just becoming more difficult for intelligence collectors to do their job in a traditional way, at least, right? Where does that fit into your list? Or is that something that you think about separately? The impact of technology on the ability of an adversary to undermine intelligence collection.
AMY ZEGART: I think about it together. So how can we get information? How can we protect information? How can we use information? I think those are all critical parts of this puzzle. And so when I think about denied environments, which really that’s what we’re talking about with distributed sensors, it’s much harder to get human intelligence right.
But I also think about, technology is increasing the scale and speed of counterintelligence problems, right? So, you know, Robert Hanssen took years to ferret documents to the Russians, whereas now counterintelligence breaches like Chelsea Manning, like Edward Snowden, can take minutes, right, to access millions of pages of documents, for example. So technology is affecting everything. It’s affecting what we collect, how we collect, how we analyze and how policymakers use information.
So if you’ll stick with me for a minute here. One of the things that I was really interested in was at Strategic Command. How do they think about information? And when I went to visit Strategic Command and went to the bunker underground. Sure enough, on the big screen right next to the classified feeds, there was a Twitter stream, right? So when policymakers are getting their information from outside the IC – much of it wrong, right – how does that affect what the community does?
Let me just add one other thing I’m thinking now about the question you asked about, ‘When did we know that technology was really changing things?’ 2014, the creation of generative adversarial networks, a type of artificial intelligence that has enabled the creation of deepfakes. So fake video, fake audio, fake photographs that are impossible, almost, to tell from the real thing. It’s a revolution in deception, and that has to play a huge role in the future in statecraft and geopolitics. So I think 2014 was a watershed moment, technologically, with artificial intelligence and what it’s going to mean for deception.
MICHAEL MORELL:MSo, Amy, there’s a couple of other things that you focused on and where we are today that I wanted to ask you about. One -and I think you hinted at it already – is the crisis in intelligence education. What did you mean by that?
AMY ZEGART: Well, I think if you look at what most Americans know, when I did polling on this, they know almost nothing about intelligence and much of what they know is wrong.
So one poll I did, for example, was in 2013 in the midst of the Edward Snowden crisis. So the news was saturated with stories about National Security Agency surveillance programs that were revealed by Edward Snowden. And yet when I polled Americans about what the National Security Agency actually did for a living, three quarters of respondents either didn’t know or got it wrong.
So then I looked at, ‘Well, what about top universities? Are there courses in intelligence at top universities?’ And the answer is, not many. Right? So of the top 25 universities listed by U.S. News and World Report, I looked at them and I found that there are more courses on the history of rock and roll taught at the top 25 than courses on American intelligence, which I joked to my students means that they have a better chance of learning about U2 the band rather than U2 the spy plane. That’s a problem.
And then it’s, you know, to beat up on my own discipline for a minute, I actually gathered data on the top three journals in political science over 15 years. So from 9/11 to 2016, how many articles did they produce? Almost 3,000 articles. How many articles actually examined in a serious way anything related to U.S. intelligence? Five. So while intelligence issues were front and center for policy makers, for the media, for the world, we in the academy were studying just about everything else.
MICHAEL MORELL: And then the other thing that you talk about – and I found this really resonated with me – is congressional oversight. You say it rarely works. What do you mean by that?
AMY ZEGART: Well, I think a lot of the discussion of oversight looks at who’s up, who’s down, who’s in, who’s out, personalities, and what I find is that there’s a much more systematic explanation for oversight. There are structural reasons why Congress doesn’t have a lot of powerful incentives to pay close attention to intelligence and why they don’t actually do it very well.
So, for example, in the book I talk about, there’s no Iowa for intelligence. Why do we have so many farm experts, right, in Congress? Well, because they come from places like Iowa where they have to learn about the industry in order to be elected. There’s no geographic concentration of constituency interests in intelligence in that way.
And so what that means is members of Congress, however well-meaning they are, have very weak incentives to devote the time to learn about intelligence and oversee intelligence, and they can’t even talk about what they do, right. It’s an electoral loser from a congressional perspective.
And so when I look at the data over the history of the intelligence committees, what I find is actually most of the time they don’t delve deeply into intelligence issues. That’s not always the case, but most of the time they don’t, and they don’t often hold public hearings. Now I understand that’s difficult, but they play a crucial role in being an ambassador to the public about what secret agencies are doing. And so the more that oversight is done in secret, the less they play that ambassadorial role. And that’s a problem, too.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. So my experience is exactly the same. You know, over three years, I watched the same play over and over and over again. And it was members of the committee being interested in really only one thing, which is the analytic views of the intelligence community on the issues of the day, right. So, is Russia going to invade Ukraine? Are we going to have a deal with the Iranians on the nuclear issue? Those were always the questions you got.
Nobody asked you, ‘How many human assets do you have in Iran? How many human assets do you have in North Korea?’ Nobody asked you about the efficiency with which you’re using the taxpayers’ money. Now I’m overstating this a little bit, but not much. And I think it’s exactly for the reason that you said: the incentive for them is to know more than other members of Congress on the issues of the day, which gets them on the news more. It gets them on the Sunday shows. That’s their incentive. It’s not to do the job that their colleagues gave them, which is to make sure that these secret intelligence organizations are doing their job and operating within the law and operating effectively using the taxpayers’ money. I couldn’t agree with you more.
And as you know, the 9/11 Commission, all of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission were implemented, except their recommendations with regard to congressional oversight.
AMY ZEGART: Right. And the commission, I think, really laid out – they called congressional oversight dysfunctional. And years later, in 2007, I had the strange experience of being asked to testify before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and why they were functioning so poorly.
And, you know, members of the committee understand this, too, and they know that their oversight is not working as it should. And yet here we are 20 years after 9/11, and the least reformed part of our intelligence system is Congress.
MICHAEL MORELL: So Amy, here’s the fundamental question: What do we do? What has to happen? How do our intelligence agencies have to change?
AMY ZEGART: So, Michael, I’m going to say something that I know a lot of people will disagree with me about, which is that I think we need to add yet another intelligence agency to our intelligence community. We have 18. I am usually reluctant to add one more because I think if one of the chief challenges is coordination, the more agencies you have to coordinate, the harder coordination becomes.
But I do think we need the key, in terms of what’s the long pole in the tent? The long pole in the tent for advantage in the future is Open-source intelligence. And Open-source intelligence, as you and I have talked about, will never get the attention, the resources, the importance that it deserves without its own agency. Secret agencies are always going to favor secrets. And so I think an Open-source intelligence agency is absolutely necessary, and not only will it give attention to Open-source, but it can provide a testbed for new analytic tools to see how we can take more advantage of emerging technologies in analyzing Open-source data. And it could forward-deploy to areas where technical talent wants to live; places like Austin, Texas and Silicon Valley. So I think for all those reasons, an Open-source intelligence agency is a key enabler to what I think is really a radical transformation that we need in intelligence.
MICHAEL MORELL: And by Open-source, you don’t mean sort of this narrow set of information that anybody can get to on the internet. It’s broader than that in your mind, right?
AMY ZEGART: Yes, it’s much broader than that. So it’s not just stuff you can get on the internet, but think about the metadata that you can learn by looking across different data sets. Think about the imagery that’s openly available by commercial satellite companies today.
We have three thousand, roughly, satellites, active satellites orbiting the Earth today. That number is supposed to increase to somewhere like 100,000 satellites in the next 10 years or so. And what that means is that you can have fast revisit rates so you can see the same place on Earth multiple times a day. Think about the dynamic picture that you can get with that kind of information – and all of it is open, right? It’s available at low cost or no cost.
MORELL: So I’m wondering, in the context of how you think about the community and where it is and what it has to do, how you think about the changes that Bill Burns made at the agency and that were announced three, four months ago now.
AMY ZEGART: I’d be curious to know what you think, Michael, you’re in a better position on the inside than I am. From my vantage point, I think the changes are really important and I think they’re headed in the right direction.
So he’s drawn attention to a number of things. He’s drawn attention to technology. He’s drawn attention – it’s been publicly reported – to improving counterintelligence, right, protecting our our capabilities better on the human intelligence side.
And critically, he’s drawn attention to getting talent in the door faster. At the end of the day, intelligence is a human endeavor. You live this; you know this better than I do. But it takes too long and it’s too hard to get the most talented people in the door. And that has to change. And I think that’s been a top priority of his as well.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. So my take is not dissimilar. I think the China Mission Center got a lot of media attention and a lot of public attention. For me, that was sort of a no-brainer that had to happen. That wasn’t the real news to me.
The real news to me was the changes that he made with regard to technology. So he creates this new mission center focused on foreign commercial technology developments. You know, the agency’s always done weapons technology extraordinarily well, but now it needs to do commercial technology because that is so important to the future of our economic security and our national security, right?
So a new mission center. A new position, Chief Technology Officer, right, which is supposed to come up with a strategy for technology for the agency, which we’ve never had.
And then this CIA technology fellows, right? Which is a recognition at least on the technology front of what you talked about, the difficulty of getting people in the door not only from a time perspective, but from a perspective of competing with the private sector for talent. So a way to get people in the door very similar to the White House Fellows program, right, which brings the most talented people into the government for a year, and they’re free to leave after that year. But many of them stay because the work is so interesting. So I think the real news was on the technology side, and I think it was a big step in the right direction.
AMY ZEGART: And I think, Michael, you put your finger on one of the critical issues, which is that technologies today are almost all dual-use. They have huge commercial applications and military application. And that’s really different than the Cold War, as is our relationship with China, which is so entangled economically, right?
And so understanding better the connection between commercial and military applications of technologies and where we have to win in order to prosper economically and from a security perspective is crucial. And so those changes, I think, are really important and exciting. I think it’s a critical thing that Director Burns has done.
MICHAEL MORELL:So are all intelligence agencies in the world facing the same set of challenges? And this might be a difficult question. Do you have any sense that some are dealing with this better than others? Is this something that you studied? Is this something that you looked at?
You know, it’s always good to kind of baseline yourself against what other people are doing. And I wonder if there’s things that other intelligence services are doing out there that would make a lot of sense to copy.
AMY ZEGART: Michael, it’s a great question. Thanks for giving me homework for my next book. I’ve only spent 10 years writing about the United States. I wish I knew the answer to that question. I don’t.
MICHAEL MORELL: It could be a good research project for your students.
AMY ZEGART: It would. And for me. But what I will say is, you know, clearly the United States and the former Soviet Union, Russia used to be ahead in the Cold War, right? I mean, it was a competition of two. And that’s not true anymore. Who’s doing it better now across the world? Great question. Don’t have the answer to it. Stay tuned for the next book, right? Which you’ve now given me the idea to write.
MICHAEL MORELL: So I want to shift gears a little bit here and I want to ask you about your students. And I want to ask you how they think about the U.S. intelligence community and U.S. intelligence in general, right, as a profession. And I want to ask about how do they think about it when they come into your class? And is there an evolution during your class? I’d love for you to talk about that a little bit.
AMY ZEGART: I’ll have a better answer for you at the end of the spring quarter, when I will have taught this new intelligence class for the first time. But I will say, the last time I taught a class dedicated to intelligence, it was at UCLA and it was in 2009, and I polled my students at the beginning of the class and then I polled them again at the end to get at exactly the questions you just asked me. What did they think going in? How have their views changed?
And one of the striking things that I remember is one of the questions I asked my students was, ‘Do you think intelligence agencies have too much power, too little power or about the right amount of power?’ And at the beginning of the class, the vast majority of students said too much power. These were controversies in the news. They were really worried about the intelligence agencies running amok.
At the end of the class, after they had learned a lot more about intelligence, the answers changed dramatically and it was a much more split picture about not enough power or just about the right amount of power. A better understanding that intelligence agencies do operate under an oversight regime and that they’re struggling with weaknesses, and that they’re not the omnipotent agencies that they’re portrayed to be in the movies.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. What about how they think about the U.S. role in the world? I mean, we were all taught that the U.S. role in the world post-World War II was largely a positive one. Certainly, we made mistakes – Vietnam, other things – but that our role was largely positive. How do students today think about that question?
AMY ZEGART: I think I can’t answer that question very well because of selection bias. So students who take my classes think the U.S. role in the world is important, right?
MICHAEL MORELL: Otherwise, they wouldn’t be there. Yeah. Interesting.AMY ZEGART: But I will say, just based on my current students – I teach a class with national security affairs fellows. So these are military affairs fellows and diplomats. And so we ask the fellows who are government employees, what their night flights are, what keeps them up at night. And we ask the students the same question. And then we compare answers.
And the students list climate change much higher than anything else and higher than our fellows do. And they, by contrast, the national security affairs fellows, they include climate change, but great power competition is much higher. Nuclear security is much higher. And so you can see a difference between people in the trenches in U.S. foreign policy and students and what they’re really concerned about.
MICHAEL MORELL: Amy, thank you so much for joining us. The author is Amy Zegart. The book is, “Spies, Lies and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence.” It is a book you’re going to want to read. Amy, thank you.
AMY ZEGART: Thanks so much.