Scientific Intelligence, Real and Imagined

Spies are fascinating, aren't they?

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How are you all doing? These are grim times. All I want to do is knit, work out, watch adaptations of Jane Austen novels, and learn the best substitutes for eggs. I’m also taking an oddly real comfort in reading about fake spies.  

I love spy novels and spy movies, even when they’re terrible, and especially when they deal with science and technology. I may very well spend large chunks of April re-watching The Americans. Its plot lines involving stealth technologies, biological warfare, and pest-resistant wheat are right up my alley. Soviet spies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings do the dirty work, while, over at the Rezidentura, “science and technology attaché” Oleg Burov tries to stay ahead of what Moscow needs to know.

The Jenningses and Borov are fictional characters, but during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were very much interested in gaining access to the other’s scientific and technological secrets. As anyone who’s read a classic John le Carré novel can tell you, actual intelligence work involves significantly less wig tape than you’ll see in The Americans. For every spy in the field, there are scores of people in the office doing everything from arranging the money to writing country reports.

Nor does scientific intelligence entirely depend on secrets. Intelligence agencies around the world, including the CIA and its private contractors, increasingly rely on what’s known as “Open Source” intelligence (OSINT). If you follow #nucleartwitter, you can see this process unfold any time North Korea releases new photographs of military parades. The nonproliferation OSINT experts use specialized skills to assess whether, say, a mobile missile launcher is carrying a real or dummy ICBM. An even less sexy example of OSINT involves assembling, say, the names and specialties of researchers at countries’ leading research institutions.

Most scientific intelligence doesn’t require a fake mustache or Elizabeth Jennings’s confidence to obtain. You can collect it through a website, or by attending an international conference, or by keeping track of who’s publishing what in which journal. It’s hard to untangle this sort of scientific intelligence collection from what’s commonly known as scientific diplomacy, which is why early scientific intelligence programs in the United States sat uneasily somewhere between the State Department, the CIA, and the (quasi-governmental) National Academy of Sciences. In the early 1950s, you’d be right to raise an eyebrow at a U.S. diplomat who introduced himself as a science attaché.

In my last book, Freedom’s Laboratory, I tried to make sense of these sorts of machinations. The real history of scientific intelligence work is more ethically troubling, and less entertaining, than its portrayals in fiction. Just days after I turned in the manuscript, I moved all the books on the CIA and spies out of my home office. I wanted these guys out of my mental and physical work space. I told myself I would never write about intelligence agencies again.

And yet.

In interview after interview, people wanted to know about China. These questions usually involved the United States’ retaliatory measures toward what has been characterized as widespread intellectual property theft by the Chinese government. Among other things, as this article from Science reports, the United States has shortened Chinese researchers’ visas and tightened eligibility requirements. In reply, I would point out what I took to be obvious: that whatever was happening with China’s approach to scientific intelligence collection, the United States’ response was xenophobic and counterproductive, in that it would cut off American access to critical information about scientific and technical issues in China. This was a classic cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face situation.

The global COVID-19 pandemic must be understood as an epic intelligence failure. What combination of racism, hubris, and incompetence allowed the United States (and, it must be said, a number of other countries) to ignore both OSINT and more privileged information about the spread of this new plague? We know that U.S. intelligence agencies circulated classified warnings about the disease in January and February, but, since they’re classified, most of us have no idea what they said. Did intelligence agencies lack access to needed information, or were their warnings ignored? Buried? How did they get the information they did report? How has the work of the intelligence analysts who prepare and circulate information on these kinds of threats changed in the current polarized environment?

Citizens (rightly) distrust intelligence agencies; states need them. We’re starting to find out what happens when states share their citizens’ distrust.

What would Borov do?

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What to read: I’m still making my way through Mara Hvistendahl’s The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage, but if you’re into scientific intelligence, this book is for you.

What to watch: Most of the older Bond movies are back on Amazon Prime (US). Don’t miss Moonraker, a highly ridiculous Roger Moore film involving a stolen proto-Space Shuttle and a tremendous EVA battle scene. Just…trust me on this.

What are you up to? I’m lonely. You’re lonely. Let’s try comments! I invite you to share your favorite work on spies (fictional or not, all media forms welcome!). You should see a comment bubble at the end of the email—if you don’t, use the link below to click through the post, and you’ll definitely see one there. I’ll pull the plug at the first sign of nastiness, so be kind to one another, OK?