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

The “Broken Bridge” is a visual reminder not only of US aggression, but also of an epic US intelligence failure: US intelligence officials were certain that China would never go to war. But they were wrong.

Chinese soldiers had crossed the river and taken up positions in Korea awaiting US-led forces. When the fighting started, American planes bombed the railway bridge to prevent China from sending reinforcements. But they were wrong about that too. The Chinese soldiers didn’t really need the bridge – they just crossed the frozen river.

What unfolded on the Yalu River in the 1950s, Zegart says, was a prime example of intelligence analysis gone wrong. The CIA and military intelligence had concluded that China had no appetite for war with the Americans, and General Douglas MacArthur was so convinced of the fact that he told President Harry S. Truman that American troops would be back to Christmas.

“Chinese soldiers had been hiding undetected for a month,” writes Zegart. “The effect was devastating. Within weeks, UN forces lost thousands of men, two hundred miles of territory and the advantage in the Korean War.

Zegart argues that MacArthur had fallen prey to a common set of afflictions. “He let optimism cloud his assessment of the facts, dismissed evidence that contradicted his previous beliefs, and built a team around him that discouraged dissent,” she wrote. “Korea’s most important lesson is not that MacArthur uniquely failed. It’s that he failed in the ordinaries. The cognitive filters that all humans use to process information can cause even the most determined leaders to fail in the most important moments.

This lack of perspective can lead to misperceptions and deadly miscalculations.

President Vladimir Putin’s current foray into Ukraine looks like a modern revival of MacArthur’s failed campaign. Putin believed that Russian troops would arrive in Ukraine without resistance, quickly install a pro-Moscow government and bring kyiv to heel. “They thought it would be an easy walk,” Maria Zolkina, a Ukrainian political analyst, told me for a recent episode of the Podcast “Click here”“and they will take kyiv and the big cities, and that they will be greeted with flowers by the Ukrainians. … [Instead,] they fight like lions.

Zegart reveals that the inspiration for the book came from one of his undergraduate courses. Her students seemed woefully uninformed about how the intelligence community works, and what little they knew came from Jason Bourne’s movies and television, what she calls “espionage.” (Federal prosecutors will tell you they have the same problem, thanks to the CSI series. Juries want cases to end as cleanly as they do on the hour-long show.)

Zegart’s goal was to remedy this. But as she worked on the book, the world changed. Technology has changed. Open source information – and data more generally – has provided adversaries with an exquisite new set of tools, and the intelligence community has been forced to adapt. He could no longer focus on geopolitics and human sources; now he needed to understand the evolution of technology by private companies and social media platforms.

Zegart makes it clear that in this new era, enemy states and terrorist groups have upped their game. They “hack into both machines and minds”, while “artificial intelligence creates video, audio and deepfake photographs so real that their inauthenticity may be impossible to detect.No set of threats has changed so quickly and demanded so much intelligence.

Essentially, Zegart argues, the very essence of deception has transformed. During the Cold War, Chinese troops turned their coats around so as not to be spotted in the snowy hills near the Yalu River, and the Soviets launched “active measures” or rumor campaigns aimed at sowing doubt. Today’s high-tech information operations make those earlier efforts seem a little antiquated.

“Now Russian disinformation is designed to flood the area, reaching millions within hours in every format (text, video, audio, photos) and news channels imaginable – social media, websites, satellite TV and radio. and traditional television,” says Zegart. . “The goal is to overwhelm, divide and engender mistrust in the news itself, undermining democratic discourse.” We are approaching the era of the decadence of truth.

Case in point: a series of protests in Texas in 2016. On one side of the street, a group called Heart of Texas was there to stop the “Islamization” of the Lone Star State. They wore “White Lives Matter” t-shirts and unfurled Confederate flags. On the other side were the United Muslims of America, holding “No Hate” signs. What none of the protesters knew was that the whole scene was instigated by the Kremlin and a group called the Internet Research Agency.

“In unspeakable offices in St. Petersburg, Russia, hundreds of trolls impersonated Americans around the clock – tweeting, liking, making friends and sharing in English to attract American followers,” Zegart reports. . The Russian campaign consisted of creating Facebook groups intended to oppose each other.

Ukraine has become the latest testing ground for disinformation. Russia reportedly planned to film a fabricated attack by the Ukrainian military either on Russian territory or against Russian speakers in the Donbass region. The film was going to be used as a pretext for an invasion – it was supposed to be proof positive that Ukraine was committing genocide.

We know this because the Biden administration decided to openly disclose the intelligence it gathered about the operation, essentially calling off the effort in advance. We haven’t yet seen proof that it even existed, but if it was part of a Russian disinformation campaign, telling everyone about it meant the truth about the scheme was exposed before the lie did. has had time to put on his boots (a reversal of the old adage – a lie travels half the world before the truth gets into his socks).

“Spies, Lies, and Algorithms” is the perfect primer for anyone trying to understand how the intelligence community is meeting the challenges of the digital age. The intelligence community must find its place in a world where much of the best intelligence may no longer be secret or controlled by the government. In fact, revealing what the community knows can be as important as what they don’t know. In a world where misconceptions or misunderstandings can lead to catastrophic failures, the truth is once again a powerful weapon. It remains to be seen where and when Putin will meet his “broken bridge” of intelligence failures.

Spies, lies and algorithms

The History and Future of American Intelligence

Princeton. 405 pages. $29.95

Sharon D. Cole