LONDON (Reuters) - How can intelligence services justify human spies in the cyber age, when hacking can also pierce a foe’s defenses, and at a fraction of the cost and time?
The answer is -- pretty easily, although the question is an understandable one amid a Russia-U.S. spy furor whose human dimension has provided soap opera-style fodder for the media.
It’s an issue of particular relevance for countries seeking to target the military and industrial secrets of the United States, an open society that has a strongly competitive media and sometimes leak-prone governments.
“Doesn’t the Kremlin understand that even with the Obama Administration, you can figure that out from the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal,” former CIA officer Robert Baer wrote in Time magazine.
“Wouldn’t it have been a lot cheaper for Moscow to open an Amazon account and start buying up memoirs written by former CIA operatives?”
Even in the age of 24-hour media, Facebook and LinkedIn, human spies can do things hackers cannot, like spotting human frailties and wrongdoing that people can and do keep private.
Some experts say lack of U.S. diplomatic representation in Iraq in the 1990s deprived Washington of human sources that could have helped it avert an intelligence failure in 2003 when the US-led invasion was justified by what turned out to be wrong information about weapons of mass destruction.
“The human angle can be really valuable and should not be underestimated,” said Charles Crawford, a former British diplomat who served in Moscow.
“The whole point of intelligence is to discover weaknesses and then exploit them.”
After all, traditional human spycraft was the method that enabled spies in Britain, the United States and Canada, such as Klaus Fuchs, to give the Soviet Union details on U.S. nuclear weapons design in World War Two and the early Cold War.
KEY ELEMENT OF ESPIONAGE
On its website, Britain’s MI5 Security Service estimates at least 20 foreign services are operating to some degree against the UK, with the Russians and Chinese of most concern.
While intelligence officers often use the latest technology to eavesdrop, tap telephone calls and communicate secretly, MI5 says, “the human relationship between an intelligence officer and his or her agents remains a key element of espionage.”
Increasingly, secrets sought by intelligence services are commercial, to do with communications technologies, IT, genetics, aviation, lasers, optics and electronics, MI5 says.
Analysts suspect the role of at least some of the group of alleged long-term penetration agents or sleepers was to identify people inside government to be blackmailed or bribed to inform. Such a task would require outgoing, sociable people good at making contacts -- online and face-to-face -- and patience and generous funding on the part of their bosses at home.
In those terms, the intent behind the alleged operation looks serious and professional, notwithstanding the fact that it was eventually detected by the FBI and the evidence of lapses in spycraft detailed in the court papers, experts say.
“The right human agent in the right place gives you something that no one else can give you,” said Richard Aldrich, a historian of intelligence.
Experts say hacking and electronic signals interception can paint a reliable portrait of events at a given moment.
But human sources can give you a foe’s private intention.
Knowing what a cabinet decides within a day of it meeting can give a hostile intelligence service several days, weeks even months notice of what the government in question will do.
“If you recruit an administrative assistant for someone who is part of Obama’s inner cabinet, that’s the dream recruitment,” Aldrich.
By definition, those sources are rare.
“In any decade there are maybe just three or four agents that really pay the wages of a service, whether you are CIA, MI6 or SVR (Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service), ” he said.
RISK OF EXPOSURE
The better the agent, the more challenging the handling tends to be. Output of high grade information prompts bosses to want more of it, and more frequently.
But more frequent contact with a handler increases the risk of exposure, suggest security experts Fred Burton and Ben West of the Stratfor strategic forecasting consultancy.
They raise the possibility a Russian intelligence officer, Sergei Tretyakov, may have been the source who tipped off Washington to the alleged spy ring when he defected in 2000.
If that turns out to be so, it would simply underline the importance of the human factor in espionage.
Sometimes, as allegedly in the latest case, intelligence services use “illegals,” people with no official cover, thus less conspicuous but not protected by diplomatic immunity.
In a 2007 interview with the California Literary Review, Alexander Kouzminov, a former officer of the KGB and its successor SVR in the 19980s and early 1990s, said he worked in a section handling illegals. He suggested timelines were long.
“We prepared our “illegals’ for work in target countries for a period normally of 15 to 20 years or even more,” the review quoted him as saying. “While “illegals’ will work in target countries for 15-20 years, our agents -- citizens of target countries -- continued to work with the SVR all of their lives.”
Editing by Ralph Boulton
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.