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Intel and AI, a possible Chinese SOF infiltrator, Beirut spying limits and a new revelation about renegade CIA agent Philip Agee lead the roundup
Welcome to SpyWeek, our new weekly newsletter, where we look at news from the intersection of intelligence, foreign policy, and military operations.
Artificial Intelligence Analysis. We’ve known for some time that Artificial Intelligence is changing the U.S. intelligence business. “AI will help intelligence professionals find needles in haystacks, connect the dots, and disrupt dangerous plots by discerning trends and discovering previously hidden or masked indications and warnings,” states a 2021 report by a Congressional commission on AI. There’s been a lot of hype (and a lot of superlatives) but little explanation of how things are changing. What does life look like for a CIA officer using AI? A Day in the Life of an AI-Augmented Analyst by 32-year CIA veteran William “Chip” Usher and Tara McLaughlin tries to answer that question.
Usher and McLaughlin are on the staff of the Special Competitive Studies Project, a not-for-profit founded by former Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt, who led the previously mentioned, Congressionally-mandated National Security Commission on AI. Usher and McLaughlin conjure up a CIA terror finance analyst tracking Hezbollah, who, for our purposes, we’ll call Jen. (Pro tip: Name your characters.) Before AI, Jen had to sort through nearly 800 pieces of intelligence daily, one at a time. Now, she can rely on an AI system that Usher and McLaughlin call “ALICE,” which stands for Augmented LLM and Intelligence Cataloging Enterprise.
ALICE would be a technological leap for the CIA, which has been exploring the uses of AI since at least 1983. The intelligence community has been using older forms of AI, such as machine learning and natural language processing tools, to help manage the flood of data in the Internet age. ALICE is the next generation of “generative AI,” algorithms (like OpenAI’s ChatGPT) that are designed to mimic how the human brain works. The algorithms find patterns in existing datasets and use those patterns to generate content such as text, images, or audio that feels increasingly real. Something like ALICE is already in the works at the CIA or may even be up and running. The CIA has revealed that it’s developing its own version of ChatGPT and is currently hiring AI specialists.
In Usher and McLaughlin’s telling, before Jen arrives for work at the CIA, ALICE has sorted the nearly 800 pieces of intelligence by color—green for low priority, yellow for medium, and red for high. Most of the intelligence is marked green, and a few pieces of HUMINT are red, but it’s a group of yellow-tagged documents that catches Jen’s eye. The yellow items—financial records, travel documents, and news reports—center around a French-Lebanese businessman in Paris. ALICE notices an unusual pattern in the businessman’s purchase of a vacation property in Morocco “that would have been difficult for a human analyst to spot quickly,” Usher and McLaughlin write. Perhaps those patterns would never have been noticed at all, but ALICE helps Jen uncover a Hezbollah financing network.
OK, so this sounds a bit like a Tom Clancy plot, but AI’s ability to find hidden patterns holds the promise of transforming intelligence.
In 2019, a Defense Intelligence Agency team went to Palo Alto, California, to see if AI could help expand its search for fentanyl trafficking networks. Not only did AI identify vastly more companies and people involved in illicit activities than the DIA had, but “the AI approach identified analytically relevant variables that our analysts probably would never have come up with and made instantaneous associations for those variables across multiple, often complex, data sets,” according to a report in the CIA’s Studies for Intelligence journal. (emphasis added)
The AI algorithm’s ability to find patterns that escape our puny human brains has implications that reach far beyond detecting financing networks. Can AI detect the next “Black Swan” event like the COVID-19 pandemic or 9/11 attack while it can still be prevented? Could AI find the previously undetected signals that would give away a foreign adversary’s deep-cover operatives? Can AI predict when hard-to-predict North Korea will attack (an increasing possibility, some experts say)? The wildest part is that we are only at the beginning of the changes AI will bring to U.S. intelligence, the military, and the rest of the world.
AI Danger Close. The biggest technological shift we may see in our lifetimes comes with risks, and there’s no greater risk right now than the threat of AI-fueled disinformation. That’s according to the World Economic Forum, which put disinformation in the top spot of its annual list of threats to the world’s stability, ahead of extreme weather events and armed conflict. “The growing concern about misinformation and disinformation is in large part driven by the potential for AI, in the hands of bad actors, to flood global information systems with false narratives,” the WEF explained. In the war in Gaza, generative AI programs have been used to create a fake image of a baby crying amidst bombing wreckage that went viral, as well videos showing supposed Israeli missile strikes that never happened, AP reported. AI-manipulated “deepfake” videos of President Biden, Donald Trump, and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have popped up. Freedom House, a human rights advocacy group, documented the use of generative AI in 16 countries “to sow doubt, smear opponents, or influence public debate.” Will this trickle become a flood? Maybe, maybe not. AI is also part of the solution. Generative AI systems are being deployed to stop deepfakes, like Reality Defender, a system used by NATO. One little-known fact: AI-generated images, videos, and audio snippets are far easier to detect, at least for now, than fake text, according to Wired. Don’t despair yet.
PLA in the USA?: Former members of the Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces may have unwittingly hosted an undercover member of China’s army at commercial U.S. training facilities. Vermillion China, an anonymous Substack focused on US-China strategic competition, posted photos it says it obtained from US and Chinese social media that show tactical training classes held that were attended by Pengxiang “Chris” Zhang, who is currently a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army (not to be confused with the similarly-named chess grandmaster). The person or people behind Vermillion, who declined to identify themselves, say Zhang was enrolled as a student when photos show him training in the United States from 2018 to 2020, but Vermillion China said it was “almost certain” that Zhang was an undercover PLA soldier at the time, based on the speed he transitioned to small unit training upon his return to China. Zhang trained in Close Quarters Battle (CQB) in the United States; in recent months, he’s posted photos and videos of himself conducting CQB drills with Chinese army soldiers. Nicholas Eftimiades, a decorated former DIA and CIA analyst and specialist in Chinese intelligence operations, told SpyWeek that Zhang’s U.S. training “reflects a gaping hole in our national security, i.e. the use of commercial paramilitary contractors to train PLA forces. I don't think anyone knows how much this is happening."
Spy Traffic: We’ve heard it said that life at CIA headquarters is less James Bond and more NBC’s The Office. Author Johannes Lichtman’s report of his visit to CIA headquarters in The Paris Review seems to bear that out. Lichtman was invited to Langley last year to speak to “Invisible Ink,” the agency’s in-house creative writing group. But the Q&A session with the CIA writers was far less interesting to Lichtman than his surreal (and hilarious) attempts to park his car at agency headquarters. His Kafkaesque odyssey to the CIA’s VIP parking lot involved passing through two gates, having his pre-arranged spot deemed a security risk, collecting three visitor badges, and having a confrontation with an aggressive security guard who wanted to know why Lichtman had so many badges. The only thing worse than the cramped VIP parking, it seems, is the daily race workers face for good spots in the employee lot. Lichtman’s CIA escort told him that employees arrive before 7 am just to avoid a 20-minute walk to their offices across the far reaches of their stadium-sized lot. When he finally reached the headquarters himself, Lichtman found the building was “like walking through an airport terminal in a major metropolis, crossed with a hospital, crossed with an American mall, crossed with an Eastern European university.” His late arrival at the Invisible Ink meeting prompted one group member to jokingly ask Lichtman if he got strip searched. Just“parking,” Lichtman replied. That elicited “a collective groan,” he writes. “The goddamned parking.”
Fortress Beirut: With tensions between Lebanon and Israel on a razor’s edge, a new U.S. embassy in Beirut is set to open any day. The 43-acre, self-contained hilltop compound gives off major shades of the U.S. military compound in Baghdad’s Green Zone. “The isolated embassy resembles a modern version of the Crusader fortresses that dot the Levantine landscape,” SpyTalk Contributing Editor Jonathan Broder wrote Wednesday in his deep dive on the new embassy and fraught security environment for CIA operatives and diplomats alike. The new embassy is surrounded by high blast walls to prevent any repetition of the devastating Hezbollah truck bombing in 1983 that destroyed the original American embassy and killed 63 people, including legendary CIA spy Robert Ames. The spies and diplomats must ride in an armored car with bodyguards when they leave the compound, and travel is restricted to the country’s pro-Western Christian enclaves. Hezbollah's turf is out of bounds, hampering contacts with the locals, not to mention the enemy. It all seems antithetical to the U.S. mission. How can you build partnerships when you’re a virtual prisoner in your own embassy? Read Broder’s engaging piece here.
Agee in America: The late former CIA officer turned critic Philip Agee was somehow entering and leaving the United States and secretly living in a New York apartment even though he didn’t have a U.S. passport, newly declassified FBI documents show. “Although Agee resides overseas, he continues to frequently travel to the U.S.,” a redacted 1992 FBI memo states. After 12 years in the agency in the 1960s, the disillusioned Agee left and soon began revealing the names of U.S. undercover personnel with the stated goal of disrupting CIA operations, a project allegedly aided by Cuban intelligence, and one to which he devoted the rest of his life. The U.S. State Department revoked his passport in 1979 because his “activities abroad are causing or likely to cause serious damage to the national security or the foreign policy.” The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the revocation, but the FBI determined that it did little to keep Agee out of the country; agents found that he secretly had an apartment on 55 Cooper Street near the northern tip of Manhattan. (The apartment was in someone else’s name.) The Bureau’s New York Field Office believed that Agee should be arrested and prosecuted for treason and other crimes, but the Justice Department had “little or no interest” in the matter. Agee died in Cuba in 2008.
Zvi Zamir, chief of the Mossad when the Israeli spy agency destroyed the Palestinian terror network behind the Munich Olympics massacre, has died. (NYT)
The FBI’s efforts to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became another reminder of the excesses of the bureau’s past. (HuffPost)
How do you hide $13.6 billion? That was the question before Congress as it secretly slipped money to build the first atomic bomb via the Manhattan Project into the U.S. budget during World War II. (NYT)
The FBI asks a judge to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a man who says agent misconduct led to his arrest. (KVDR)
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