The Art of Intelligence: Decoding the Mysteries of the World's Most Complex Field
Updated: Feb 11
Executive Summary: The report in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) cites a confidential conversation between the newspaper and two anonymous, influential foreign politicians regarding a potential exchange between Kiev and Moscow, where peace would be traded for land. According to the politicians, U.S. President Joe Biden tasked CIA Director William Burns with exploring this possibility. However, both Ukraine and Russia rejected the offer. The statements provide insight into the White House's stance at the time and suggest that Biden was willing to give up parts of Ukraine to avoid a long war, which is a higher priority for the United States according to a recent study by the Rand Corporation. The report was later denied by German and American officials. The NZZ has a reputation for objective and detailed reports on international affairs, making the intelligence analysis fitting with the interpretation from metageopolitics. The balloon incident may serve as a warning from China regarding a potential reciprocal reaction to U.S. actions. The internal politics in the U.S. may limit Biden's ability to escalate, while the GOP house may challenge Biden's posture towards China.
Photo from the LBJ Library
Every morning, the President of the United States receives a briefing from the intelligence community led by the CIA, known as the President's Daily Brief (PDB). This top-secret document provides the President with the most up-to-date and accurate information on national security issues that are considered among the most sensitive and crucial in the US government. The information contained in the PDB plays a critical role in informing the President's decisions on matters related to national security, including updates on global conflicts and military developments, threat assessments for various countries and regions, analysis of intelligence obtained from human sources, signals intelligence (SIGINT), and imagery intelligence (IMINT), briefings on cyber security threats and developments, information on terrorism and other transnational threats, and developments in the fields of weapons of mass destruction, energy security, and space capabilities.
Andrew W. Marshall, nicknamed the "Yoda" of the U.S. Department of Defense, was the founder and first director of the Office of Net Assessment (ONA). This in-house think tank provides strategic assessments to the Secretary of Defense and the President and is known for Marshall's influential role in shaping U.S. national security policy during the Cold War and beyond. In the 1970s, he uncovered that President Richard Nixon rarely read the PDB. This led to a reassessment of the intelligence briefing process, and Marshall is credited with being instrumental in changing the way the CIA produced and presented intelligence to the President. The result was the creation of a more concise and focused intelligence brief, designed to ensure that the President received the information needed for informed decision-making.
A Brief History of Intelligence
According to Christopher Andrew's "The Secret World: A History of Intelligence," espionage is as old as human history itself. For example, in 1300 BC, God told Moses to send spies to reconnoiter "the land of Canaan" after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. Kautilya's "Arthashastra," written around 290 BC, covers the use of spies and the collection of intelligence for decision-making in governance, while later, Sun Wu's "The Art of War," written in ancient China between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC, discusses the use of intelligence in warfare.
In 1521, Niccolò Machiavelli's "The Art of War" discussed the role of intelligence gathering and its importance in warfare. Machiavelli emphasized the value of having accurate and timely information about one's enemies and their plans, as well as the importance of maintaining good intelligence networks and keeping one's own military plans and movements concealed from the enemy. He warned against relying on false or misleading information and stressed the importance of verifying intelligence before acting on it. Sir Francis Walsingham was the principal Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth I of England and established a highly effective intelligence network that helped the Queen fight against the Catholic powers and the papacy. This network was considered one of the first modern intelligence services and provided the Queen with valuable information about her enemies' plans and intentions. Walsingham set up a network of spies and informers across Europe, and his agents intercepted and deciphered letters and other communications, providing the Queen with timely and accurate information.
Similarly, George Washington played a key role in establishing and directing the intelligence activities of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. He recognized the importance of accurate and timely information about the British forces and worked to establish an effective intelligence network to support the Continental Army's war effort. Washington relied on spies, scouts, and other sources to gather information and personally directed his intelligence network's operations, making decisions based on the information received.
The Intelligence Cycle and The Counterintelligence
The intelligence cycle is a continuous process, starting from the planning and direction stage, and moving through collection, processing, analysis, dissemination, and feedback. This process is used for strategic, operational, or tactical purposes and is designed to ensure that information is collected, analyzed, and disseminated effectively. During the planning and direction stage, the information requirements are determined, and the methods for collection are decided. The collection stage involves gathering information from various sources, while the processing stage transforms the raw data into a usable form. Analysis evaluates the information to draw conclusions and make sense of it. Dissemination shares the information with relevant stakeholders, and feedback from this stage is incorporated into the next cycle, aiming to continuously improve the overall process.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, counterintelligence in the civilian realm refers to efforts to protect against unauthorized access to sensitive or classified information. The measures may include implementing physical, technical, and personnel security protocols, such as secure networks and storage systems, conducting background checks and granting security clearances, and implementing access control procedures. Counterintelligence also involves providing awareness training for employees to identify and report potential security breaches and conducting investigations into suspected breaches to determine the extent and cause and take corrective action. The ultimate goal is to safeguard sensitive information and prevent unauthorized access.
Intelligence and counterintelligence can have a profound impact on the outcome of wars and thus shape the course of history. During World War II, the Allies' success in cracking the Nazi's Enigma machine, as led by Alan Turing and Hut 8 & Hut 4, and the Lorenz cipher, as led by Hut 6 & Hut 3, gave them a decisive advantage over the Nazis. Meanwhile, the Japanese military relied on the Type 97 Teletypewriter Cipher Machine to communicate between its various branches and with overseas outposts. Although considered a reliable and effective encryption device, the Type 97 was eventually broken by Allied cryptanalysts. This led to significant intelligence gains for the Allies, particularly in the Battle of Midway in June 1942. The decryption of Japanese military communications gave the United States advanced knowledge of Japanese plans and deployments, allowing them to ambush and sink four Japanese aircraft carriers, a decisive blow that changed the course of the war in the Pacific. The breaking of the Japanese code was a major intelligence victory for the Allies and is widely regarded as one of the most significant of World War II.
The leak of National Security Agency (NSA) information by former contractor Edward Snowden highlighted the extent to which the NSA exploits electronic and internet networks to gather information, as depicted in the films "Enemy of the State" and "Blackhat." Kevin Mitnick, a computer security consultant and author, brings a unique perspective to this issue. Once considered one of the most notorious computer hackers in the US, he was arrested and convicted for computer-related crimes in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He served five years in prison before being released in 2000. Since then, Mitnick has leveraged his expertise to become a sought-after security consultant and speaker, working with corporations and government agencies to improve their cybersecurity. He has also written several books, including "The Art of Deception," which focuses on social engineering techniques used by hackers. Although there have been reports of a relationship between Mitnick and the NSA, the details of this association have not been publicly disclosed.
The Quantum Advantage
The Washington Post reported in 2014 on further leak from Snowden regarding the NSA’s effort to build a cryptologically useful quantum computer, a machine capable of exponential speed compared to classical computers. The project, titled "Penetrating Hard Targets," was part of a USD 79.7 million research program and was hosted at a classified laboratory in College Park, Maryland. The development of this technology raises concerns about the protection of its powerful hacking and decrypting capabilities.
Efforts to research post-quantum cryptography (PQC) are ongoing, with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announcing four PQC candidates in July 2022. However, there are reports of the PQC standard SIKE being broken on a classical computer within an hour, suggesting that PQC remains a challenging field. It is imperative to hurry research on PQC to protect information before the advent of quantum supremacy, as any information that is currently difficult to decrypt could be vulnerable in the future with the use of a quantum computer.
China has launched a number of quantum communication satellites, including the Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS) satellite, which was launched in 2016, and is designed for secure quantum communication over long distances. Utilizing quantum communication technology in satellites offers a secure means of transmitting information, as the laws of quantum physics prevent eavesdropping, making it an ideal option for secure military communications, financial transactions, and confidential data transfers. As part of its strategy to become a leader in quantum technology, China has invested in these satellites.
Although quantum communication provides high security, it remains susceptible to certain types of eavesdropping such as quantum hacking, measurement-device-independent attacks, Trojan-horse attacks, and side-channel attacks. Quantum hacking involves manipulating the quantum state of the communication channel to steal information, while measurement-device-independent attacks involve manipulating the measurement devices used to read the quantum communication. Trojan-horse attacks involve introducing a compromised quantum communication device into the network, and side-channel attacks target the physical or environmental aspects of the quantum communication system. Despite these challenges, quantum communication remains a secure option for transmitting information, provided organizations implement the necessary security measures to guard against potential eavesdropping.
The Recent Balloon Incident and War in Ukraine
The recent discovery of a Chinese surveillance balloon in North American airspace has sparked concerns over China's use of the technology for reconnaissance purposes. On January, 28, the balloon entered American airspace, flying near the southern tip of Alaska and later crossing into Canadian airspace on January, 30. On February, 1, the balloon flew over Montana, near a nuclear missile base, before being shot down by the U.S. military on February, 4 as it hovered off the South Carolina coast.
In the days leading up to its interception, the Pentagon had been monitoring the balloon's movements as it passed over several states, including northern Idaho and Kansas and Missouri. The Chinese Foreign Ministry initially claimed the balloon was a weather device that had strayed off course due to westerly winds and limited control capacity. However, the U.S. military shot down the balloon, citing President Biden's authorization to do so without risk to American lives.
In response to the incident, Secretary of State Antony Blinken summoned the senior-most official at the Chinese Embassy in Washington and postponed his planned visit to Beijing, citing the balloon's presence as having "undermined" the purpose of the trip. The Chinese Foreign Ministry accused some politicians and media organizations of "hyping" the incident to smear China, while another Chinese "spy" balloon was reported to have been spotted over Latin America on February, 4.
With the background of intelligence and counterintelligence, we question the authenticity of the claim that the Chinese balloon was used for reconnaissance purposes. Similar to the US, China has a number of surveillance satellites in low Earth orbit or higher fixed positions, and it also gathers intelligence through social media and other electronic channels. The balloon is said to be a civilian asset and has been in operation for several years. Its movements can be adjusted through control of air currents at different altitudes. The international boundary of the Kármán Line is recognized at an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers). With the balloon being well below this line, it is clearly within the boundaries of US airspace. Thus, the balloon's intrusion into US airspace may have been intentional, but its reconnaissance objective remains unclear.
Clue From Zürich
A report by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ; "New Journal of Zürich") cites a confidential conversation between the newspaper and two anonymous, influential foreign politicians. One of the politicians is from the government coalition, while the other is from the opposition. According to the politicians, U.S. President Joe Biden tasked CIA Director William Burns with exploring the willingness of Kiev and Moscow to negotiate a potential land exchange in mid-January. The exchange proposed peace for Kiev in exchange for land and peace for Moscow in exchange for land. The land in question was reportedly about 20% of Ukrainian territory, roughly the size of the Donbass. However, both sides rejected the offer, with Ukraine unwilling to divide its state territory and Russia confident in its ability to win the war in the long run. These sensitive statements provide insight into the White House's stance at the time of Burns' trip, suggesting that Biden was willing to give up parts of Ukraine to avoid a long war, a stance supported by a recent study by the Rand Corporation which concluded that avoiding a long war is a higher priority for the United States than allowing Ukraine to control its entire territory.
Of course, both German and American officials have denied the report from the NZZ. This denial can be seen as either genuine or as "plausible deniability." The latter refers to the ability of an individual or organization to deny knowledge or involvement in a manner that appears credible. The aim of plausible deniability is to protect from potential legal or political consequences and preserve the secrecy of sensitive information or operations. This is a common tactic used by intelligence officials to manipulate public perception. Donald Rumsfeld’s summarization, "things that you know, that you don't know you know" highlights the asymmetry of information and the nature of human mind.
However, this can explain the division in strategic thinking within the White House, where while Jake Sullivan and William Burns advocate for making a truce with Russia under specific conditions, Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin prioritize pushing back against Russia. Sullivan and Burns clearly do not want to lose sight of the growing threat posed by China, with President Xi Jinping tasking Wang Huning, known as the "Chinese Kissinger," to draft a plan for the reunification of Taiwan. This shift in German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz's position, reflected in the deployment of Leopard tanks to Ukraine, further highlights the fluid nature of geopolitical alignments.
The NZZ has a reputation for high-quality journalism and objective reporting on international affairs, having been founded in 1780. Therefore, in our verdict, the report is trustworthy. This aligns with our analysis of metageopolitics. With regards to the balloon, if it's not for reconnaissance, it could be a warning from China in response to potential actions by the House Speaker, Kevin McCarthy to visit Taiwan, similar to those taken by former speaker Nancy Pelosi. However, political dynamics in the US may only allow President Biden to escalate tensions further, as evidenced by his upcoming State of the Union address and potential challenges by the GOP House to investigate his perceived weakness against China, and that's the tragedy of the great powers.