Friday, September 14, 2012

Repost: Intelligence is a Shitty Business

Rarely do I repost something I've written in the past, but I think this is as good a moment as any to do so in light of everyone flipping out about GWB and the 9/11 intelligence.  Again, my credentials are short, but I know more than probably about 95% of Americans in terms of the process and what the work itself is like.

I was a cryptologist in the U.S. Navy for three years.  I was of the communications intelligence brand, and in 2005-2006, I was deployed with the USS San Jacinto in the Persian Gulf.  While I was there, I was the ship's collection supervisor, which meant it was my job to make sure we were carrying out our ship's portion of the overall collection mission. 

When the San Jacinto was acting fleet coordinator (basically whenever the carrier pulled into port) I was responsible for tasking the cryptologic collection missions of not just my strike group, but all the strike groups in the 5th fleet.  Suffice to say, I know a thing or two about how intelligence works.


It might sound cool to be a spy, or to be involved in some sort of intelligence stuff, but then you hear about some spies of ours getting caught by Iran and Hezballah. When a CIA official says "we'll likely never see these guys again," that's when the reality of the intelligence business should set in.

It really is a shitty, thankless field to work in. Sure you get to tell people that you can't talk about what you do, and then chuckle at them for their inevitable probing questions as though they think they're crack interrogators who are going to trick you into revealing what you know, but that's not enough to make it not suck.

I know what it's like. In the Navy I was a cryptologist. I only spent three years as a cryptologist, so I didn't have the chance to get into any of the seriously crazy shit, but three years is enough to know how much it sucks.

For starters, there's that whole thing where you can never tell anyone anything, ever. That sounds cool at first, but after a while it gets frustrating. I did some fairly cool shit in my time. I was really good at what I did, and I wish that I could share my success stories with the people I care about. But the only people that knew just how good I was and the great things I did are those who worked with me and were cleared to know that sort of stuff. I haven't seen them in years, and even if I did see them it's not like we could talk about it out in the open.

It actually affected my marriage a bit. My ex-wife didn't like the fact that I couldn't come home and talk about work other than whenever we had to paint something. She didn't appreciate the idea that there was a part of my life that she'd never be privvy to. You see in the movies where spies' wives get all upset about that sort of thing, and I always discounted that as silly. "This can't be realistic. Of course their wives would understand." Well, not all of those wives understand, I guess.

And aside from how it affects your personal life, there's the nature of the work itself. Intelligence is not the place for people who enjoy discovering concrete answers to their burning questions. Much of the job revolves around guess work. Try this little exercise. Observe one person for like a month or so, and after that month try to predict their daily schedule for the next month.

Sounds easy, right? Well, it's not that easy. The person might call in sick for work one day. He might stay in for lunch rather than going out. He might go out with his friends and be too hungover to get to work on time the following day. Then, after you realize that there are a million variables you have to take into account in your observations and predictions, throw five more people into the mix. Try to predict what six people are going to do every day for the next month.

As if that's not hard enough, let them in on the little exercise, and tell them to willfully try to throw you off their scent to make them more unpredictable. Still easy?

Intelligence involves a *lot* of guess work. We always called them WAGs, or Wild Ass Guesses. "I don't know," is never an answer that your superiors want to hear, so you give them the best guess with what you've got. Sometimes you don't have shit, but they still want answers.

So intelligence is a field in which all you're doing is guessing and hoping to Christ that you're right. Your successes will never be known to the people you care about, and your failures will be plastered in plain sight for all to see. People mock you for failing so much, but don't realize that successes are kept under wraps because if everyone knows what works, it doesn't work anymore.

So if you're into dealing with guess work, never getting to talk about the cool shit you've done, and enjoy getting shit on by a public who doesn't even understand the nature of your work, then work in the intelligence field. You'll have a ball.


FreeThinke said...

John le Carré said it all in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Ever read it?


~ FreeThinke

Jersey McJones said...

I was speaking with a young person who was in a very similar line of Naval work to your's, Jack, recently. And the "need to know" thing came up, and how things have changed recently - re: avoiding wiki-leaks and such.

Sometimes we get so caught up in the details we miss the big picture.

Many people - many, many people - understood that it made no sense for Saddam Hussein to play the sort of role the neocons were fussing about prior to 9/11. This was a blatant MIC funding agenda in action. 'To heck with AL Qaeda, Iraq is the real threat.' To people like me, average, reasonably educated, informed citizens, it seemed stupid on the face of it. Turns out we were right.

Sur-prise, sur-prise!!!


FreeThinke said...

Did you know that people who oppose neocons are regarded as anti-Semitic?

And yes, I KNOW that not all neocons are Jews, but the neocon movement ORIGINATED with Jews, and whether it was deliberately designed to do so or not, certainly DOES just happen cater to Zionist (Jewish State) interests.

It's a quagmire all right.

Silverfiddle said...

Well said, Jack. It does suck to be involved in cool stuff but to not be able to talk about it.

And those who claim "Bush new! They had warnings!"

Well, yeah, they had about a million and a half warnings, different times, different places...

I liken intelligence to wading through a sea of garbage looking for tiny diamonds, which you rarely find. As you've explained, it a lot of guesswork based upon little slivers of knowledge.

Anonymous said...

As you know Jackie, I have always been interested in your crypto stories.

That being said, there is a huge difference between what you did, lets call it passive intelligence, and what some freakin solid snake type dude does, which is direct intelligence.

passive intelligence requires a lot more patience and a lot more "thought" in terms of... "is what I am decoding actually a secret message for some iranian nuclear program, or is it really a damn grocery list for some shitwater burg on the coast" I would say only the americans and the russians have a firm grip on this passive intelligence and how to effectively use it. It requires a lot of data, and a whole lot of technique to get anything worth a damn out of most of it.

Direct intelligence however... that is downright medieval. If some damn lunatic can suffer through the mental and emotional miasma of being a covert agent, anyone could be a threat in this regard.

Some of our best kept secrets are only a burglary or two away from being revealed, let alone if you want to capture someone and make them talk.

I dunno, in this crazy ass world we live in, sooner or later I would hope that we could move past this crap and get solving some real problems. For the time being however, we gotta do what we gotta do.

Jack Camwell said...

Yes, there's a big difference between the collection methods I used and those used by the CIA.

However, although we were not privy to all the particulars of how they obtained their information, much of the time we were still privy to much of the final product.

My primary mission was Iran, but the collection capabilities of the ship pretty much only allowed for time-sensitive, tactical intelligence. To get a fuller picture of what was going on, we had to read the stuff that was collected via other means.

And that's what I was talking about: piecing together an impossible puzzle that has many different facets to it.

To use a Mission Impossible reference, I wasn't privy to the NOC List, but I was privy to most of the information those agents produced.

Harrison said...

I'd think that's why many of these people are divorced or single.

Living in the shadows, working in the shadows, and not knowing what's what would get old after a while.

Jack Camwell said...

Interesting that you should mention that Harrison.

It was actually a pretty big rub between my ex-wife and me when we were married.

She couldn't stand the fact that there was a part of my life that she'd never be privy to.

rosey said...


I want to personally thank you for your service to this great nation. I too was a "surface skimmer" for 8 years. Nothing as glorious as Intel, I was a Yeoman. Worked in the Captains office aboard ships and in the Admirals staff at the Sub Base in Bremerton WA.

Jack Camwell said...

And thank you for your service =) Nothing wrong with having been a YN. Intel isn't that glorious since we can't really take much credit for what we do, at least no credit beyond the intel circles.

Subs eh? A bubblehead once told me "there's only two types of ships in the navy: submarines and targets."

Thanks for visiting!