Winning the 21st-century intelligence contest

The conduct of intelligence activities is inherently a strategic dynamic between rival actors simultaneously playing offence and defence. Analogies with war, sporting contests and competition abound. Action and reaction. Denial and deception. Or, in its Soviet incarnation, ‘sword and shield’—the KGB’s motto.

The prize for a nation’s leadership? Holding an advantage in decision-making and action. Knowing others better than they know you. And being able to use that advantage and that knowledge to the benefit of your interests and security.

This essence is highlighted in two important and insightful new works on intelligence.

Calder Walton’s Spies: the epic intelligence war between East and West charts the history of espionage and counterespionage through the 20th century and into the 21st, illuminating an ongoing shadow war between the UK and US (and their allies) on the one hand and the Soviet bloc (and later Russia) on the other.

Walton, a historian at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, through archival study and interviews with practitioners and defectors, finds that the struggle started in 1917 (and not after World War II). The resulting intelligence ‘warfare’ was at the bleeding edge of the next 75 years. What’s more, it didn’t end in 1991 despite the West’s ‘peace dividend’. The Soviets’ perceived humiliation is key to understanding Russian revanchism today—seen not only in Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine but in Russian intelligence outrages worldwide. Disturbingly—especially in light of recent events—Walton concludes that the West has a Russia problem not a Putin problem.

Spies has a particularly contemporary resonance, illustrated by Walton’s revelatory account of attempts to assassinate Russian Foreign Intelligence Service defector Aleksandr Poteyev in Florida just three years ago. This links to earlier BBC reporting of Russian efforts to track down Poteyev, including using disinformation about his ‘death’ to flush out those with knowledge of his whereabouts.

Furthermore, Walton’s reflections extend to an emergent China–West confrontation. Espionage is once more at the front line of what he describes as a new cold war with Russia and China. Different, yes (how could it be otherwise in a globalised economy?), but a cold war nonetheless, and one that’s critical to keep cold given the continuing threat of mutual nuclear destruction.

What’s changed are the phenomena that will determine who comes out on top: not least OSINT (open-source intelligence) and the race for artificial-intelligence-driven mastery of data. For Walton, a critical historical lesson is the importance of creativity, exemplified by the CIA’s turn to technologically sophisticated satellite imagery to overcome the challenge of spying behind the Iron Curtain.

Walton’s chosen analogy is war. That’s not uncontroversial. It captures the century-long nature of the dynamic and the sense of zero-sum results, but I’m queasy about direct equation at a time when we have an actual war occurring on the plains of eastern Europe. ‘Contest’, albeit more bloodless and less evocative, is a safer harbour for more generalised accounts of intelligence. It also better accommodates multidirectional intelligence efforts in an increasingly multipolar world.

For the writers in Deter, disrupt or deceive: assessing cyber conflict as an intelligence contest, edited by Robert Chesney and Max Smeets, the question is whether the long-heralded idea of ‘cyber war’ is indeed actually better understood as ‘intelligence contest’. In doing so, the contributors also consider different national (including Chinese and Russian) perspectives on cyber issues and the role of non-state actors (including internet users, technology companies and cybersecurity firms).

US scholar Josh Rovner’s chapter dissecting what constitutes an intelligence contest is perceptive. In his words, participants endeavour to:

  • ‘collect more and better information relevant to long-term political competition’
  • ‘exploit that information for practical gain’
  • ‘undermine [their] adversary’s morale, institutions and alliances’
  • ‘disable adversary intelligence capabilities through sabotage’
  • ‘pre-position assets for future collection in the event of a conflict’.

The result is typically long-term information duels among adversary states, during which participants use secrecy for defensive but also offensive purposes. They’re challenged too, as all regimes (democratic and undemocratic alike) ‘struggle to make the most of intelligence, but for different reasons’. Amid that struggle are overriding incentives to innovate but also to end up mimicking one’s adversaries’ tactics and capabilities.

I would observe that, as in a duel, those rivals search for points of advantage and positive asymmetry amid what can otherwise tend towards an evenly matched stalemate.

What are the lessons for Australia? After all, our national intelligence community is necessarily engaged in defence and offence to advance our national interests in concert with our allies and unilaterally. We’re also drawing on experiences back to at least the onset of the Cold War.

One distinction from the past is a new sense of maturity and realism in Australian approaches to intelligence matters. Recent ABC allegations about Soviet penetration of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation in the 1970s and 1980s suggest just how naive we have been historically, including in our political discourse. That’s reinforced by the 40th anniversary of the Combe–Ivanov affair and the second Hope royal commission. Much of the supposedly hard-bitten cynicism of that moment, especially from the press gallery and commentariat, now comes across as impossibly provincial and innocent.

For Valeriy Ivanov was an undeclared KGB officer. He was actively cultivating a senior political figure in pursuit of Soviet interests. ASIO was on the ball. Prime Minister Bob Hawke acted appropriately. Justice Robert Hope got it right (again).

Australia has moved on thankfully, as can be seen from the forthright approach of ASIO, the rest of the intelligence community and the government to the realities of espionage and foreign interference today—and the fact that Australia finds itself in the strategic cockpit of the 21st century, rather than the sidelines of the 20th.

Australia can also take note from Spies and from Deter, disrupt or deceive that we are in a contest, like it or not. That contest involves defence and offence. But an intelligence contest only makes sense within a broader strategy incorporating defence, deterrence, diplomacy and national resilience (including social cohesion).

The intelligence contest in the 21st century requires mastery of both old techniques and new ways of working. For an intelligence middle-power like Australia, a key to success will be creativity and innovation. As will be making the most of our national talent.

There’s also a need for self-reflection: what features of Australian government structures will challenge our making the best use of intelligence? One would be the relatively immature integration of intelligence within broader statecraft. Another might be the still limited engagement between our intelligence community and the nation and people it serves.

But Australia is blessed with an established, comprehensive national intelligence capability. And the power of our enduring intelligence relationships.

All of these are important issues for the next independent intelligence review to examine.