Works in Progress - Winter 2017

Spies Like Us

By John Hughes-Wilson | December 5, 2016



Colonel John Hughes-Wilson served in the British army’s intelligence corps for 30 years. His most recent book is The Secret State: A History of Intelligence and Espionage. We asked him to consider the future of spying.

1. When the Cold War fizzled in the early 1990s, American officials began asking what to do with the U.S. intelligence agencies. Politicians were keen to save money; the “securocrats” were focused on saving their jobs. It soon became clear, however, that the new political landscape had actually increased the need for intelligence. Today, fresh targets, national economic rivalries, new threats (such as weapons proliferation, terrorism, rogue states, arms trafficking, and drug dealing), and emerging threats like cyber war and Islamic jihad all demand new answers and intelligence structures. Is the present organization of agencies suitable for future challenges or does it need restructuring?

2. The biggest problem intelligence agencies face is the accelerating pace of change in the digital age, which has opened up mass surveillance beyond the comprehension of existing laws. New laws will be needed. How do we frame new legislation to give intelligence and security agencies the flexibility they need to compete without handing them carte blanche?

3. As South Africa’s Shadow Defence Minister David Maynier put it last year, “The state security agency has now become a state within a state beyond effective scrutiny and oversight of parliament.” Maynier highlighted a quandary of all democratic governments. National intelligence agencies too often take on an unregulated institutional life of their own, immune to taxpayers and lawmakers alike, without authority and without oversight. But because intelligence is the servant of government and not the other way around, this tendency only makes the need for ever-tighter oversight and control of intelligence and security agencies more imperative. But who will watch the watchmen? What agency will enforce the limits to government invasion of citizens’ privacy?

4. Intelligence blunders in the 21st century are potentially very dangerous. The greatest threat has always been the armed fanatic, whether that’s a lone killer with a grievance, a terrorist, or a rogue nation’s mad leader bent on war. But now we have nuclear arsenals. If the definition of responsible intelligence is “to speak truth to power,” then tomorrow’s spies will face today’s challenges: how to collect, collate, interpret, and disseminate timely, accurate intelligence to help policymakers and decision makers do their jobs. However, in the digital world, we are inundated by information. How can we use new technology—the very same technology that is making intelligence’s task so difficult now—to find peaceful solutions?

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