- - Monday, December 12, 2016


Edited by Peter C. Oleson

Association of Former Intelligence Officers, $95, 740 pages

The chance acquisition of widely disparate books on intelligence a few days back prompted a question: How much actual knowledge does the lay citizen have about the workings of the intelligence community? And what information can be considered authentic?

My book splurge began with a $10 bargain at a Georgetown book sale, a handsome boxed set of the 13 James Bond novels by Ian Fleming. As I thumbed through these books — many for a repeat read — I kept shaking my head, “What nonsense.”

To be sure, Fleming had what seemed to be good atmospheric glimpses inside headquarters of the British Secret Intelligence Service, per his World War II experiences. And Fleming’s publisher says the thrillers sold more than 60 million copies and spawned popular movies. But based on real-life war stories I have heard from CIA case officers, Bond’s exploits bore no relation to reality.

Thus, as Robert Gates writes in a foreword to “AFIO’s Guide to the Study of Intelligence,” when he joined the CIA in 1966, “about the only public source about the world of intelligence was found in the fiction of John le Carre and Ian Fleming.” (Mr. Gates rose to become director of central intelligence.)

Now, several score members of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers have teamed to produce an unclassified book that is the most thorough — and reliable — picture of the real world of intelligence that you are apt to find. Although the volume is aimed at students in the 276 colleges that offer courses in intelligence and national security, it is high on my should-read list for anyone interested in how the various components of the intelligence community actually function.

The book of 82 essays, edited by Peter C. Oleson, who has 48 years of experience in the intelligence field, opens with more than 100 pages of history of intelligence over the years. Persons desiring to delve deeper will find a rich trove of electronic guides to unclassified sources, many of them from intelligence agencies. (Some of these agency home pages contain enough material for hours — yea, days — of reading.)

Thereafter, the book offers a detailed and highly readable tour of current intelligence, including the sophisticated satellite and listening station networks that keep a watchful eye on America’s adversaries. It goes beyond traditional agencies to focus on the roles that local law enforcement has in counterterrorism.

The basic weapons of espionage remain human beings — persons who gather information from a variety of sources, and analysts who interpret what it means. In the words of John R. Sano, former deputy director of CIA’s National Clandestine Service, “Human intelligence encapsulates a wide range of skills — from traditional diplomatic dialogue, to manipulation, to deceit. At its core is the ability to recruit an individual to conduct espionage, to ‘spy.’ “

There are times, of course, when even a wealth of information points to no clear conclusion as to an adversary’s intention. Hence an oft-heard maxim among CIAs analyst is, “Estimating is what you do when you don’t know and cannot find.”

The electronic revolution has rendered obsolete much spy tradecraft. As Stephen H. Campbell writes, “The secret documents that were photographed and dead-dropped during the Cold War are now likely to be imaged and transmitted electronically. Easily concealed memory cards reduce the need for compromising devices to hide film or secret writing materials.”

Although intelligence by definition is a serious business, there are chuckles here and there. Technicians working under scientific intelligence officer Gene Poteat (a former AFIO president) wanted to snoop on Soviet-supplied Cuban radar. So an electronic signal was contrived through which “a false aircraft was made to appear to be a U.S. fighter plane about to overfly Cuba.”

The ploy worked, and Cuban planes were scrambled to intercept the intruder. When a Cuban pilot reported he was about to “make a firing pass to shoot it down,” a flick of a switch made the phantom plane vanish.

One problem plaguing the current intel community is a high turnover of personnel. In the past, officers who entered the CIA’s clandestine service served careers of 20 years or more. Presently, the expected tenure is much shorter. An estimated half of the intelligence budget goes to contractors, who can offer substantially higher salaries than the government.

The college-level intelligence courses — many of which AFIO advisers helped shape — are aimed at filling the gap. It is a perfect book for students — and others as well. And, as editor Oleson notes, “Even those who are former practitioners are likely to have only a limited knowledge of the very broad field of intelligence, as most spend their careers in one or two agencies and may have focused only on collection or analysis.”

In sum, a book that deserves space on any spy buff’s shelves.

• Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 19 nonfiction books.

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