Those of us who pursue certain types of historical research become very familiar with terms such as “sources and methods” – its normally what is cited in not giving us what we are looking for in FOIA requests, or the justification for “redacting” huge chunks of the documents we can get. We complain about it and often with good cause because such things do age and what was withheld at some point in time because of legitimate concerns is no longer reasonable or necessary.
But in regard to contemporary intelligence or even of intelligence collections activities of the past couple of decades, there can be very good justification. Which is why we see something that is normally discussed only by “geeks” showing up in news headlines today. I’ve written about this before but it seems like a good time to hit on some of the basics since this sort of thing is not normally daily conversation.
First off, there is nothing more important in intelligence collection than sources – regardless of whether they are human, electronic, photographic etc. And the only thing more important than your own sources is information allies or trusted parties are willing to share with you, especially since they often have far better assets on the ground in their regions than the U.S. does. At present that is especially true in areas of southwest Asia, especially in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the parts of Iraq and Afghanistan where ISIS and the Taliban are still active (and if you had not been following it I should point out that the Russians have launched a number of new contacts with the Taliban to reassert themselves in Afghanistan; that is one of the biggest concerns of our military commanders there at present).
If you compromise covert human sources they either get killed or worse yet they start getting misinformation and misdirection. The same thing is true whether they are your assets or a third party nation. If you compromise technical collections, you risk losing sources of information across whole regions. When Ben Laden became aware his satellite phone was compromised we lost what was at that point the lynchpin for all Al Qaeda communications. And compromising sources is a lot easier than you might think – especially if you are dealing with intelligence sophisticated opponents. You don’t name to name them, you can out them simply by letting it be known where they are operating, by country, by city, etc. Facts can destroy you.
I’ll give a simple example from the past. In JFK research Mexico City is a big topic, in particular Lee Oswald’s visit and even the certain telephone calls made during that visit. When Bill Simpich and I began looking at that one of the big questions as to what was the source of certain intelligence on those calls was where they had been tapped. There were options, it could have been on a particular phone inside the Cuban or Russian embassy, the Cuban consulate, it could have been on an outside telephone connection locally at one of those buildings which implies certain things about sources and methods, it could even have been within the telephone network at a local switch or a central routing office – which would mean the Mexican government had been cooperating in intelligence activities. That would have been explosive at the time, even internally within Mexican politics. The blow back from even simple points such as where a phone conversation was tapped can have substantial consequences. In the end, with enough facts Bill and I felt that we had indeed identified the source and if it’s where I think it was, at a local CIA surveillance location where such calls were tapped and recorded, the implications for the JFK assassination are significant.
I went into the above only to demonstrate that “facts”, even minor facts, can be very dangerous. That is normally why so much vetting and discussion is done in sharing information about any intelligence collection; if it involves foreign sources you can triple the normal dialog. Because if you compromise voluntary information sharing it can either just stop or worse yet it can become poisoned, with consequences for both you and the source nation. Right now that doesn’t even have to be a nation, it could be a Kurdish or Syrian group, it could be a particular source within Jordan or Lebanon or even Saudi who shared something based on a level of personal trust…and now will suffer the consequences.
Last night I heard one former CIA collections officer make the remark that at some “desks” this has already been a rough week since immediately following the President’s meeting with Russia (by the way, if you don’t think their chief diplomat works directly for the FSB you just don’t have the facts) someone had the good sense to warn both CIA and NSA. And all this does not even go into the nasty details of how the Russians have much better assets in the countries I mentioned and have their own agenda which would allow them to market such information, to leverage it and at a minimum poison the well in regard to sharing anything with the U.S.
Hopefully this might have helped clear up a few things about today’s news, in short “facts” can be truly dangerous if shared with the wrong people – and clearly Russia should be high on that list at present. But in this case knowing more about it only makes the news worse…sorry about that.