In an Age of Intercepts, the C.I.A. Makes the Case for Spies


Intelligence-gathering today relies on electronic eavesdropping on calls and text messages as well as high-resolution satellite images. But in its new podcast, the C.I.A. argues that even in the age of artificial intelligence and ubiquitous intercepts, human sources are more important than ever.

Only with a human source can intelligence officers make proper sense of intercepts and understand the context of an overheard conversation, the C.I.A.’s espionage chief, Tom Sylvester, says in the podcast, which the agency released on Wednesday.

The deputy director for operations, the formal title of the person in charge of espionage, often remains — at least partly — in the shadows. So Mr. Sylvester’s appearance on the podcast is unusual. Keeping in character, the hosts refer to him on the show only as Tom.

Mr. Sylvester took charge last summer, replacing David Marlowe, who was given the job at the beginning of the Biden administration but recently retired.

The agency does not regularly allow its senior officials to be interviewed by journalists. And so the podcast, which offers about a half dozen episodes a season, offers a kind of unique — if controlled — look at a key part of the C.I.A.’s operations.

In recent months, the C.I.A. has been unusually open for a secretive spy agency about its recruiting efforts and the importance of its work. The push comes as the public has grown more familiar with the power of satellite imagery and intercepted communications to give the White House and the Pentagon unique insight into what Russia, China and other adversaries are up to.

The C.I.A. has used its in-house podcasts, called “The Langley Files,” to interview the director, William J. Burns, and reveal secrets of past operations. The new episode goes directly to the issue at the heart of the C.I.A.’s mission: the importance of recruiting foreign spies.

The proliferation of cyberintelligence along with expanded satellite imagery, Mr. Sylvester said, has prompted questions about whether human sources are still important. But he argued that analytic assessments of intelligence based on intercepts alone are weaker than if human assets help the C.I.A. understand the “plans and intentions” of adversarial powers.

After one of the C.I.A.’s hosts, Dee Watson, asked if human sources are still important, the other, Walter Trosin, asked if “with all the technological advances of the 21st century, essentially there are still some secrets that exist only in people’s minds.”

Mr. Sylvester responded that some of the most important secrets the agency goes after “lie in plans and intentions, the mood, the context with which someone is making a decision.” Reading a transcript without a spy to describe that context can lead to confusion, he said.

“If you have 10 different people listening to the same conversation, they’re going to come to 10 different analytic assessments on what happened versus if you actually talk to somebody who was in a room,” Mr. Sylvester said.

Meeting and developing spies is more difficult than ever for the C.I.A.’s network of case officers stationed around the world, he said. Surveillance cameras powered by artificial intelligence that can quickly do facial recognition now allow adversarial countries to keep track of C.I.A. officers.

But the crackdown on dissent by dictatorships has also given the agency new opportunities.

In the interview, the deputy director said that people who are frustrated with the direction of their country offer to provide information.

“They believe they’re doing something above and greater than themselves, and that they are willing to provide us the information that is so crucial in helping policymakers make the right decisions in the world,” Mr. Sylvester said.

Former intelligence officers say ideology may well be the most important motivator for the best spies. But some sources give secrets for financial rewards; others because they are angry about how corruption has affected their country and their careers, causing them to be passed over for promotion.

Current and former officials argue that corruption in modern Russia, the government’s crackdown on dissent and anger over the invasion of Ukraine has created opportunities for the C.I.A. to recruit new sources.

Over the past nine months, the agency has released a series of Russian-language videos on YouTube and Telegram, making an appeal to Russian officials frustrated with the rule of President Vladimir V. Putin to securely provide information to the agency through secure channels on the dark web.

“The tyranny of autocrats to be able to control everything is placed at such that we need to be creative and we need to be very deliberate in creating the opportunities for people to volunteer for us,” Mr. Sylvester said.

The videos, officials say, have helped the agency grow its network of spies and its human intelligence collection. In the podcast, the deputy said the videos had reached disaffected Russians who were depressed about the direction of their country and wondering what they could do about it.

“That brutal invasion of Ukraine and the hundreds of thousands of casualties have horrified many of the individuals in Russia with whom we wish to be in contact,” Mr. Sylvester said.

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