Hollywood has made big business of spy films and television for decades, but the truth of intelligence gathering has always been opaque, even in a democracy like the US. In this episode of Big World, SIS professor Aki Peritz joins us to discuss intelligence and national security.
Peritz shares his definition of intelligence, discusses which US agencies gather intelligence (1:58), and dispels a DC urban legend about those who work for the CIA (5:10). He also explains how intelligence is collected and used during counterterrorism efforts (5:56) as well as how intelligence gathering has changed over the years (9:35).
What role will intelligence play in counterterrorism and national security in the future (15:13)? What role do ethics and civics play in intelligence and counterterrorism efforts (17:17)? Peritz answers these questions and explains what a reality show—which he appeared on—revealed about the intelligence field and the balance between liberty and security (20:07).
During our “Take Five” segment, Peritz shares five ways the intelligence community influences movies and TV and vice versa (11:20).
0:07 Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that really matters. Hollywood has made big business of spy films and television for decades, with characters from British super spy James Bond to Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings in "The Americans," informing pop culture's view of intelligence gathering. British author, John le Carré served in both MI5 and MI6 before his career authoring some of the best known spy novels of the past 50 years, including "Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy." But the truth of intelligence gathering, and the people who do this work, has always been opaque, even in a democracy like the US.
0:49 KS: And most often, intelligence and the people who gather and analyze it, are thrust into the public eye only when they are perceived to have failed in their work, as in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. So today, we're talking about intelligence. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined Aki Peritz. Aki is a former CIA analyst and currently a lecturer here at the School of International Service. He authored the 2021 book "Disruption: Inside the Largest Counterterrorism Investigation in History," and co-authored the 2012 release "Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns That Killed Bin Laden and Devastated Al-Qaeda." Aki, thanks for joining Big World.
1:29 Aki Peritz: Thank you for having me.
1:30 KS: I'm so excited about this. Aki, like I said in the intro, we usually only hear a lot about intelligence work when it's being characterized as bad intelligence or intelligence failures, and I'm using quote fingers. For example, the failure to predict the Taliban's rapid takeover of Afghanistan leading up to the US withdrawal in August. But what actually is intelligence in the context of our discussion today, and which US agencies gather intelligence?
1:58 AP: It's actually a difficult thing to define. So intelligence is really dependent on really who you are, where you sit, and where you really are in history. So if you're Hezbollah, you're a terrorist group, you define intelligence one way. If you're the Russians, you define it another way. If you're the United States, you define it a third way. The problem is that everybody's playing a different game, and so, when everybody's playing a different game ... some people are playing soccer, other people are playing football, some people are playing cricket, some people are playing Quidditch, it's really hard to know what the rules really are. So all that said, if I had to really synthesize it, and is what I talk about in my AU courses, is that if I had to synthesize it over time and space, it would be something like actionable information that helps decision makers make the best choices they can.
2:45 AP: So intelligence doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's really subordinate to whoever makes decisions or who are the folks who makes decisions and what they decide to do. What this really means, in real life, for the purposes of our conversation, is that when you hear that the CIA did something that you don't like, or did like for that matter, or something you don't agree with, you don't take it up with the CIA. They're the execution arm. You really have to take it up with the decision makers, whether it's the president, the White House, Congress, et cetera. So who are the folks who actually collect intelligence? There is a difference between foreign intelligence and domestic intelligence. So foreign intelligence, you have people collecting intelligence, remember this actionable information, through a variety of sources whether it is through signals intelligence, which is emails and radio and cell phones and all kinds of things that are signals. That is usually conducted by the NSA.
3:39 AP: When you're talking about human sources, so you actually ask people to collect intelligence on behalf of the United States government, that's oftentimes the CIA. There are other groups out there that do a lot of things. So for example, you have the State Department who collects ... it doesn't really collect intelligence, but it collects ... they have all these diplomats all over the world and they collect information, which in turn informs the policymaker and informs decision makers. So it's a bit of a grab bag out there. Here in the United States, it becomes a lot tricker because everybody here is a US person, even if you're not a citizen. And so you have also a grab bag of organizations. You have, obviously the FBI, you have DHS that collect and analyze and disseminate intelligence. And then you have, honestly, state and local police. Everybody collects a lot of information trying to make the best case that they can for whoever makes the decisions.
4:31 KS: When you listed off those games, my initial thought was Quidditch is a made up game. And then I thought, they're all made up games. All games are made up, which is kind of your point, that your view of this very much depends on where you live. So this is kind of a slightly lighter question that I wanted to get out of the way. It's kind of a running joke to longtime residents of the DC metro area, that anyone who works for the CIA can't or won't confirm it. They tell you that they work in McLean, which is of course the Virginia town that encompasses Langley, where the CIA headquarters is located. So is it true that current employees of the CIA can't confirm that they actually work there? Or is that a DC urban legend?
5:10 AP: That is actually a DC urban legend with a caveat. So there's basically two types of people who work for CIA, there's covert employees and overt employees. So I can say I was an overt employee, so if push came to shove, I could actually say I work for the agency. But people who are actually covert actually don't want to say that, and so they'll actually say they work for somewhere else.
5:29 KS: Okay. Okay. That's good to know. All right, so back to the slightly more serious questions. In your book, "Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns That Killed Bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaeda," you write that the terrorist organization was, quote, "crushed by the greatest international collaboration of intelligence services seen since the end of the Cold War," end quote. How is intelligence collected and used during counterterrorism efforts?
5:56 AP: Let's start with the United States. United States has this massive tech advantage. Imagine all the fiber optic cables all over the world. If you send one email from point A to point B, chances are the way our internet infrastructure is set up, it will pass through the United States at some point. And so, we can potentially collect that. So that's one thing. We're really obsessed with tech here in the United States and that's a cultural, economic advantage that we have. It's also a disadvantage because we sometimes over rely on our tech to achieve whatever goal that we're trying to do.
6:29 AP: Another way is to get human sources inside of terrorist groups, which is incredibly difficult, because these are insular, paranoid organizations that have a habit of killing people who they think are spies. And so there are massive risks. Not that we have not been successful in some capacity, but it's incredibly difficult. Honestly, another way is to read and watch everything that the bad guys are turning out, like speeches and videos and websites, et cetera, for clues, information. That's one of the things that I actually did at the CIA, is to look at terrorist media output. Remember that terrorism is political theater, and these terrorist groups actually want you to know what they did.
7:07 AP: And so, if they set off a bomb somewhere, there's always going to be a guy, a block away, filming it with a camera so they can put it on TV. They can put it on the internet, and they can just play it over and over and over again. So sometimes people give up a lot of information, which gives us an advantage, so now we know who these people are, how they talk, how they hold a knife, how they do things. And so, we take all that information and we actually also talk to our foreign partners, even our foreign adversaries, to determine what we can do to fight these organizations. Intelligence is a team effort and the United States can't do it alone. So we have to liaise with the British, the Australians, the Egyptians, the Iraqis, the ... name your place. There are very, very few places that the United States does not have some sort of relationship with because there are common interests in fighting these terrorist groups.
8:04 KS: And I'm guessing there are some unspoken or maybe spoken rules of engagement in cases like that. Where there are adversaries working together, that they know this is confined to this specific topic at hand. And are there ethics at all surrounding that engagement that, I know we're dealing with someone that we usually are at odds with, but we're going to be very clear or draw a line around this?
8:28 AP: Absolutely. In fact, there's a really interesting story in George Tenet's autobiography. We were trying to talk to the Libyans, this is in the 90s, early 2000s, to get them to get rid of their clandestine nuclear facility. They had a clandestine nuclear weapons program. And so, senior members of the CIA had to go talk to the Libyans, remember Libya and the United States had a really awful relationship where they would blow up something of ours, and they were responsible for the Pan Am Lockerbie attack, and we would bomb them. And so there's a lot of bad blood, but both the United States and the Libyans had to come to an agreement. And the way you did this was through the intelligence organizations. And so, sometimes you got to sit down with butchers and that's just the name of the game. I mean, intelligence ain't beanbag, and it requires you to break bread with a lot of nasty people.
9:15 KS: Right. Aki, for a little historical perspective, how long has intelligence been such a big part of counterterrorism efforts and national security? And have the types of intelligence collected by federal agencies changed over the years? And I guess I would say probably especially since the 90s to today.
9:35 AP: Sure. Well, I mean, intelligence gathering, I mean, in the sense that one group is looking to get actionable information on another group has been around since we were sitting in caves. Here in America, for example, here in the United States, George Washington was a huge consumer of intelligence. He had all kinds of spy networks all over the place. There's some really interesting books and TV shows about this. If you have the intelligence and you know what the adversary is up to, you can either confront him, or engage him, or blunt his forces, et cetera. Obviously things have changed. Our entire intelligence apparatus was basically created in the post World War II era and it used to be focused on the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, the Soviet Union was no more. Daniel Patrick Moynihan actually sponsored a number of bills to actually get rid of the CIA, because since the Soviet Union was gone, there's no need for the CIA.
10:22 AP: But there was this idea that the intelligence community was adrift at that time. And so 9/11 really fulfilled that purpose. In the two decades since then, we've actually seen the pendulums swing back to this idea of big power competition. Mostly, at this point in 21st century, focus on China. So sometimes it's cybersecurity, sometimes it's terrorism, sometimes it's ... In the 2008, 2009, 2010 era, when the economy was melting down in the Great Recession, it was really focused on economic issues. And then it kind of disappears by 2011. And now it's China. Terrorism, where we think of Al Qaeda, ISIS, et cetera, has fallen to fourth or fifth in importance.
11:08 KS: Aki Peritz, it's time to Take Five. You get to reorder or maybe just put your spin on the world. What are five ways the intelligence community influences movies and TV and vice versa?
11:20 AP: Okay, number one, when "Hunt for Red October" came out in the 1980s and then the movie with Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin came out in 1990, this is the one about the Soviet submarine captain.
11:31 KS: Oh yes. I always wanted to see Montana. Yes, yes.
11:33 AP: I've always wanted to see Montana. Great, great, great movie. It was actually a humongous hit with the CIA workforce. Number one, it's extremely entertaining, it makes CIA look really cool, an exciting story, et cetera. So what actually happened was somebody actually wrote a parody of it within CIA. And it's not just one person writing a couple paragraphs, this is a 20 part parody of "Hunt for Red October" that is classified. Or was classified until five years ago, six years ago. And they just passed it around for years afterwards. But it just goes to show you the power of that one particular movie. When we think of spying, the first person that we think about is James Bond. But the Soviets actually had their own version of James Bond, his name was Max Otto von Stirlitz. And he was a TV spy who, actually according to the TV show, he infiltrated the German High Command in World War II in this 12 part series called "17 Moments of Spring."
12:31 AP: But the funny thing about him was ... The cool thing about James Bond is that he dresses really great, he's got all these nifty gadgets, he's drinking, he's surrounded by all these beautiful women. He fights the bad guys and he wins, more or less, at the end. None of that happened in the Soviet version. He was this pensive, patriotic, quiet guy who only lived for the Soviet Union. And guess who funded it? The KGB. And there are actually some people who actually said that, this show came out in the 70s, around the same time that a very young Vladimir Putin decided to join the KGB, I think at the age 21, 22, 23. So did this TV spy influence the real spy? Who knows. The CIA actually established its own entertainment liaison service in the 1990s, in 1996, because it was ... Remember, in the 1990s, you had this time when, there's an idea that we should get rid of the CIA completely.
13:27 AP: There were Senate bills saying we should get rid of the CIA. And so CIA said, "Listen, we want to not be seen as this Machiavellian, awful organization. And so we just want to have this liaison service with Hollywood and we're going to talk to each other and maybe we can help you fix some of your scripts." And so that organization is incredibly well connected in Hollywood because everybody wants to come to CIA to say, "Does this work? Or is this how this works?" And so forth. And many of the TV shows you see now, or movies that you see now, like "Argo" or "Zero Dark Thirty" or "The Americans," have some sort of relationship with this establishment. CIA analysts watch TV, movies, and spies and pick out dumb things just like everybody else. So if you're a doctor and you watch some of these medical TV shows and they do dumb things, it's kind of the same way.
14:09 AP: Probably the most egregious one is when people use cell phones when they're walking around headquarters. You absolutely cannot do that. You will be caught by security immediately, and you'll be escorted out of the building if you're using a cell phone. Because obviously bad guys can retcon your cell phone and they can use it as a listening device. And finally, the best show about intelligence is "The Wire." Especially when they're going after all these drug dealers. It's the same concepts, the same thoughtfulness, the same efforts. It's also the same mindless bureaucracy and ambition and the petty politics. It's all the same, it just happens to be happening in Baltimore and not at the CIA or NSA or the DOD. It's the same concept, so that's five.
14:53 KS: That's wonderful. I've had "The Wire" in my queue forever. Now I have to watch it.
14:55 AP: I show it in my class. It's like, this is how you actually do this.
14:58 KS: Okay, thank you.
15:01 KS: So what role do you think that intelligence will play in counterterrorism and national security in the future? And what role do you think intelligence should play?
15:13 AP: Well, I personally believe that counter terrorism work should be incredibly aggressive and incredibly ruthless, as much as it can be, but it also needs to be bounded by strong leadership, strong laws, and honestly a strong sense of ethics. Many of the problems we generated after 9/11, which is the current incarceration of all these people in Guantanamo Bay, who have not been processed, by the way. They've technically not been convicted of anything in 20 years. Or a little less than 20 years. Our use of brutal interrogation techniques to elicit information, things like that. They occurred basically because the United States and the White House essentially freaked out and threw many of our ideas about what is ethical out the window.
15:55 AP: And I'd say it's not illegal because all the terrible things that occurred, Guantanamo Bay, the use of torture, et cetera, all these things were signed off by the Bush administration in a variety of memos that have subsequently come out. I would suggest that when the next attack occurs, or when we get to the next war, the larger question for our policymakers, decision makers are, what will we do? I mean, I hope that our leaders at the White House level, the CIA level, the DOD level, make the correct, but also incredibly ruthless choices, because that's what war is, but while also remaining in the insides of the lines of what we might consider ethical behavior.
16:32 KS: That's a hard line to walk. Because I mean, there are some, and some of them at the time, and then in the years that came after, who would defend those actions; torture, water boarding, black sites, all those things as ruthless. And as us doing what we had to do, even though it ... Some would also argue on the other side that it maybe cost the nation its soul. So you are arguing that there is a method of a nation state being ruthless when they need to and still having an ethical guidepost. And also, I guess, in the sense of not freaking out, of being able to be ruthless enough that they know how to keep their calm in the face of something like that.
17:17 AP: Oh, absolutely. I mean, Cicero has this famous maximus that says, "In times of war, laws fall silent." I don't believe that because if laws fall silent and we are allowed to commit war crimes, and we're allowed to commit things that we think are unethical or violate the spirit of our society, in our case American society in the 21st century, then what's the point of all these ethical principles in our society? It's when our ethics are really pushed to the limit, is when we actually find out the outer boundaries of what we're willing to do and what we're not willing to do.
17:52 KS: Right. And it wouldn't help to have a really tremendous grounding in civics and US civics and law and really have a finer understanding of what those ideals really are.
18:04 AP: That would help.
18:04 KS: Do you think that that exists among the intelligence agencies and the people, not just at the top, but all the way down, who have that understanding of civics?
18:14 AP: I think so. I want to say that they do. I don't know what anybody thinks at any given moment, but my experience, everybody at the CIA, FBI, and other places, are generally trying to do a good job at what they're doing. They're all Americans, and so, they all went to high school and they took these courses. And even if you violate your own ethics, you have to see what is an appropriate activity within the confines of what you're doing? And that's, again, why you need things like congressional oversight, appropriate checks and balances, and engage the public. If the public doesn't really care, then all kinds of things will happen.
18:55 AP: And it's interesting because as we pulled out of Afghanistan, I actually did a Google Trends search of Afghanistan and the Taliban, and in the month or so before we pulled out, interest in Afghanistan and the Taliban shot up. And then now, it's almost the end of the year, nobody's paying attention to Afghanistan anymore or the Taliban. The American public has moved on from that story. And so all the agonies of Afghanistan have disappeared from the American consciousness, at least. And so that's why you need people who actually know what they're doing, who are aggressive in their oversight, aggressive in their understanding of ethics, to make these decisions.
19:33 KS: So this is turning into a surprisingly heavy and philosophical episode. I have too much thinking to do. So what do we do when we don't want to think? We talk about reality TV.
19:44 AP: Of course.
19:44 KS: So shifting the gears, Aki, you appeared on a reality TV show a few years back called "Hunted" using your experience as an intelligence analyst to track down ordinary people acting as fugitives on the run. So what did this show reveal about the intelligence field and the balance between liberty and security? Or was it that deep?
20:07 AP: Well, the interesting thing was, so the idea was that you had a whole bunch ... a crack team of intelligence analysts and super cops trying to find contestants, basically in Georgia, South Carolina, parts of Florida, parts of Alabama. And we were given quote/unquote "the power of the state." So anything that the police could do in a major investigation, major crime investigation, we theoretically would have access to. And it was interesting because I've never actually done a domestic case like this or, I'm putting air quotes, "domestic case," because all my knowledge is abroad. And what I actually found out was the police can actually do a lot of things. So there are surveillance techniques here in the United States, which are really interesting. So for example, one thing that I think Americans don't really quite realize is that we have these networks of license plate readers, they're called LPRs, around most metropolitan areas like New York City, Washington, DC, Atlanta, LA, et cetera.
21:07 AP: And the machines actually are constantly reading your license plates. So for example, if there's like an Amber Alert, somebody kidnapped a kid and we know the license plate of the perp, we can deploy 2000 eyeballs looking for that particular plate. As long as they are in a, basically a Metro area. Once they get out then that tech doesn't really exist. You'll actually see them on police cars, in the back, they look like strange little lights and they're actually license plate readers. It's a really interesting tech. But from the civil liberties perspective, there's no national law, there's no federal law on this. Individual cities, individual counties, states, they all have different laws. And remember, you're just driving around and your information's being collected by these LPRs. Where does that data go?
22:00 AP: Where does that information go at any given moment? And how long do the cops keep it? And the scary part is, private companies do this too. Because the same LPR technology is used by tow truck companies. And so, they'll go into a strip mall parking lot and they'll go up and down the parking lot with their LPRs looking for cars to haul. Like hot cars, stolen cars, cars that need to be repossessed, et cetera. And then they sell that information to private companies, which means if you know the right people, you can actually get that information as well. Another issue is that there's spyware on your phone. You can surreptitiously download an app that tracks somebody else's phone, and you can do this officially through Find My iPhone, but you can actually do this in another way.
22:46 AP: And so, this is actually a way that abusive spouses control their spouse to make sure where they're going, and what they're doing. That said, lots of criminals get away with lots of things in this country. There are only so many cops and so many tech capabilities to capture criminals. And it's a numbers game. Only so many people can go after so many bad guys. It's about education, it's about civil liberties, et cetera. So it was loads of fun. Unfortunately, we didn't get renewed, but it was lots of fun. I got to touch a lot of really cool tech that the cops use nowadays. It was great. It was great.
23:23 KS: Does this set you up for a later appearance on "Dancing with the Stars"?
23:29 AP: Gosh, I hope not. That looks really embarrassing.
23:32 KS: Aki Peritz, thank you for joining Big World to discuss intelligence and Cicero and Quidditch. It's been a pleasure to speak with you.
23:40 AP: Well, thank you so much.
23:42 KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or a review, it'll be like laboring over a holiday dish and realizing it does indeed taste just like your grandmother's used to. Our theme music is, "It Was Just Cold," by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.