Updated: Apr 8
REVIEW – In Spies, Lies, and Algorithms, Amy Zegart offers a polished primer on US intelligence for the uninitiated while also posing discerning questions of old hands, who must recognize that the world around them is evolving, with or without them. For the currents and the formers, this isn’t a book to ignore.
With chapter titles like ‘Intelligence Basics’ and opening prose that reads like a grad school syllabus, it’s clear that professor Zegart authored Spies, Lies, and Algorithms with her Stanford students in mind. When she reveals that more college courses on the history of rock and roll are on offer than those covering intelligence, “giving undergraduates at America’s top universities a better chance of learning about U2 the rock band than the spy plane with the same name,” you understand why.
Zegart walks readers through the history of American intelligence in captivating fashion, making accessible a subject that too often can appear arcane. She details the functions and nuances to collection, analysis, covert action, and congressional oversight, using modern and historical case studies to inject practicality into the concepts. From George Washington’s deceptive placement of French bake ovens along a New Jersey trail, to Operation AZORIAN’s snatching of a Soviet sub from the ocean deep, the Church Committee’s intelligence review of the 1970s, and Stuxnet’s reshaping of cyber conflict, Zegart gives readers just enough background to pique interest and still succeeds in connecting the eras of American intelligence, distinct in their own ways yet each marked by “halting development, organization fragmentation, and democratic tensions.”
Her cause is noble. When most Americans think of an intelligence professional, they think of Bond and Bourne, not Gordon or Hayden. This book aims to right that wrong through the lens of an outsider. As a former management consultant and current academic with an accomplished body of work that stretches back thirty years, Zegart’s identity as a “visitor to the secret world of intelligence” frees her to “ask uncomfortable questions–and come to unflattering conclusions.” A career analyst with sights trained on foreign foes can miss how years of over-classification and (mis)education by proxy has eroded the public’s understanding of, and faith in, the intelligence community. Zegart astutely outlines the drawbacks to a system designed to keep operations close to the vest; when a rogue NSA contractor is able to hijack the public narrative on surveillance, conspiracy theories and deep state thinking soon follow. “The bottom line is that when spy facts are sparse, cynicism and suspicion are more likely to grow,” she argues.
In the book, Zegart goes as deep as she does wide. In her chapter on covert action, she widens the aperture, explaining how covert action and paramilitary activity are not synonyms. The covert action playbook includes economic, political, and information operations, too, all of which have been used in one form or another by administrations on both sides of the political aisle. She rightly notes, “when different leaders with different political philosophies facing different enemies in different eras turn to the same toolkit, it’s time to put preconceived notions aside and dig deeper.”
Spies, Lies, and Algorithms implores readers to contemplate the impact of 21st century realities. What used to be a government monopoly on collection and analysis is gone. The definition of a policymaker has been re-written. “Some of the most important decisions affecting American national security are being made by executives at Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, and Apple, all of whom have global shareholders and no votes holding them accountable in elections,” Zegart writes. Open-source intelligence has become the province of private organizations and independent researchers able to unearth adversarial troop movements and missile sites at speeds on par with intelligence agencies. The major difference: their findings are posted to the world wide web, not cloistered in a secret enclave. And that raises tricky questions.
My main qualm with Spies, Lies, and Algorithms is that I wish it focused more on the future and less of the past. Should the government embrace the Bellingcats of the world and turn them into this century’s Lockheed Martins? What are the implications of such a shift in contracting? Should a new OSINT agency be created? What would the calling cards of a more transparent intelligence community look like?
I realize I am asking a lot, expecting someone else to answer questions that will dog my generation of national security professionals. I pose them less as a cry for help (though I’ll take it) and more as an expression of admiration for Zegart. I’d be hard-pressed to find someone more capable than her of pointing us in the right direction. I just put this book down but am already looking forward to picking up her next.
Book Review: Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence by Amy Zegart / Princeton University Press
The Reviewer: Brian Fitzgerald is one of US national security’s newest public servants. He recently earned his MBA and MPA from Columbia University where he focused his studies on strategy and geopolitics. His pre-government professional career includes stints within Big Law, EMEA-based technology and defense startups, and political risk consulting.
Spies, Lies, and Algorithms earns an impressive 3.5 out of 4 trench coats.
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