After more than three decades of down-and-dirty operations for the CIA, San Antonio resident Kenneth Michael Absher has come in from the cold.
Sitting in the sun-drenched living room of his house in the upscale Alamo Heights district, Absher, 59, seems glad to be back in friendly, patriotic South Texas, glad to reminisce about the many Cold War crises he saw close up. The Cuban missile crisis. Vietnam. Running agents in foreign countries he's not even allowed to name.
Spies in John le Carre novels often doubt themselves, and their side. Absher, apparently, does neither. He's Texas-friendly and seemingly quite at ease in his own skin. In a low-key way, he's also quite eloquent, the kind of natural explainer and storyteller one is glad to encounter at the front of a classroom.
Boink, Absher's graying black tomcat, keeps his master under lazy surveillance as one Cold War tale suggests another.
"It's my favorite subject," Absher says, disarmingly, about the often-maligned trade of intelligence. Now Absher hopes to pass his enthusiasm on.
Retired as of last year from the CIA's Operations Directorate, Absher has introduced a historically-oriented course at a local university on the enduring value of "espionage," the covert stuff -- apparently the only declassified college-level course on this subject in the United States.
More than a hundred colleges and universities nationwide offer courses on national security or intelligence. For example, the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), where Absher now teaches, also offers a "big picture" course on "the intelligence community" taught by James Calder, a UTSA criminal justice professor with a background in military intelligence.
But Absher's course, uniquely, concentrates on the potential value to policymakers of intelligence obtained through covert means like spying.
It's a declassified version of a course Absher once taught at the Defense Intelligence College at Bolling Air Force Base. At Bolling, Absher's students were military personnel with at least "top secret" clearances. At UTSA, they're South Texas representatives of Generation X -- most of them politically a notch or two to the right-of-center, but without being diehard ideological conservatives. Nor are many of them overburdened with historical knowledge.
UTSA's big, airy campus, just south of the Texas Hill Country, is far more "Anglo" than the rest of San Antonio -- spiritually, the northernmost major city in Mexico. Land for the campus was donated to the state by big-dog developer friends of former Texas governor John Connally. Connally's friends expected the value of their surrounding property, which is extensive, to ratchet up. It has.
The CIA's Publications Review Board duly cleared Absher's syllabus as posing no threat to the CIA's interests. But the Agency has no other official link to Absher's teaching. Texas taxpayers rather than the Agency are paying his part-timer's salary. Nor is Absher part of the CIA's often- criticized Officer-in-Residence program, which places active CIA personnel on campus as temporary professors -- and unofficial goodwill ambassadors for spookdom.
Absher acknowledges, but shrugs off, the fact that his course takes as its point of departure the existence of state secrecy. "There are always," he says mildly, "going to be secrets."
Absher's students swear by his course. "He's a gifted instructor and a wonderful, enthusiastic man," says Elaine Coronado, a Washington-savvy UTSA senior working on a second UTSA degree in political science. Her first is in history.
Coronado plans eventually to return to "the policy arena" in Washington, D.C., where she has already worked for the Hispanic Alliance for Free Trade, a pro-NAFTA lobbying group. Coronado's group project for Absher's course, in fact, wound up recommending an expanded CIA role in monitoring world trade.
Absher also wins praise from UTSA colleagues, even out-and-out CIA critics. Absher was hired by Dr. David Alvirez, Director of UTSA's Division of Social and Policy Sciences. Alvirez minces no words in blasting CIA interventions in Chile, El Salvador, and elsewhere.
But Alvirez thought UTSA students could benefit from Absher's "special expertise," and feels vindicated by the course's reception. Alvirez praises Absher's ability to attract high-level former CIA colleagues as guest lecturers. Absher's spring-semester course was visited by such figures as Deputy Director of Central Intelligence William Studeman, a four-star admiral, and Dawn Eilenberger, a deputy to CIA General Counsel Elizabeth Rindskopf.
(Eilenberger was a last-minute replacement for Rindskopf herself, who was forced to stay in Washington to put out fires started by the Aldrich Ames "CIA mole" case. Perhaps it's just as well that Rindskopf never made it to UTSA. Absher, without consulting local feminists, had scheduled Rindskopf's visit to coincide with UTSA's Women's History Week. Students who met with Eilenberger found her engaging -- whereas Rindskopf, a former General Counsel for the National Security Agency, was a never-give-an-inch stonewaller during the Iran-contra affair. According to published accounts, aides to Lawrence Walsh eventually found it difficult even to be in the same room with her.)
Absher, for his part, is glad to have a forum to address issues he considers important. He sees his course as part of a new era of "demystification" of intelligence issues, of CIA glasnost (if not yet of perestroika).
Such issues, he says, are not only intrinsically important, they're grist for the mills of future scholars. He cites the case of one of his former UTSA students, who is contemplating writing a master's thesis based on newly-declassified CIA documents on the Bay of Pigs debacle.
"The last thing I want to do," Absher says, "is to be intellectually dishonest in any way. I've pulled no punches in this course. I've talked about intelligence failures, policy failures, everything. I've encouraged my students to make arguments against the continued existence of the CIA."
Elaine Coronado confirms this last statement. In conversation, furthermore, Absher deplores what he considers CIA failures and abuses -- and loose cannons like Ollie North.
Nevertheless, Absher remains, at bottom, a believer: someone who looks back on his almost thirty-two years in the CIA without regrets. He has no doubts that the right side won the Cold War, nor that CIA espionage helped.
He also believes that espionage continues to be necessary in a world in which the Russian mafia has replaced the Politburo, trade wars are supplanting most large-scale "hot" and "cold" wars, and tinhorn dictators in backwater capitals think about going nuclear.
Absher is stoical about the Ames case, which he calls "a wake-up call for everybody about what life is going to be like in the post-Cold War period." Ames's unmasking proves only, Absher says, that "there's never going to be a total symmetry of national interests" between the U.S. and the new Russia.
Nor is Absher an enthusiast for "open source intelligence" (OSCINT), the hottest new topic within the hermetic world of theorists of intelligence. There's more useful information to be gleaned from a good library, as serious students of intelligence have always acknowledged, than there is from almost any meeting in a back street in the Casbah. This fundamental principle explains why intelligence agencies took an interest in the academic world in the first place.
But in a wired world, libraries and other vast archives of information are rapidly going on-line. A skilled net-surfer with a fast modem can routinely download volumes of the kind of high-grade information that old-style intelligence services once had to pay for with time, sweat, and money, if not blood. Or so say the proponents of OSCINT.
Robert David Steele, the champion of OSCINT, still believes in a strong intelligence community. Too young for Vietnam, he is a CIA veteran with three back-to-back postings in Latin America (including El Salvador from 1980-1981), and in 1988 became the senior civilian responsible for establishing the U.S. Marine Corps Intelligence Center. But Steele nevertheless foresees, in an age of tight budgets, the death of intelligence dinosaurs like the bloated, centralized CIA of the 90s. In Steele's vision, many U.S. intelligence needs of the near future will be met by decentralized, shoe-string bands of cyberspooks tapping into a digitized sea of "open-source" information.
Steele and his Open Source Solutions, Inc. have a lot to say on these topics, and his ideas seem to be riding a wave that will take them, possibly soon, into closed Congressional hearing rooms. But it's a wave Absher declines to get on.
"We have tried 'open source intelligence,'" Absher maintains, "and it does not work. Anybody who thinks George Washington could conduct a revolution on the basis of `open source intelligence' hasn't read history."
The syllabus to Absher's UTSA course suggests the historical reasoning behind this remark. Called "The Role of Espionage in Foreign Policy," Absher's course blends history and political science to examine cases in which espionage helped policymakers make history. Absher insists the course is no exercise in CIA self-glorification.
He maintains, for example, that D-Day succeeded, in part, because of a bogus military buildup -- complete with phony, inflatable "tanks" -- that fooled the Germans into thinking that the Allies had targeted Calais rather than Normandy. Eisenhower's "Operation Fortitude," which created this phantom invasion force, is only one of the case studies Absher's course considers.
Absher can cite a laundry list of similar cases to support his contention that the U.S. still needs espionage, still needs a CIA.
Not everyone agrees with this contention. Absher is well aware that back in Washington, the CIA's detractors are enjoying another of their periodic revivals. The Ames scandal revealed that despite the Cold-War- cowboy bravado of William Casey, the Soviets have spent years pipelining burn-before-reading secrets out of the inner sanctum of the CIA -- a fact that resulted in the execution of a number of U.S. agents overseas -- while presumably spoon-feeding the CIA's own agents a steady diet of disinformation.
Ames, who may not be the last Soviet mole inside the Company, is a creepy enough character. Still, his courtroom denunciation of U.S. intelligence as a "cynical sideshow" seems to have struck a nerve with many in Congress.
Is this, many have asked, what the U.S. public gets in return for its umpty-ump-billion-dollar classified "intelligence" budget? Could these misspent dollars be related to the fact that nobody in the big-ticket U.S. intelligence establishment seems to have foreseen the smashup of the Soviet system?
Such questions, furthermore, revive Congressional memories of CIA failures and scandals of previous decades. It's a familiar litany, at least for Americans who predate MTV.
In the 1960s, radical journalists from the magazine "Ramparts" revealed that CIA officers had used Michigan State University cover to help create the security forces -- and the government -- of South Vietnam.
And although this fact wasn't widely known at the time, such covert CIA involvement with a university wasn't unique, or even particularly unusual. Michigan State's "international studies" program, like similar programs across the U.S., was a Cold War creation. The granddaddy of such programs was the School of International Affairs at Columbia University, founded in 1946, and soon a virtual nursery of future CIA employees and intelligence.
Such "international studies" programs came into existence as part of a massive, wide-ranging effort by the CIA, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, and the Carnegie Corporation to enlist the U.S. academic community in the Cold War. There's not enough space here to detail everything they did. But it's worth noting that the CIA and its handmaidens in the private sector regularly funded research and programs designed to address perceived "political problems" of the Cold War.
The leaders of the bloody 1965 coup in Indonesia, for instance, were able to draw on the expertise of Indonesian elites trained at Ford Foundation expense by faculty members from MIT and Cornell, Berkeley and Harvard. Indonesian students at MIT attended CIA-funded Harvard seminars led by Henry Kissinger.
And university involvement didn't stop there. Sympathetic faculty members on many campuses acted as "spotters" of potential future CIA employees. And the CIA, as "Ramparts" also revealed in 1967, essentially bankrolled the supposedly-independent National Student Association, and used student leaders to carry out operational tasks. Feminist media star Gloria Steinem, who later said she had been "duped," was one such student leader.
In the 1970s, Congress's Church Committee revealed for the first time that the CIA had earlier tried to assassinate foreign leaders such as the Congo's Patrice Lumumba and (with Mafia help) Fidel Castro.
But the Church Committee also revealed that the CIA was even then making use of several hundred "academics" (professors, administrators, and propagandists). In a related, mind-bending revelation, the Committee disclosed that the CIA was even a factor in the psychedelic revolution of the 60s. A CIA "mind control" project called MK-ULTRA had funded 1950s LSD research -- including experimentation on unwitting subjects.
And even this thumbnail sketch must at least take note of the often-bloody overseas coups in which CIA involvement is either known or suspected. Iran. Guatemala. Indonesia. Chile. The list goes on, and the target governments, often enough, had been democratically elected.
This checklist of horrors is enough to suggest why legions of people who remember the 60s and 70s will believe anything about the CIA.
The CIA's latest crop of critics tend to be "mainstream," which makes them all the more dangerous to the CIA's future. This summer's Congressional debate over the 1995 intelligence budget, for instance, could get intense. R. James Woolsey, Clinton's cantankerous CIA director, has adopted a hard-charging attitude that has alienated many in Congress.
Even with the Cold War over, Woolsey has called for an expanded CIA budget -- in part to upgrade the aging U.S. armada of spy satellites.
But Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) complains that given its large (classified) annual budget, the CIA should have foreseen the implosion of the Soviet Union. Moynihan is pushing a bill that would shut down the CIA and spin off its functions to the State Department, the Pentagon, and other agencies. Unlikely to pass, Moynihan's bill nevertheless reflects one mood in Congress.
Absher deplores past CIA abuses as vehemently as anyone. Given CIA compartmentalization, Absher says he learned about them through the same newspapers and books as anybody else.
But Absher counts on learning more from the ongoing declassification of intelligence documents. When more is known, Absher suggests, the public may find that bad policy was sometimes driven by the White House rather than the CIA.
Absher suspects this may have happened during the Iran-contra scandal of the 1980s. Given Absher's CIA role at the time, he should have known everything about Col. Ollie North's activities, if only North had been going through channels. In fact, says Absher, North "was running his own private intelligence operation" out of the White House.
Even as he acknowledges past abuses, Absher charges that Moynihan's bill would return the U.S. to "the situation we were in on Saturday, December 6, 1941" -- the day before Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.
Despite everything, Absher retains a bedrock faith in the U.S. intelligence establishment to which he has devoted his life. That life was shaped by a Cold War world that is rapidly passing out of existence, and even out of memory.
Perhaps this explains why Absher is so avid for his students to come into contact with the human reality behind intelligence work.
"We don't have horns," Absher says at one point, almost plaintively, referring to himself and his fellow spooks.
Yet Absher's own life, even though it doesn't officially figure in his syllabus, makes a story as striking as anything his students are likely to hear from visiting CIA lecturers.
Take, for example, the interview that led to Absher's career in the CIA.
The date was 1961, a vintage year for Cold War paranoia. A CIA- directed invasion force had folded up on the beaches of Castro's Cuba -- an event that first alerted many Americans to the fact that the CIA even existed.
As a Princeton philosophy major five years before, Absher had closely followed the student-led Hungarian revolt that drew workers and others into the streets before being suppressed by Soviet tanks.
"We were students at Princeton," Absher says today. "We felt a kinship with the students who were dying in the streets of Budapest. And we could do nothing."
As 1961 unfolded, Absher felt dissatisfied working at his promising job in the San Antonio city manager's office. He had already served in the Army, where he did his first teaching. But he wanted to do more. So Absher paid his own way from San Antonio to Washington to enlist in the Cold War.
His Congressman gave him some addresses to try. Absher's rounds eventually brought him to a dark corner office in the ramshackle wooden barracks that were the CIA's first headquarters.
With a glance, Absher pegged the interviewer sitting behind the plain wooden desk. The man looked like "a stern prep school dean," but was obviously one of the aristo cowboys of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the CIA's wartime predecessor.
Absher's interrogator was cradling something in one hand. It turned out to be a mound of birdseed.
As the interview proceeded, Absher's interrogator would periodically fling a seed across the room. In a cage against the opposite wall sat a huge-beaked bird -- a toucan? -- as brilliantly colored as a parrot, only four times as large and ugly as sin.
"The bird," Absher recalls, "never missed a thing. Line drives. Fly balls. Grounders. He caught them all."
Absher himself, he admits today, was also caught -- as he says his interviewer must have intended. Before there were batteries of psychological tests, there were CIA mind-games.
So, Mr. Absher, his interviewer eventually got around to asking, do you think you want to come to work for us?
I'm not sure, Absher admitted. I don't know much about you guys.
This was true, and Absher wasn't alone. A Barnes and Noble how-a- bill-becomes-law handbook Absher had brought with him on the train didn't even mention the CIA.
Good answer, Mr. Absher! responded his interviewer. You'll be hearing from us. We'll be offering you a job.
And they did. The letter Absher received offered such-and-such a salary, but never specifically mentioned the CIA.
Absher completed his training (which, because of the CIA's general secrecy agreement, he still can't talk about) just in time to go to work as a junior intelligence analyst during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. It was to prove a defining event in Absher's life, a crisis Absher thinks revealed to him "the unquestioned value of espionage."
Absher found himself working under Sherman Kent, a legendary figure widely considered the father of modern CIA analysis.
Just one month before, the CIA had predicted that the Soviets would probably not introduce missiles into Cuba. But the documents Absher was asked to read indicated otherwise. So did the U-2 "spy plane" photos Absher got to study almost as soon as JFK did.
Espionage, he says, was delivering intelligence that was both surprising and unwelcome -- but also unquestionably important.
Soviet intermediate-range ballistic missiles based in Cuba had a range of 2,200 miles. They could have hit any location in the U.S., except Alaska and one small corner of the Pacific Northwest. The Soviets, Absher believes, had seriously misjudged Kennedy.
Some critics have expressed horror at the superpower face-off that followed, seeing the entire episode as scary testosterone-driven brinksmanship that almost blew up the world.
"I happen to think," he says today, "that Kennedy handled this crisis about as well as anybody could have." Absher is prepared to argue this case on the historical record. The Cuban missile crisis, in fact, is one of the episodes examined in Absher's course.
Unfortunately, Absher can't very well argue for what he and his colleagues accomplished during his subsequent CIA postings overseas. Absher can't even say where he went.
His resume acknowledges that Absher served in "Europe" and in the "Caribbean," that he was CIA "Chief of Station" in two different countries, and that he was awarded numerous medals, including the Intelligence Medal of Merit (twice). Between overseas postings, Absher also spent "four tours" in CIA headquarters, where he supervised U.S. intelligence operations going on in (unnamed) foreign countries.
Given these gaps, it seems odd that Absher feels free to talk, as he apparently does, about 1972-73 in Vietnam. Once again, Absher has his own line on the subject.
"There were many wars in Vietnam," Absher acknowledges. The one Absher fought was "a conventional war" against battle-hardened North Vietnamese regulars operating at battalion strength. Absher zipped around his province in a helicopter, and when necessary called in B-52 strikes against suspected NVA troop concentrations.
In the interrogations he supervised, Absher says, "I never saw any brutality." It was the Viet Cong, Absher says, who went in for wholesale assassinations of South Vietnamese teachers, officials, and others. Or rather, Absher says, the competent and honest were assassinated. The incompetent and corrupt were left in place.
But what about alleged CIA assassinations, Absher is asked? What about the notorious CIA "Phoenix Program" that became public knowledge in the 1970s?
Absher agrees that some such program did exist. Former CIA director William Colby has said as much. But Absher thinks "Phoenix" had apparently been phased out before his Vietnam tour.
"You'll have to talk to somebody else," he says. "I haven't read very much about Phoenix."
Freelancer Doug Valentine has. In fact, Valentine says he interviewed the CIA creators of "Phoenix" for his massive 1990 study "The Phoenix Program." Interviewed by phone from his Massachusetts home, Valentine calls Absher's comment on "Phoenix" technically correct, but misleading.
"There were two CIA-created 'Phoenix' programs," says Valentine. The second was the "Phoenix Program" in the narrower sense, which had in fact been turned over to the Vietnamese before Absher arrived in Vietnam. This program used CIA resources to identify and target Vietnamese civilians that the American-created establishment in Vietnam considered "subversive."
According to Valentine, this vast group included students, labor organizers, and politically-active Vietnamese of all kinds. In American- dominated South Vietnam, says Valentine, virtually every kind of political and community activity whatsoever was illegal. After these "subversives" had been identified, they were then assassinated by local death-squads which had been organized by the CIA.
No one knows for sure, Valentine says, exactly how many people were assassinated. But Valentine notes that former CIA director William Colby, who still defends the program, puts the total at 25,000. Other estimates run much higher.
But according to Valentine, there is another, more inclusive meaning of "Phoenix." In this larger sense, "Phoenix" can stand for a whole style of counterinsurgency warfare that the CIA brought to Vietnam, and to many other places. (Unlike Absher, Valentine regards the nation of South Vietnam itself as the creation of Americans, who stepped into the imperial role abdicated by the French in 1954.)
The CIA, Valentine says, maintained paid agents within the heart of the South Vietnamese government. Any South Vietnamese politician who deviated from the CIA line was himself in danger of being denounced as a "subversive" -- and then being killed.
Seen in the larger context of the CIA's history, Valentine maintains, those B-52 strikes Absher was calling in on South Vietnam were part of the larger "Phoenix" counterinsurgency strategy. So were the interrogations Absher oversaw at the local Provincial Interrogation Center (PIC). The entire PIC program, Valentine maintains, was a creation of the CIA's original "Phoenix."
Valentine, obviously, is no CIA-critic-as-Congressional-penny-pincher. He's an old-style radical critic who turns Absher's contention that there "are always going to be secrets" on its head.
"If there are always going to be secrets," Valentine contends, "then power is always going to reside with the people who keep the secrets. Secrets are antithetical to democracy. But if there's no more need to keep secrets, then there's no need for a CIA."
Valentine comes from a military family, and says that he has plenty of CIA-officer friends with whom he agrees to disagree. He says he's sure he could get along with Absher the man.
"But you have to remember," Valentine says of Absher, "he cannot tell you the truth. All he can tell you is the cover story -- which is designed to be plausible."
One voice that might be expected to echo Valentine's is that of John Stockwell, one of the top three CIA critics who became an author and lecturer after resigning or retiring as an operations officer (the other two are Philip Agee and Ralph McGehee).
Stockwell is both a decorated military veteran and a former top- ranking CIA officer. He ran massive, covert CIA operations in Africa before resigning over some of the revelations of the 1970s.
One thing that bothered him, Stockwell says today, was being asked to lie to Congress -- like certain figures in the Iran-contra scandal. Another was knowledge that the CIA was being asked to carry out assassinations.
For decades now, Stockwell has been a well-known writer, lecturer, and CIA critic. In 1986, he even spoke to a large student-and-faculty audience at UTSA.
Reached by telephone at his home in Elgin, Texas, however, Stockwell has some surprising news.
"Intellectually," he says, "I'm probably not too far from Absher today."
The end of the Cold War, Stockwell says, "swept all the pieces from the board." Continuing to repeat his old criticisms in a changed situation, Stockwell says, would turn him into a "sorehead" instead of the serious intellectual critic he aspires to be.
The Cold War CIA, Stockwell suggests, has lost its traditional rationale. And although Moynihan's bill will never pass, the CIA's critics have been heard. Imperfect as it necessarily is, the existing system of Congressional oversight is probably as good an instrument as can be devised. The trick is to make it work, to curb the inevitable abuses of power.
But in the meantime, Stockwell says, Absher is right. The world swarms with threats. He cites the case of vastly-overpopulated Rwanda, a country he once kept track of for the CIA. The U.S., says Stockwell, does need a streamlined, high-quality intelligence capability pretty much like the one Absher calls for.
"The next fifty years," he says, with no evident pleasure, "may be much more violent than the last fifty."
His words virtually echo Absher's warning about tinhorn dictators and their "weapons of mass destruction."
"We've got a window of opportunity," Absher says. "Let's not blow it."
It's strange to find these two agreeing about anything -- the notorious
CIA critic and the unrepentant former spook now openly defending his craft
to a new generation of college students -- a generation which needs someone
to explain why anyone was ever out in the cold in the first place.
Whenever history is stranded between two epochs, those few who recognize the shifting paradigms are usually voices in the wilderness. Robert David Steele spent the 80s fighting the Cold War for the CIA in Latin America, but now he writes for Whole Earth Review, invites Mitch Kapor and John Barlow to speak at the symposiums he organizes, and jets around the globe to swap impressions with unkempt hackers. Back at the ranch, he keeps up a steady diet of schmoozing with Washington intelligence professionals, testifying for Congressional committees, and consulting with corporate information experts. He's a man on a mission.
Steele believes that U.S. intelligence, with its cumbersome classification system, is like a dinosaur in a tar pit. He likes to tell the story of his "$10 million mistake." In 1988 Steele was responsible for spending this amount to help the Marine Corps set up a new intelligence facility. He acquired a system of workstations to handle Top Secret information, which also meant that they could not be connected to any unclassified systems. Meanwhile, a little personal computer in the next room was the only station with external unclassified access. After the system was built, they discovered that virtually everything the Marine Corps needed -- from bridge loading capabilities to the depth of water in ports around the world -- was available on the little PC through the Internet. But none of it was found on the classified systems, which tended to be filled with data on Soviet strategic capabilities.
U.S. intelligence was destined for major budget cuts and restructuring, even before the latest embarrassment of the Aldrich Ames case. The CIA's mole problems are merely the last nails in the coffin, and lead to cover stories such as the "U.S. News & World Report" of July 4, 1994, which declares that the CIA is "plagued by incompetence and fraud." But Robert Steele has a fix. All that's required is for U.S. intelligence to abandon its obsession with secrecy and find the nearest on-ramp to the information superhighway. He and his Open Source Solutions, Inc. will be happy to give directions (4350 Fair Lakes Court, Fairfax VA 22033, Tel: 703-242-1700, Fax: 703-242-1711, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Steele's articulation of the shortcomings of U.S. intelligence, along with other expert sources such as former Senate intelligence committee staffer Angelo Codevilla's "Informing Statecraft" (1992), make a powerful case that something has to change. The total intelligence budget is just over $37 billion, with the major portion going for technical collection -- mostly satellites and related processing systems. But these systems are narrowly focused, and encourage narrow policies designed to justify the expense. The CIA's portion of this budget is about $3.5 billion, and the NSA's is roughly $4 billion.
Steele points out that the cost-benefit ratio of open source intelligence (OSCINT) is so productive that nothing else even comes close. But U.S. intelligence is steeped in its old ways. He hears stories of agencies that refuse to cite information in their reports unless it comes from classified sources, or of CIA analysts who wanted to travel to Moscow to take advantage of newly-opened resources but were threatened with loss of their clearances if they made the trip. In other words, U.S. intelligence is doing everything backwards. No one disputes the fact that 80 percent of all the information worth analyzing is publicly available, and of the remaining 20 percent, much of it is made useless by a classification system that delays delivery and frequently restricts access to those who are not inclined to use it. In a rational world, OSCINT would be the "source of first resort."
Open Source Solutions, Inc., of which Steele is president, sponsors annual symposiums that draw a range of professionals: government intelligence analysts, corporate competitor intelligence departments, Beltway-Bandit think tanks that churn out classified studies for government clients, and various on-line ferrets, hackers, and futurists from around the world. They expected 200 for their 1992 symposium and got over 600. In 1993 they had over 800 from 32 countries, including some retired KGB colonels that made a few officials at CIA headquarters extremely nervous. The next symposium, scheduled for November 8-10 in Washington, will focus less on the U.S. intelligence community itself and more on the intelligence consumer in the global private and public sectors. These symposiums are financed by fees from those who attend ($500 unless you get an academic rate or "hacker scholarship"), and also from corporations and organizations that pay for exhibit space. OSS is nonprofit, but Steele also spun off a for-profit corporation that offers consulting services and "best of class" referrals for $750 a day or $200 an hour.
Steele's voice is one that needs to be heard in Washington. He's strongest when he criticizes U.S. intelligence, and he's excellent for those who are trying to keep up with cyberspace trends and information resources. But when he presents open source intelligence as an elixir for America's problems, from intelligence to competitiveness to ecology, his reach exceeds his grasp. For example, Steele's assurances that competitiveness and OSCINT are mutually compatible are unconvincing: it seems reasonable that at some point, what I know becomes more valuable to me by virtue of the fact that you DON'T have the same information. Human nature being what it is, secrecy is not something that can be restricted only to executive action and diplomacy, as Steele maintains. It is here to stay, on every level of society. Steele's unreal optimism is a religious conviction that's not uncommon among cyberspace cadets.
Ironically, the same technology that efficiently delivers Steel's open source intelligence has also given us the ability to keep digital data very secret. There is no guarantee that the mountains of public data won't someday become a Tower of Encrypted Babel. Steele's most glaring omission is his lack of comment on public encryption technology and the Clipper Chip -- the issue that has caused cypherpunks and some corporations to declare war on the U.S. intelligence community. It seems that if Steele took a strong position on this issue, he might lose half of his support in a cyberspace nanosecond.
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