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HUMINT Isn’t Dead, It Just Smells That Way. Time For Us To Learn From the Past
In June of 1960, KGB officers shot Pyotr Semyonovich Popov in the back of the head after he was abruptly recalled from East Berlin to Moscow. Formerly a field-grade officer in the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the Soviet military, Popov was the CIA’s most valuable Human Intelligence (HUMINT) asset during the Cold War, providing hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of military intelligence and the names of over 600 Soviet agents. Despite his invaluable contribution, however, the CIA missed vital clues left by Popov after his arrest by the KGB in 1959 and subsequent use as a double agent. Why did the CIA fail one of its most important sources? Whether through ignorance or complacency, Popov’s handlers had simply become accustomed to the ease of operating with the same seemingly-secure tradecraft that had served them so well in the past.
Media outlets recently reported that at least 30 of the CIA’s Chinese intelligence assets were executed during a two-year period from 2010 to 2012. Representing a staggering blow to intelligence collection in that country, a CIA special task force determined that the network was brought down by Chinese penetration of an interim encrypted digital program that allowed remote communication between case officer and source over the Internet. So why did the CIA fail its Chinese assets here? The answer is the same as it was in 1960: case officers’ overreliance on seemingly-secure tradecraft that had previously served so well.
As a former HUMINT collector, I am no stranger to the mocking cries of Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) collectors claiming that HUMINT is dead. Given the relative timeliness and ease with which SIGINT can be collected in a technological era, I think many case officers feel the same way. Why risk life, limb, and foreign imprisonment when we can simply listen in on cellphone calls or have critical information sent to us online? But as counterterrorism expert Jeffrey Norwitz points out, “HUMINT [unlike SIGINT] provides an otherwise unattainable window into the personality, emotional makeup, and innermost secrets of those who are being targeted for influence operations.” This intimate view is what separates SIGINT from HUMINT. It is also why, despite technological advances, there will always remain a need for HUMINT operations.
Ideally, the best outcome is a fusion of these two intelligence collection platforms. SIGINT provides additional asset validation, corroboration, and vetting capabilities to HUMINT operations. HUMINT likewise delivers access to critical information sought by SIGINT collectors, be it burner cellphone numbers or onsite confirmation of SIGINT information. But the usefulness of this symbiotic relationship and the expediency of SIGINT should not blind HUMINT collectors to their most pressing task: maintaining the safety and security of their intelligence assets who risk life and limb to deliver critical information.
The limitations of technological collection means should be clear, with new technologies rapidly being developed to neutralize source operations and internal threats like Edward Snowden compromising sensitive collection efforts. But the CIA’s operations in China reveal that it has turned a blind eye to these recurring issues and their failures in the past. Case officers must bear the burden of source security and cannot cede that obligation by wholly depending on technology. Instead, they need to find creative tradecraft solutions to our modern world, reject complacency and overreliance on “secure” communications methods, and ensure that America has the intelligence it needs to protect a safe and free world.
Caesar Kalinowski IV is a ten-year veteran of the Marine Corps with special operations and intelligence deployments in more than 30 countries, including the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and Southeast Asia. He now resides in Seattle, where he practices law and writes about First Amendment, national security, and technology issues.
Americans' eroding trust in all forms of government has made it impossible to solve the most serious problems facing the United States today, former Defense Secretary James Mattis wrote in a recent article for The Atlantic.
The retired Marine Corps general laid out why the world's oldest democracy no longer seems to be able to reach a consensus on any issue, arguing that the underlying problem is politicians no longer debate: They just launch personal attacks against each other.
"We scorch our opponents with language that precludes compromise," Mattis wrote. "We brush aside the possibility that a person with whom we disagree might be right. We talk about what divides us and seldom acknowledge what unites us. Meanwhile, the docket of urgent national issues continues to grow—unaddressed and, under present circumstances, impossible to address."
My brother earned the Medal of Honor for saving countless lives — but only after he was left for dead
"As I learned while researching a book about John, the SEAL ground commander, Cmdr. Tim Szymanski, had stupidly and with great hubris insisted on insertion being that night."
Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.
Air Force Master Sgt. John "Chappy" Chapman is my brother. As one of an elite group, Air Force Combat Control — the deadliest and most badass band of brothers to walk a battlefield — John gave his life on March 4, 2002 for brothers he never knew.
They were the brave men who comprised a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) that had been called in to rescue the SEAL Team 6 team (Mako-30) with whom he had been embedded, which left him behind on Takur Ghar, a desolate mountain in Afghanistan that topped out at over 10,000 feet.
As I learned while researching a book about John, the SEAL ground commander, Cmdr. Tim Szymanski, had stupidly and with great hubris insisted on insertion being that night. After many delays, the mission should and could have been pushed one day, but Szymanski ordered the team to proceed as planned, and Britt "Slab" Slabinski, John's team leader, fell into step after another SEAL team refused the mission.
But the "plan" went even more south when they made the rookie move to insert directly atop the mountain — right into the hands of the bad guys they knew were there.
She's photographed every major war of the last 20 years. Marine Corps boot camp was something else entirely
Conflict photographer Lynsey Addario's seen a hell of a lot of combat over the past twenty years. She patrolled Afghanistan's Helmand Province with the Marines, accompanied the Army on night raids in Baghdad, took artillery fire with rebel fighters in Libya and has taken photos in countless other wars and humanitarian disasters around the world.
Along the way, Addario captured images of plenty of women serving with pride in uniform, not only in the U.S. armed forces, but also on the battlefields of Syria, Colombia, South Sudan and Israel. Her photographs are the subject of a new article in the November 2019 special issue of National Geographic, "Women: A Century of Change," the magazine's first-ever edition written and photographed exclusively by women.
The photos showcase the wide range of goals and ideals for which these women took up arms. Addario's work includes captivating vignettes of a seasoned guerrilla fighter in the jungles of Colombia; a team of Israeli military police patrolling the streets of Jerusalem; and a unit of Kurdish women guarding ISIS refugees in Syria. Some fight to prove themselves, others seek to ignite social change in their home country, and others do it to liberate other women from the grip of ISIS.
Addario visited several active war zones for the piece, but she found herself shaken by something much closer to home: the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina.
Addario discussed her visit to boot camp and her other travels in an interview with Task & Purpose, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
An Army staff sergeant who "represents the very best of the 101st Airborne Division" has finally received a Silver Star for his heroic actions during the Battle of the Bulge after a 75-year delay.
On Sunday, Staff Sgt. Edmund "Eddie" Sternot was posthumously awarded with a Silver Star for his heroics while leading a machine gun team in the Ardennes Forest. The award, along with Sternot's Bronze Star and Purple Heart, was presented to his only living relative, Sternot's first cousin, 80-year-old Delores Sternot.