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Book Review: Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence by Amy B. Zegart

Elizabeth QuistAmericas, Counterintelligence, Intelligence

Book Review: Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence by Amy B. Zegart

July 15, 2022 | | Americas | Written by [molongui_byline]

Book Review: Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence by Amy B. Zegart


The practice and art of spying have roots in the Western human experience since biblical times and certainly played an essential role in the founding of the United States of America. Misinformation, propaganda, and influence operations, while currently tossed about in modern vernacular as if they were brand new concepts, have been essential tools in the art of warfighting since the time of Sun Tzu. In a time when incorrect definitions of terms and misinterpretation of information are rampant, a book that steadily asserts proper definitions understood properly within their context and history is an invaluable contribution. While there are many books that deal with the individual elements of American intelligence separately, the present volume proves its usefulness in its concise, adequately detailed overview of intelligence in America; its history, its challenges, and the future it faces.

Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence by Amy B. Zegart begins by introducing the author, the current state of American politics, and the Intelligence Community (IC), summing them up by way of proficiencies and deficiencies. Zegart candidly admits she is an academic, an outside observer to the world which she seeks to portray, and claims no intimate knowledge of the IC other than what she has gathered through her extensive research and collaborative projects with the IC. The current state of America is depicted as overloaded with information and interconnectivity to the point of being rife with conspiracy and no reliable ability for deciphering fact from fiction. The IC is of little help in this regard as it is secretive by nature and held hostage by burdensome over-classification. Its silence and lack of public engagement create further mistrust and conspiracy theories.

Such is the scene laid out by Zegart before then addressing the follow-up question: How did we get here? What follows is a clear history of American intelligence from George Washington to Donald Trump, hitting all the high points from Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Franklin to Wild Bill Donovan and Aldrich Ames. Zegart weaves through American history, illuminating the founding of the various agencies from the original military intelligence divisions to the CIA, to the newly created Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), extrapolating on the historical roots, legal precedents, and practical necessity for each firm.

A portrayal of a number of real-life intelligence officers offers an unexpectedly poignant moment in the midst of the discussion of ethics and decision-making under duress. The very human conversations with actual intelligence professionals regarding their experience from their lifestyles as agents to the most meaningful moments in their careers highlight the sacrifice, duty, and humanity of people rarely seen or felt in the public sphere. As the book turns its focus to the darker days of the IC and the increasingly technological aspect of intelligence, the deeply human moments stand out as refreshing and important.

The reminder of the good side of humanity is a good place to lead with, particularly as the next chapter delves into how and why people in the IC fail to make accurate predictions – at an alarmingly consistent rate. Those familiar with Sherman Kent and Phil Tetlock will recognize the seven biases and various methods developed by psychologists and IC specialists as attempts to avert such biases. Zegart also touches on the use of artificial intelligence as a potentially enormously helpful tool in cutting down information overload but maintains the primacy of human understanding and decision-making.

The issue of counterintelligence – what it is, what it is not, and why it is important – is handled in a particularly excellent fashion. Zegart dives into some of America’s most infamous moles and the extraordinary damage that was caused to American lives, political effectiveness, and morale by their exploits. Profiles of Robert Hanssen and Jonathan Pollard, Aldrich Ames, and Ana Montes are presented to the reader as examples of those who have spied for motives like money and ideology. Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden exemplify the counterintelligence challenges that face the modern IC. Zegart points out that while Robert Hanssen caused untold damage by supplying the Soviets with 6,000 documents over the course of twenty years, Edward Snowden stole 1.5 million documents in the short course of 10 months. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for current counterintelligence issues.

It is clear from Zegart’s overview of counterintelligence that the “wilderness of mirrors” has only intensified in light of technological development. Lest anyone think the dangers of the spy game are part of a bygone era, left on the ash heap of history with the likes of the Soviet Union, readers are reminded of the 2011 uncovering of America’s spy ring in China and its very human consequences. As Zegart notes, “the lucky ones were imprisoned […] at least twenty were eventually executed. One was shot in the courtyard of a government building in China, right in front of his colleagues, just to make sure coworkers got the message.” It may come as news to many American readers that such events persist in the real world, that all spying has not yet moved entirely to the dark corners of the web, but the bodies of American assets in China and the new stars on the wall at Langley prove that is, sadly, not the case.

In addition to the practical elements of spying and intelligence gathering, Zegart guides the reader through the more mundane, yet highly important, aspects of intelligence – namely covert action and congressional oversight. While hardly the most glamorous parts of the IC, the political and regulatory issues of having operational security and intelligence agencies in a democratic country must be addressed. Zegart does so succinctly and uses examples that make the topic engaging and coherent. While it may not be as exciting as covert CIA operations, understanding who controls budgeting and oversight and what that means for the effectiveness of American intelligence agencies is equally essential. In discussing covert action, Zegart illustrates the challenges between reconciling safety and secrecy, the public’s right to know and the president’s right to exercise discretionary decision-making in the name of American security – often a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario.

Ultimately, the book is a good tool for students and professors of intelligence, national security, or political science, as well as non-professionals who have an interest in the topic. Policymakers and practitioners will find the chapters on open-source intelligence and cyberthreats particularly illuminating. Cold Warriors will recognize in these chapters something they have always known: there is nothing new under the sun.

Elizabeth Quist