There are several methods of intelligence collection. Four of the most widely recognized examples are HUMINT (human intelligence), OSINT (open source intelligence), PHOTINT (photo or image intelligence) and SIGINT (signals intelligence). The interested reader is referred to Wikipedia for a more extensive list. For this essay, however, the focus is upon HUMINT.
WHAT HUMINT IS – AND IS NOT
For those who aren’t in the intelligence business – or who haven’t spent time actually gathering intelligence in the field – it is worthwhile to discuss what HUMINT is and is not.
Regrettably, there is no good substitute for the kind of information available through HUMINT
Unlike the passive/receptive methods of gathering intelligence through other means, HUMINT requires the interaction of human beings to at least some degree. Therein lies the rub, for humans are often faulty observers of reality, are prone to biases and emotions in perceiving events, and often have their own agendas that result in misrepresentation – even outright deception. Regrettably, there is no good substitute for the kind of information available through HUMINT.
HUMINT agents often conduct interrogations of or engage in conversations with people thought to have information about a particular subject. Additionally, covert operations – spying or espionage – are carried out. The targets include diplomats and associated support staff, military personnel and civilian contractors, prisoners of wars and defectors or refugees, travelers returning from countries of interest, and ordinary citizens of the target country.
Disappointingly, as a number of psychological studies indicate – and as American courts regularly document – humans are not reliable recorders of reality under even the best of circumstances. When personnel biases and heightened emotions are factored in, reliability drops even more. This is to say nothing about sources of information – or even the reporters themselves – that have agendas influencing the authenticity of the information.
Thus, HUMINT is a notoriously difficult field – even more so regarding North Korea. It is nearly impossible to check sources for reliability, and finding sources willing to talk is risky for all parties involved. As a result, credibility issues are always present.
THE INTEL PROCESS
This brings us to how intelligence is produced. It is rare that the person who gathers the information from a HUMINT source is the one to disseminate the information as intelligence. Usually, information is reviewed, analyzed, and then reviewed again. In some cases, the information goes to a “publisher” who makes certain that the information is presented in the proper format and is free of jargon, so that its intended audience can easily grasp its meaning.
It should come as no surprise that intelligence is usually classified at some level, meaning that its distribution is restricted to only those with a need to know. There are three basic reasons for classifying information. The most obvious reason is to prevent the target from realizing that his enemy knows something about him that is not openly available. Another reason is to prevent the enemy from realizing how the information was gained so that the source remains available.
A less known third reason for classification is to prevent embarrassment to the entity doing the classifying. This is not to justify that rationale for classifying information, only to point out that it does occur – and that all governments do it. Rarely is this in the public interest – and even more rarely is it tactically or strategically valuable in the long run for the country to do so.
When Kim Jong Un executed his uncle as a traitor in December 2013, there was a dubious report, pounced upon by the media, that the liquidation was accomplished by Jang Song Thaek being thrown to hungry dogs to be eaten. Jang is still thought to have been executed, probably by firing squad, but the hungry dogs account has since been discredited. That the media quickly accepted this report speaks to the craving for information about the secretive North Korean regime as well as the lust for the dramatic. It perhaps set the stage for believing sensationalized reports coming from official sources.
(Kim’s) ex-mistress was photographed in December 2015 in Beijing for a scheduled performance – apparently amused by the gossip regarding her disappearance
In that vein was a report based on unnamed sources – typically a cover for government officials who wish to remain anonymous – that Hyon Song Wol, the young woman leader of the North Korean band Moranbong and alleged former mistress of Kim Jong Un, had been killed by machine gun in 2013 at the insistence of Kim’s jealous wife. Said ex-mistress was photographed in December 2015 in Beijing for a scheduled performance – apparently amused by the gossip regarding her disappearance from public view.
Now we have General Ri Yong Gil – reported as having been executed earlier this year – resurfacing at the recent Workers’ Party of Korea Congress. The National Intelligence Service had quite deliberately released information about Ri’s purported execution to the public on the same day the announcement about closing the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) was made back in February.
Just as the Kim dynasty in North Korea takes actions to divert attention from domestic problems, the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) drew attention to the claimed execution as yet another example of North Korean barbarism in order to deflect criticism from its decision to close the KIC and to justify disengagement from the North.
That is no way to run an intelligence service – it simply destroys all credibility. In view of this, one must wonder whether Seoul would have classified the revelation that North Korean general was still alive, had the opportunity presented itself. As it was, the mass of foreign correspondents in Pyongyang that learned of Ri’s “resurrection” most likely prevented such a cover up. But that raises the question, “Are South Korean intelligence officials and government politicians so naïve as to think they could get away with falsely reporting the killing of a prominent person?”
POLITICS AT THE TOP
Recall the three reasons for classifying information discussed earlier. It seems that another way of looking at things is required: Intentionally or unintentionally distorting the facts for release to the general public. Engaging in the former is for personal or political gain while doing the latter is due to the foibles of human nature and the wishful thinking that colors one’s perceptions. Regardless, neither is acceptable in a national intelligence organization.
Consider, for example, the steadfast belief – supported by cherry-picked intelligence – of U.S. President George W. Bush that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Seeking retribution for the 9/11 tragedy in New York City, the putative WMDs of Iraq captured his imagination. In the ensuing Iraq War, nearly 4,500 Americans lost their lives, and most accounts state that more than 150,000 Iraqis were killed. Moreover, Iraq is a now failed state – worse off today than it was before U.S. intervention.
Going back a bit further, recall how the U.S. became ensnared in the Vietnam War. President Lyndon Johnson used a highly suspect Vietnamese patrol boat attack on the USN destroyer Maddox on August 4, 1964 – the Gulf of Tonkin Incident – to justify sending American combat forces into Vietnam. Much later, U.S. officials admitted that the precipitating event never happened. Johnson had been determined that no country (South Vietnam in this case) was going to be lost to communism on his watch. That war cost more than 58,000 Americans lives, and the number of Vietnamese dead (North and South) attributable to U.S. action is, by all accounts, at least one million – and perhaps as many as three million.
FAILURE TO SEE
The consequences of bogus information are too great to be tolerated. But equally perfidious is the lack of foresight in recognizing threats when they appear. Ever since North Korean drones were discovered flying over South Korea, a number of South Korean officials – all of whom ought to have known better – were quite dismissive of the utility of drones in combat operations. In a previous essay, I discussed how even small drones could be used to wreak havoc and cause general panic in South Korean populated areas.
The need to keep citizens in the South aware of the threat posed by the North and therefore constantly on guard is recognized. The Korean War, after all, is only on pause since no peace treaty between the two countries exists, only an armistice. But rather than hype the dangers of another a full-scale invasion by the North being just moments away or incessantly highlight Pyongyang as the most brutal regime ever, Seoul ought to focus on more immediate issues. Drones are only one example; rocketry and missiles on the DMZ are another.
Embarrassed at being caught fabricating intelligence for political gain and wounded by its inability to recognize potential disasters, the NIS has inflicted grievous damage to its own integrity. This unavoidably has an adverse affect on South Korea’s intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan and the U.S. Who is going to trust Seoul’s intelligence now?
The dangers of shoddy intelligence work cannot be overstated because human lives are at stake and critical national interests are at risk. The dissemination of intelligence – if it is to occur at all – needs to be completely forthright. Anything less is a dereliction of duty, for history is always written in blood.
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