A small photo camera placed in a book and used by the U.S. CIA, is displayed at the 'Top Secret' Spy Museum in Oberhausen, July 10, 2013.
Ina Fassbender / Reuters

The recent revelations of abuses by all our intelligence agencies and the multitudinous investigations of the CIA in particular have raised serious questions as to whether the United States can and should continue to maintain a capability to conduct any clandestine operations. Most of the horror stories have related to what is known as covert action-i.e., operations to secretly influence foreign governments, groups or individuals, often by illegal means. The Chile case is the most highly publicized. Almost none have involved the collection of intelligence abroad, but many of the techniques used in foreign countries have been occasionally practiced at home where the CIA cannot legally carry out such operations and where the responsibility rests with the FBI. As a consequence of these activities, there is widespread belief that the CIA should halt all covert operations and disband that part of the organization which has been responsible for carrying them out.

Before making a decision on this score, the importance of covert operations to our security should be evaluated and balanced against their risks. Although covert actions have had some measure of success in some localities, particularly at the height of the cold war, the recent disclosures raise serious questions as to whether they have really been to the benefit of the United States. Almost inevitably, even during periods when secrecy could be relatively easily maintained, their existence has leaked out, and they have now seriously undermined the reputation of the U.S. government. In the current climate, it seems unlikely that they could be kept secret for any period of time; thus, covert operations by a democratic American government may simply not be feasible any longer.

But even if they could be kept secret, they are not the proper way for the United States to conduct its foreign policies. We must combat hostile influences by using the good qualities of our democratic society, not by copying the reprehensible tactics of those we are opposing. In the long run, this will be far more beneficial to our security than will any temporary local successes obtained through covert action. Therefore, without any further discussion of this issue, which has been, and is still being, debated in many other forums, I would propose that this country should henceforth cease all covert action operations.

Covert operations for intelligence collection, which have not had the same public attention, require much more thorough consideration. Such operations involve the recruiting of agents in foreign nations, encouraging the defection of knowledgeable individuals, audio-surveillance, and other techniques falling under the general heading of espionage. At least for the purpose of this discussion, espionage does not include large-scale and remote-control secret operations such as satellite reconnaissance, "spy planes," or the interception and analysis of communications and electronic emissions performed outside the borders of the target country.

The information sought by clandestine means may include not only positive intelligence on the plans and programs of other nations but also the quite different category of counterintelligence on threats from foreign intelligence or terrorist groups. While covert intelligence collection abroad has not been free of criticism, it has not, at least since the unique U-2 incident of 1960, seriously embarrassed the U.S. government or caused major international repercussions. However, counterintelligence activities, the responsibility of both the FBI (at home) and the CIA (abroad), have raised some of the most serious domestic issues of illegality and abridgment of civil rights-notably the CIA's screening and opening of mail to the Soviet Union. In addition, domestic burglaries and the surveillance, penetration and disruption of dissident groups have been carried out to a small but clearly illegal extent by the CIA within the United States, but much more massively by the FBI over a period of years going back to operations against the German-American Bund before World War II. In this area, evaluation of the consequences must weigh both actual violations of law or of proper standards of civil rights and the inherent tendency of such operations, even when apparently legal, to slip into such violations. The decision as to whether counterintelligence operations should be continued, and if so under what aegis and with what safeguards, may have to be made independently of what is done about positive intelligence collection.

But in each case, covert intelligence abroad and at home, the place to start is with a serious evaluation of the importance of the activity to our total national security and foreign policies. How much does covert intelligence matter as compared with other forms of intelligence collection? Can its risks and drawbacks abroad be minimized so that it is worth continuing? And can the special problems of domestic counterintelligence be handled so that it can do a worthwhile job and still adhere to legal and constitutional standards?

In recent years, the value of human clandestine intelligence sources has come into increasing question as the capabilities of technical methods have become more and more all-encompassing and sophisticated and as the political liabilities of covert operations have become increasingly evident. Too often, extreme points of view have been taken: on one side it has become popular in this country to condemn all covert operations, and on the other for the intelligence traditionalists to defend nostalgically the experiences of the past. Certainly it is not a black-and-white situation, and it would be irresponsible to say that espionage has no value as an intelligence tool. Even if it never produced any useful information, the existence of a covert collection capability could still be a deterrent because leaders in other nations could never be certain that their plans would go undetected. On the other hand, it would be equally foolish not to recognize the limitations on such sources.

First, the major alternative sources of intelligence information should be briefly reviewed, and their usefulness and limitations in satisfying our principal intelligence requirements evaluated, together with the political risks entailed. Then it will be possible to analyze how espionage can realistically be expected to supplement other sources, how necessary it really is, and what scale and nature of covert capability it would be desirable for us to have. In determining the value of any intelligence source, consideration must be given not only to the quality of the information but also to its usability in formulating and getting support for national policies. Information is only a means to an end and not an end in itself.

To simplify analysis, the means of intelligence collection can be roughly broken down into four major categories: overhead photographic observation primarily from satellites; communications and other electronic intelligence collected outside the borders of the target country; open sources (i.e., press, speeches, published materials and overt contacts); and the espionage techniques already defined.1

Similarly, the types of positive intelligence information can be roughly broken down. To conduct its foreign policy, to design its military posture, to negotiate arms control agreements, and to prepare for military contingencies, the United States has a clear need for military information on the forces, weapons and plans of potentially hostile or disruptive nations; economic intelligence on the resources, technology and finances of all countries; and political intelligence on the make-up, intentions and interrelations of individuals and organizations in and out of foreign governments. Of course, these areas cannot in actuality be clearly delineated since, for example, military and political intentions are strongly interconnected and economic factors will have a profound influence on both other areas. However, they do provide useful headings for analyzing the usefulness of various intelligence sources.


In the area of military development and deployment, there is little question that photo-intelligence today provides not only the greatest quantity but also the highest quality of information. Satellite photography-unlike aircraft reconnaissance, which it has largely supplanted-can, in a relatively short period of time, provide visual evidence of military deployments throughout a country or even a continent. Moderate-resolution photography can be used to provide almost continuous surveillance of a country even as large as the Soviet Union, and high-resolution systems can provide detailed information on targets of specific interest. The greatest drawback is cloud cover, which can impose considerable delay in many areas of the world. The initial discovery by U-2 photography of the offensive missile sites in Cuba in 1962 was held up for a couple of weeks by weather. However, satellite photography is now so extensive that for a nation to rely on cloud cover to conceal its operations would be a risky tactic.

Of course, a camera cannot see through the roofs of buildings, but with modern military technology it is hard to keep any significant weapons program or troop deployment completely concealed from the camera's eye. The construction of new facilities above or even under the ground, the shapes of buildings, and the required logistic support almost inevitably provide clues as to the existence and nature of a military target. Road patterns and excavations give evidence of missile sites long before they become operational: successive Secretaries of Defense have, for many years now, been announcing new Soviet missile silo construction more than a year before the launchers were ready for use. Without photographic intelligence, productive strategic arms limitation talks would be impossible: it is essential both in determining the desirability of an agreement and in verifying that no violations occur.

Since photography, even using sophisticated infrared or laser techniques, is not capable of making observations beneath the surface of the water, satellites have no potential for locating submerged submarines, but such ships are observable in their home ports and during construction. Acoustic sensors on ships or in the ocean must be used in place of cameras to maintain surveillance of submarines underwater.

One other drawback to satellite photography is the time delay between the observation and the analysis of the picture by the intelligence expert. The picture can be relayed back to earth through a television link when the satellite is in range of a friendly receiving station, but the transmission causes some degradation in the quality of the photograph. For best results, the film capsule must be returned to earth, and this can involve delays of three or more days even under the best of circumstances. In addition, there are practical difficulties in getting a satellite over a specific cloud-free area at a specific time.

For all these reasons, the usefulness of satellites as a source of tactical intelligence is limited. Where immediate results are required, an aircraft platform is often necessary in place of a satellite, but in peacetime this, of course, creates many serious political obstacles, being regarded as a clear infringement of sovereignty (to an extent not now the case for satellites). Such aircraft overflights are generally known by the nation covered, and there is always a risk that the plane will be destroyed. The political furor that was created when the U-2 piloted by Gary Powers was shot down in May 1960 as it was attempting to get intelligence on Soviet missile deployment before the Eisenhower-Khrushchev summit is too well known to need elaboration.

In some circumstances, however, the need for information may override the potential political hazards. Two years after the ill-fated Powers flight, American U-2 planes overflew Cuba looking for Soviet missile deployment, and an Air Force pilot was even killed. The need was clearly urgent, and the political repercussions were actually minor because of the worldwide recognition of the dangers presented by the Soviet move. In more recent times, photography obtained by aircraft operating in the Middle East has been widely recognized as a stabilizing influence. Thus, despite the political and, in some cases, military risks of aircraft operations, the need may justify them. Where possible, though, reliance should be placed on satellite platforms, which do not have the same political drawbacks.

Photography is not only useful in providing intelligence on capabilities but frequently is the most reliable source on intentions as well. Pictures showing the location of deployed forces, their movements, and their capabilities give valuable clues as to probable plans for their use. Observations of the movement of aircraft to forward bases would be a strong indicator of possible plans for an attack. Conversely, the failure of naval vessels to put to sea would be an indication that no immediate attack was planned.

Communications intelligence is also a primary source of information on intentions. Tight communications security, through the use of codes and other techniques, can of course sharply limit what can be learned from these sources, but it is not always practical to use such countermeasures on the scale needed to conceal modern military operations. Opportunities for security breaks are manifold. Conversely, however, communications intelligence is quite susceptible to deception, and too heavy reliance on these methods can lead to grievous intelligence failures. Careful manipulation of communications procedures can sometimes lead to false alarms or failures to recognize the imminence of an event. Misinterpretation of communications intelligence reportedly contributed to the failure to predict the outbreak of the October 1973 Middle East conflict.

Electronic intelligence is not limited purely to monitoring communications. Most modern military systems make extensive use of radar, and telemetry is normally used to give the design data from tests of new weapons such as missiles; the ability to record the emanations from such equipment, sometimes at great distances, is an important intelligence asset. An air defense radar that is not in operation, and therefore potentially monitorable, provides little air defense since it must be turned on to detect and track incoming aircraft. Testing and training exercises make it possible to learn the detailed characteristics of such systems long before the equipment is operational. And "spoofing" this type of intelligence is almost always impractical.

While the mass of published material on U.S. military matters is undoubtedly a valuable resource for foreign intelligence organizations, no similar open sources exist on the military capabilities of the U.S.S.R. and China. These nations have no parallel to Aviation Week or published congressional hearings. Even the military literature that does fall into our hands is often suspect. Those writers who are allowed to publish in the Soviet Union rarely express the inner thinking of the influential Soviet military planners. Sometimes, as in this country, such articles express the wishes of military minds but bear little resemblance to real policies. Often they are released to serve political objectives and are therefore untrustworthy, or, in many cases, are simply mirroring U.S. thinking in order to make up for the author's inability to publish Soviet views. Technical literature almost never contains any material of real military interest, and too often intelligence analysts are left to draw conclusions from what is not published rather than from what is. Even the published Soviet military budget is not a useful intelligence source: both former CIA Director William Colby and General Daniel Graham, then Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testified on July 21, 1975, before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee that dollar comparisons of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. defense budgets "were doomed to produce misleading results." Only the forces and weapons in being or under development are meaningful.

While rarely providing important information on military capabilities, technology or strategies, open sources can occasionally supply useful background on military intentions. With the large size of the current nuclear arsenals, it is unlikely that either the U.S.S.R. or China would launch an attack out of the blue. Instead, it is more likely that there would be a period of rising tensions in which they would be seeking to gain broad world public support for their position.

Open sources are, however, of much greater value for determining the military capabilities of Third World countries. In most cases of real interest, the forces, levels and types of weapons available have been publicly known as a result of coverage by the international press, from attachés, and from information furnished by nations supplying these countries with arms.

What is the true usefulness of espionage on military matters as compared with photography, communications intelligence and open sources? The honest fact, I believe, is that human covert sources rarely provide useful intelligence in the military area. It is hard enough to recruit an agent who has any inside knowledge on military affairs, but it is even more difficult to recruit one who has sufficient technical background to provide timely and meaningful information on the characteristics of modern weapons. Even Penkovskiy, the most celebrated Soviet defector-in-place and Western spy, who supplied intelligence on Soviet missile and other military programs in the early 1960s, provided in retrospect little information of major importance.2 Every little tidbit that he provided was gobbled up with great avidity by the intelligence community, but now it is hard to pinpoint any specific information which had a significant effect on our intelligence estimates. He was primarily useful in describing organizational relationships, confirming data from other sources, and adding confidence to existing assessments. And this was at a period when our technical means of collection were less advanced than they are today. While another Penkovskiy may be developed in the future, it is difficult to see how such agents can ever be counted on as a major factor in our intelligence on Soviet or Chinese military matters.

In other countries, where security is less stringent, covert operations can be of somewhat greater value. Occasionally, Soviet equipment is obtained in such areas, and its capabilities studied and evaluated, but weapons exported from the Soviet Union are rarely if ever of recent origin and are therefore of marginal value. If the Soviet submarine had been successfully raised from the Pacific floor last year by the Glomar Explorer, it might have been well worth the high price of that operation, but this should not be considered a covert operation in the normal sense of the term. The salvage of a sunken ship in international waters is, after all, perfectly legal.

Only in the area of military intentions does espionage have an important role, but even here the potentialities are often greatly exaggerated. It would be extremely fortuitous if an agent could be recruited to provide advance information of an impending military operation. A defector might, by chance, supply some facts, but the time delay in getting his knowledge to the intelligence community would normally be too great to permit appropriate counteraction. Furthermore, the very nature of such sources renders them very unreliable in time of crisis. Agents are too often doubled or suspect for personality reasons. It seems likely that unless the information could be confirmed by other means, it might well be-or should be-ignored. For example, in World War II, the British succeeded in doubling the entire German spy net in England and then used the agents effectively to deceive their German masters on the nature of the invasion of the continent.

At the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, there were reports from many sources that Soviet offensive missiles were being emplaced in Cuba. Many of these were patently false, partly because untrained observers were confused between offensive missiles and the defensive ones that were known to be in the process of deployment there. In a postmortem after the crisis was over, it was determined that only a handful of these reports were accurate, and the value of even this limited good information from these human sources was lost in the noise of the inaccurate. Such reports, true and false alike, did flag targets for U-2 photography, but not until the pictures were available could our policymakers begin to react to this hostile Soviet move.

Apart from what information on military programs and intentions can be obtained by the various methods, there is an important factor concerning the public usability of such information. In a world where governments (especially the American government) have not only to know things privately, but to persuade their own people and other governments of the validity of their conclusions, this factor tips the scales of emphasis sharply in the direction of the overt or semi-overt forms of collection. Agent operations can almost never be disclosed without the likelihood of seriously impairing or destroying the future usefulness (or life) of the source, and also of political repercussions. And while the general practice of communications intelligence is accepted today as a fact of life by most countries, the disclosure of individual operations is almost always fatal to their continuing usefulness. Therefore, information from such sources is extremely difficult, often impossible, to use.

The same should not be true for overhead photography. Although this initially involved very sensitive operations because of the need for illegal and very provocative aircraft overflights-such as the U-2-satellite platforms have fundamentally changed the situation. As a practical matter, satellite photography has now been given international legal status by the Russians when, in the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, they formally recognized that "national technical means" should be used for verification and could not be interfered with. The negotiating history makes it clear that satellite observation is included among these methods. In view of this recognition of the legality of such intelligence techniques to obtain military information, the removal of the high classification barriers imposed by our government to the broader use of satellite photography is long overdue. The claim that such action would provoke Soviet political counteraction against satellite observation, as was done in the case of the U-2, no longer has any validity.


In the economic area, espionage probably has even less application than in the military. Economic information by its very nature tends to be more openly available even behind the iron and bamboo curtains. Such data must be more widely disseminated than military, since it is necessary for the normal operation of the government. This is particularly true in such nations as the U.S.S.R., with its highly centralized economic planning. And there are many opportunities to obtain information from non-classified sources to assist the economic intelligence analyst. Even photography can be useful-it apparently provided advance evidence of Soviet crop failures in the summer of 1972 but unfortunately was never used by those who were outwitted on the grain deal. Even though economic information is becoming increasingly important, it is rarely necessary or desirable to risk a recruited agent for the supply of economic data, although overt human sources, such as visiting businessmen, can often provide useful information in this area. To an overwhelming extent, accurate and timely economic information depends on the meticulous analysis of the immense volume of data that is available from open and semi-overt sources throughout the world.

In the political intelligence field, however, espionage finds greater justification. Here, the goal is to understand what people are thinking or planning. This is less susceptible to technological intelligence collection. When such ideas are translated into words or put on paper, the opportunities for procuring the information by espionage increase. The theft of a plan is always a distinct possibility, but the difficulties in carrying out such a covert operation are extraordinarily great. Bugging the Kremlin is a nice idea for spy fiction, but our national security planners had better not place any reliance on such a source. Recruiting an agent who is privy to the inner Soviet circles can be an important goal of our clandestine services but is not to be counted on. Soviet and Communist Party activities outside the Soviet Union are a much more lucrative target for clandestine intelligence operations. While a considerable part of such operations falls under the heading of counterintelligence (to be discussed later), these operations are often capable of providing important political information of a positive nature. For example, in 1956 it was actually CIA counterintelligence operations that obtained and led to the publication of Khrushchev's secret speech to the 20th Party Congress, thus revealing to the world a vital development in Soviet internal politics-and of course deeply embarrassing the Russians.

As to non-communist countries, in the more advanced nations normal diplomatic reporting and the availability of full and frank press reports almost always make the need for clandestine positive intelligence operations minimal. However, in the less advanced countries such open sources are often not adequate. In such countries decisions are often made by a small coterie of persons inside or outside the government without exposure to the press. In many countries, governments come and go with extraordinary rapidity, thus creating simultaneously a need for timely inside information and large numbers of dissident or dissatisfied individuals with access to it. Understanding of the political motivations and advance knowledge of the plans of all elements in a country is, of course, an important intelligence objective.

I suspect the need for covert intelligence operations in these areas is today increasing. A number of Third World countries have been erecting their own barriers to outside inquiry of all types and thus hampering the activity of foreigners, especially Westerners, whether from the press, academic institutions, or diplomatic representatives.3 To a very considerable extent, such nations are becoming themselves closed societies in which it is not possible to obtain even the kind of information readily available in the United States without resort to covert methods of intelligence collection.

However, in weighing the usefulness of covert intelligence to obtain political information, it must always be remembered that an agent can also frequently be an important source of misinformation since he may often have ulterior motives in supplying intelligence. This risk can be particularly great in cases where covert action, such as the overthrow of the government or influencing internal politics, may be simultaneously involved. This is another reason why such covert actions should be abandoned or at least divorced from intelligence collection. It has been claimed that political support is a useful tool for procuring information, but the gains therefrom are more than overbalanced by the fact that the information mission is all too often subordinated or subverted and the intelligence consumer suffers.

Even in the case of closed societies, public information and overt means are still probably the most important sources of political intelligence. Over the years, a coterie of experts on Soviet politics has grown up. The so-called Kremlinologists study every facet of Soviet life, its open literature and public statements, to develop an understanding of the social and political factors influencing Soviet decision-making. Similar groups, although far less extensive, follow other areas of the world. And the intelligence community has its own inside experts who have access to classified as well as to public information. Undoubtedly, information obtained by espionage provides for them a small but occasionally high-quality addition to the more readily available data. But even when sound information is provided by a covert source, it is useful to have a parallel open reference to the same material in order to use it publicly.

Similarly, while the interception and decoding of important communications may on occasion be useful for political and economic purposes, it is surely, again, the careful study of what is openly and widely transmitted that is most effective. The CIA's Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service is quite properly an important tool widely shared with scholars and others throughout the world. And there have been occasions when open radio messages have provided crucial advance information: I recall particularly the case in 1961 when the Soviets sent over the radio, uncoded and three days in advance, the text of a press release announcing that they were conducting a nuclear test-thus unilaterally terminating the test ban moratorium that had been in existence for nearly three years. Unfortunately, in this case, the intelligence break was squandered when it was decided that it would be unwise for the President to put his prestige on the line by making strong representations to reverse the Soviet plan.


So far I have discussed the collection of positive intelligence in the military, economic and political fields. Counterintelligence is very different, very arcane, but nevertheless very important. Not only must we continue to detect and counter the continuing very extensive operations of the KGB, the Soviet secret intelligence organization, but we must also now deal with the new and rapidly growing threats from terrorism by unstable individuals or dissident groups. In the future, we may be faced with even higher levels of violence than we have been in the past. The burgeoning nuclear power industry is making available in many parts of the world ever-greater quantities of fissionable material, particularly plutonium, which can be readily converted into nuclear explosives. The opportunities for nuclear threats or even an atomic catastrophe are growing rapidly. Physical security over these dangerous materials can probably never be 100 percent effective, and we cannot await a blackmail letter before attempting to address the problem; counterintelligence may be a vital tool for combating terrorism both at home and abroad.

Nevertheless, counterintelligence operations, particularly at home, have certainly produced unacceptable abuses of our fundamental constitutional rights, and we must develop new methods of guarding society from violence or foreign subversion without trampling on individual liberties. While the transgressions of the CIA have attracted the greatest public notice because its charter does not permit active operations within the United States, the activities of the FBI, which has the primary responsibility for internal counterintelligence, raise the most critical constitutional problem. To date, foreign operations have not come under serious criticism for having abridged civil rights even though many of their types of operations are similar to those carried out within the United States. Since internal security is a very large and in many respects a separate field which goes beyond what can be adequately covered in this article, I shall concentrate my attention on those aspects of counterintelligence operations which have foreign as well as domestic implications and not attempt to draw conclusions on how we solve our national constitutional problems.

There can be little doubt that covert human operations abroad-all that goes into counterespionage-remain a vital technique. In this area neither overhead photography nor the direct use of open sources can play a major part. The infiltration of potential threatening organizations or groups is a basic tool of the game. Defectors have been extremely important in the past, and it is interesting to note that the more productive of these have come from the KGB and have probably provided better information on the intelligence operations of the communist bloc than on any other aspect of their society. Moreover, the defectors and agents that have produced the best positive intelligence in many other areas have also often come from foreign intelligence services-for example, Penkovskiy. It is a strange commentary that members of these supposedly high-security organizations should be the most susceptible to subversion.

Much more serious issues are raised by new technical methods that have significantly advanced the art of counterintelligence but unfortunately-instead of making it easier to obtain information without provocation as similar advances have done in the positive intelligence areas-have created a whole new class of threats to personal privacy. Today electronic eavesdropping and computer data banks are prime tools of the counterintelligence trade, aiming to sift out the messages and activities of foreign agents or terrorists but at the same time almost necessarily catching up in their net a vast amount of information on ordinary citizens. (This problem also applies acutely to the collection of communications intelligence for positive intelligence purposes.) The same is true of security checks on our own intelligence personnel, which are necessary to expose dangerous individuals and to protect against the unremitting efforts of the KGB in particular to penetrate our own sensitive organizations.

How are our intelligence agencies to collect what is important, and at the same time to ensure that information irrelevant to valid counterintelligence purposes is destroyed or put aside beyond reach of misuse? Are there areas of information that must simply be omitted-as, for example, the CIA, under threat of disclosure of a patently illegal activity, abandoned in 1973 its scanning and occasional opening of mail to the Soviet Union? And can the balance be struck through legislation? The problems are immensely difficult, already addressed in part by newly proposed FBI guidelines, and doubtless to be considered further in the report of the Church Select Committee that is in press as this article is written. I suspect, however, that we shall need to go further than these efforts to get at the roots of the problems and to establish balanced standards for operation, which should then be rigorously applied through some form of continuing supervision.

Counterintelligence operations go against the grain for many Americans, an attitude compounded by the fact that the information gained through them is almost always extremely sensitive, difficult to use publicly without compromising sources, and thus frequently useful only for guidance and warning to our law enforcement officials, rarely as a practical means of bringing an enemy agent into a court of law. But in the world of today-again having in mind not only the KGB but also the rapid spread of terrorist groups-it is hard to avoid the conclusion that effective counterintelligence, in turn largely covert, is essential to our true security-indeed that it may in itself justify the continuance of a major covert foreign intelligence organization in some form. But a whole new effort to establish standards and controls over such operations is plainly needed.


In sum, espionage would appear to have a limited but nevertheless critical potential as a source of intelligence information. For counterintelligence, covert agent operations are probably irreplaceable. However, on the national security and military activities within the Sino-Soviet blocs, it will rarely supply data of any great value or data easily usable for decision-making in a democratic society; it is, therefore, a relatively unimportant and less reliable adjunct to technical methods of collection such as satellite photography and communications and other electronic monitoring. These latter probably are more valuable than espionage, even in providing the basis for estimating the intentions of Soviet and Chinese leaders. Open published information and that obtained through diplomatic and other overt contacts is by far the most generally useful source of political and economic intelligence.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to halt clandestine agent operations even for the collection of foreign intelligence. These can be most useful, not in the U.S.S.R. and China where security and control over individuals are great, but in Third World nations where the knowledge of the attitudes of persons outside, as well as inside, the government is essential if we are to conduct a sound foreign policy. The threat of espionage can also be at least a deterrent behind the Iron Curtain. However, the limited value of agent operations combined with their potential political liabilities makes it incumbent on the U.S. government to limit such activities to those targets where the potential gains clearly outweigh the potential risks. We have no room for operations for operations' sake in our intelligence structure.


1 For purposes of this rough breakdown, I have treated the intelligence gained from normal diplomatic activity as well as that provided voluntarily by businessmen or other private citizens not acting as covert agents, as coming essentially from "open sources," even though such intelligence may, for reasons of confidentiality, be classified by the government and not used for public purposes.

2 Colonel Penkovskiy was a high official in Soviet military intelligence with wide access to high military circles. He was recruited as an agent but was eventually detected and executed, in circumstances recounted fully in The Penkovskiy Papers, trans. Peter Deriabin, New York: Doubleday, 1965.

3 See for example, Henry Kamm, "The Third World Rapidly Turning Into a Closed World for the Foreign Correspondent," The New York Times, January 14, 1976, p. 12.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now