In an exclusive interview with The Business Standard, Dr John Blaxland, a distinguished professor of international security and intelligence studies, opened up about modern day espionage, its ethical boundaries, and his views on estranged US intelligence officer Edward Snowden
Dr John Blaxland is a professor of international security and intelligence studies at Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, College of Asia and the Pacific. He is a contemporary global authority on security and intelligence studies.
In an interview with The Business Standard, Professor Blaxland talked about how modern day espionage has evolved and some of the ethical questions relating to espionage. He revealed three most daring acts of espionage from the last century that changed the course of history, and also opened up about his thoughts on estranged US intelligence officer Edward Snowden.
TBS: What is the role of espionage in the modern world? How has it changed in the post-Cold War era?
Blaxland: Well, it has been changed significantly by the digital revolution, and the fourth industrial revolution. So, now it is much more complicated than it once was. But essentially, it still boils down to three broad technology categories: human intelligence, signals intelligence, and geospatial or imagery intelligence. So, pictures, sounds, and humans interacting in various permutations. And that's been an age-old phenomenon. But a part of the human condition changes with technology and politics.
TBS: British security specialist Edward Lucas wrote in a Foreign Policy article that technological advancement, the changes in politics, and business are transforming spycraft. As a distinguished professor of international security and intelligence, how do you observe these changes?
Blaxland: Yes, there are significant changes in tradecraft that has transformed the business. As the analogue era was winding down, there was a sense that signal as intelligence would die a slow death. But of course, that did not happen at all. The same goes with human intelligence – the traditional form of espionage – it is not going away at all either. Instead it has just got more sophisticated and more multifaceted. This is because people still want to know what the other person is hiding.
In espionage, the secret of success is in keeping your success a secret. So if you have been successful - what you are doing, how you are doing it - everybody wants to know what you know. That is a part of the deal. And of course, when somebody develops one measure, somebody else develops a counter-measure, and somebody develops a counter-measure to that counter-measure. And that is a continuous process that keeps going.
So, the tactics, the techniques, the practices today may look a bit like the past, but they have evolved. They have evolved to reflect as the Lari stabilisation; artificial intelligence that can track your face, movement, watch, phone, devices, and your virtual footprints.
Taking all this into consideration, when looking to conduct espionage, or when looking to conduct counter-espionage, both sides in a matter consider these dimensions, both sides study very closely the overlap between the analogue and digital worlds.
TBS: In one of your earlier interviews with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), you said the old-school tools of espionage actually never went out of style. Can you elaborate on how the old fashion spycraft is still at play?
Blaxland: Well, essentially with the digital traceability of modern era's digital footprints, in the cases of technology and devices, some of the old fashioned tradecraft of espionage – analogue systems with human involvement and without devices, modern day technology – actually can go under the radar since now all the researches are focused on the technology on the ones and zeros, and on the big data.
By using traditional old fashioned methodologies like the letter drops, personal meets at a coffee shop, in a park, where identity is not disclosed, you can avoid using traceable devices. As you leave everything aside, it is as if you essentially went back to the old days of the Cold War.
Undertaking espionage in that way would protect you from getting picked up by the clever algorithms of modern-day computing systems. And of course, I did note the fact that some of them are asked to physically obscure half of their faces, and nobody thinks anything about it, because it is acceptable now to hide your face and hide your features and make it difficult for artificial intelligence to pick up the digital signature of your face.
TBS: Let's surf back in history, what acts of the espionage, in your observation, have changed the course of history and how?
Blaxland: It is hard to know for sure.
Certainly, some of the espionage in the Second World War, for example, the working of the signals intelligence, that was used to break German code, certainly shortened the war if not changed the course dramatically.
And similarly, during the Cold War, the revelations of the atomic spies in the 1940s – which gave the Soviet Union, and the Chinese, access to nuclear technology and the know-how to develop their own nuclear technology – changed the equation enormously. Because they are now on a level with the United States. That was a game-changer. We are living with that today. They were big indicators where espionage made a difference.
Perhaps the third one relates to the revelations late in the Cold War: the work of people like Oleg Gordievsky, who really could remarkably walk inside and out of espionage. It showed how the West's own counter-espionage system was inadequate and riddled the spies. So, these are a few examples I guess.
TBS: Is it possible for the act of espionage to be ethical? Some suggest that the ethics of spying is oxymoronic. What is your take on this?
Blaxland: I disagree. Actually, sound espionage requires the highest of ethics because you are operating in a space where the legal constraints are not necessarily likely to constrain you from doing something beyond what you should.
Intelligence bodies in Australia operate under very clear and precise legal mandates. There is very prescriptive legislation that outlines what is allowable and what is not. What is considered ethical and what is considered not ethical. So I guess my point is - saying that an important tradecraft in the world, and enduring an one, can be unethical, is cheap, and simply a facade.
It is, in the grand scheme of things, about protecting your nation, your people, and your interests. And doing so to the best of your ability. Now, that does not mean you go around killing people. In Australia, there is no intelligence body with the authority to kill people – except in the most extreme circumstances in self-defence.
The ethics of the people involved in the espionage are quite clearly and starkly defined. When they are asked to break their own ethics, they cannot live with it. They actually end up being whistle-blowers. In Australia, there are a number of mechanisms for accountability and order to ensure the high standards of ethics.
TBS: Let's talk about one of the most sensational case of modern day intelligence space. Edward Snowden. What is your take on him? Is he a spy or a whistle-blower?
Blaxland: John Ferris, the author of the GCHQ authorised history, in an interview just the other day, made a point which I endorse; that is - essentially the benefactors of Edward Snowden's revelations are Russia, China and other adversaries.
Everyone paid a huge price for those revelations. You might argue the flipside of the coin about how the national security agency of the United States operated, if they were above and beyond the law, and whether or not Snowden's revelations were needed.
The bottom line is that he did not exercise all of the opportunities for whistleblowing that were available within the system. He went above and beyond them. And in doing so, he threw the baby out with the bath water. His actions are understandably considered to be criminal. He is, at best, an unwitting agent of other spy agencies. He basically handed the crown jewels of the signals intelligence system on a silver platter to the United States' adversaries.
TBS: Espionage sounded more sensational in the past, and it appears some of its appeal may have subsided. But some say espionage has become more lethal What is your opinion? Do our intelligence agencies risk irrelevance in the future?
Blaxland: Well, it has been potentially lethal, always. However, in terms of lethality, I do not think you can get past the nuclear bomb, and this has been around for generations. So I guess it is a relative, debatable point that whether it is 'more lethal' or not, but it is lethal; it can be very lethal.
Now to the second part of your question, there is a growth of, what they call, open-source intelligence or OSINT. And, there has always been a concern in the intelligence community that maybe the secret stuff is redundant.
But in fact, the problem is that it is in that last 5 to 10 percent where some of the most critical information is found. And that is not in the open-source domain. When it comes to gaining the edge in national security, that is a lot to give away. Because as I say, the secret of success is in keeping your success a secret. So, to be successful, you want to uncover your adversaries' secret to success.