Intelligence: The Age of Amateurs

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April 11,2008: Espionage in the United States has changed since the Cold War ended. For the first three decades of the Cold War (1947-79), about two Americans a year were caught spying for a foreign country. During the last decade, that went up to about ten a year. This jump had a lot to do with things falling apart in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. More communist intelligence organizations were compromised, and spies in the U.S. revealed, or discovered. As the communist governments collapsed, their intelligence services got sloppy. On the down side, it was dispiriting to see how much communist spy agencies had penetrated the United States.

Since the end of the Cold War, China, Cuba and Islamic radicals have replaced the Soviet Union as a source of espionage in the United States. The post-Cold War spies are older and more ideological. Most are foreign born and more do it without pay. Actually, in the first three decades of the Cold War, 53 percent of U.S. spies had friends or family in communist countries, while since the end of the Cold War, 58 percent of American spies had "people in the old country." It's much easier to get someone to spy for you if you can hold some kin hostage.

The Internet has made it easier to be a spy, and easier to get caught. Electronic files have figured in most post-Cold War espionage cases. CDs, hard drives and memory sticks are now a convenient way to ship the secrets out. The Chinese have also capitalized on the fact that there's a lot more information leaking out to where anyone can pick it up and ship it back to China. This is called the "thousand grains of sand" approach, and it makes just about every Chinese citizen (and many Chinese-Americans with kin back in China) potential sources for innocent (or not-so-innocent) bits of information. All this stuff can be stitched back together in China, to produce some very useful stuff.

During the Cold War, the Russians used very well trained KGB and GRU agents to recruit and supervise spies. Not as much of that anymore. Since the Soviet Union disappeared, it's mostly amateur hour. But there are now more spies, operating at lower levels and are thus harder to detect and catch.

 


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