In the 1980s, when I lived in northeastern China, I used to visit a famous old railway bridge that spanned the Yalu River between the Chinese city of Dandong and Sinuiju, a town in North Korea.
The “Broken Bridge” is a visual reminder not only of American aggression but of an epic U.S. intelligence failure: U.S. intelligence officials were certain that China would never enter the war. But they were wrong.
Chinese soldiers had crossed the river and taken up positions in Korea awaiting U.S.-led forces. When the fighting started, American planes bombed the railway bridge to prevent China from sending reinforcements. But they were wrong about that, too. Chinese soldiers didn’t really need the bridge — they just walked across the frozen river.
In her new book, “Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence,” Stanford professor and intelligence expert Amy B. Zegart provides not just a sweeping history of the U.S. intelligence community but also nuggets that help place events in a new context.
What unfolded at the Yalu River in the 1950s, Zegart explains, was a prime example of intelligence analysis gone awry. CIA and military intelligence had concluded that China had no appetite for a war with the Americans, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur was so convinced of the fact that he told President Harry S. Truman that American troops would be home by Christmas.
“Chinese soldiers had been hiding undetected for a month,” Zegart writes. “The effect was devastating. Within weeks, UN forces lost thousands of men, two hundred miles of territory, and the advantage in the Korean War.”
Zegart contends that MacArthur had fallen prey to a common set of afflictions. “He allowed optimism to cloud his assessment of the facts, dismissed evidence that contradicted his prior beliefs, and built a team around him that discouraged dissent,” she writes. “The most important lesson from Korea isn’t that MacArthur failed in unique ways. It’s that he failed in ordinary ones. The cognitive filters that all humans use to process information can lead even the most determined leaders in the most important moments to fail.”
This lack of perspective can lead to misperceptions and deadly miscalculations.
President Vladimir Putin’s current foray into Ukraine feels like a modern-day reprise of MacArthur’s failed campaign. Putin thought Russian troops would roll into Ukraine without resistance, quickly install a pro-Moscow government and bring Kyiv to heel. “They thought it would be an easy walk,” Maria Zolkina, a Ukrainian political analyst, told me for a recent episode of the “Click Here” podcast, “and they will capture Kyiv and major cities, and that they will be met with the flowers by Ukrainians. … [Instead,] they are fighting like lions.”
Zegart reveals that the inspiration for the book came from one of her undergraduate courses. Her students seemed woefully ill-informed about how the intelligence community worked, and what little they did know came from Jason Bourne movies and from television, something she terms “spytainment.” (Federal prosecutors will tell you that they have the same problem, thanks to the CSI series. Juries want cases to end as tidily as they do in the hour-long show.)
Zegart’s goal was to remedy this. But as she was working on the book, the world changed. Technology changed. Open-source information — and data more generally — provided adversaries with a new array of exquisite tools, and the intelligence community was forced to adapt. It could no longer focus on geopolitics and human sources; now it had to understand evolving technology by private companies and social media platforms.
Zegart makes plain that in this new age, enemy states and terrorist groups have upped their game. They are now “hacking both machines and minds,” while “artificial intelligence is creating deepfake videos, audio, and photographs so real, their inauthenticity may be impossible to detect. No set of threats has changed so fast and demanded so much from intelligence.”
Essentially, Zegart maintains, the very essence of deception has morphed. During the Cold War, Chinese troops turned their coats inside out so they wouldn’t be spotted in the snowy hills near the Yalu River, and the Soviets launched “active measures” or rumor campaigns aimed at sowing doubt. Today’s high-tech information operations make those earlier efforts seem a trifle quaint.
“Now Russian disinformation is designed to flood the zone, reaching millions within hours across every format (text, video, audio, photos) and information channel imaginable — social media, Internet websites, satellite television, and traditional radio and television,” Zegart laments. “The aim is to overwhelm, divide, and breed distrust in information itself, undermining the democratic discourse.” We are approaching the era of truth decay.
Case in point: a set of protests in Texas in 2016. On one side of the street, a group called Heart of Texas was there to stop the “Islamization” of the Lone Star State. They wore “White lives matter” T-shirts and unfurled Confederate flags. On the other side were the United Muslims of America, waving “No Hate” placards. What none of the protesters knew was that the entire scene had been instigated by the Kremlin and a group called the Internet Research Agency.
“Inside nondescript offices in St. Petersburg, Russia, hundreds of trolls masqueraded as Americans in around-the-clock shifts — tweeting, liking, friending, and sharing in English to attract American followers,” Zegart records. The Russian campaign was all about creating Facebook groups meant to antagonize one another.
Ukraine has become the latest test bed for misinformation. Russia allegedly had plans to film a fabricated attack by the Ukrainian military either on Russian territory or against Russian-speaking people in the Donbas region. The film was going to be used as a pretext for invasion — it would purportedly be proof positive that Ukraine was committing genocide.
We know about it because the Biden administration decided to openly release the intelligence it had gathered on the operation, essentially defanging the effort in advance. We have yet to see proof that it even existed, but if it was part of a Russian disinformation campaign, telling everyone about it meant that the truth about the ploy was released before the lie had time to get its boots on (a reversal of the old adage — a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its socks on).
“Spies, Lies, and Algorithms” is a perfect primer for anyone trying to understand how the intelligence community is meeting the challenges of the digital age. The intelligence community must find its place in a world where much of the best intelligence may no longer be secret or controlled by the government. In fact, revealing what the community knows may be as important as what it doesn’t know. In a world where misconceptions or misunderstandings may lead to catastrophic failures, truth once again is a powerful weapon. It remains to be seen where and when Putin will meet his “Broken Bridge” of intelligence failures.
Dina Temple-Raston, a former investigations and national security correspondent at NPR, is a senior investigations correspondent at the Record, a cyber and intelligence news service, and host of the “Click Here” podcast. She is the author of four books, including “A Death in Texas: A Story of Race, Murder, and a Small Town’s Struggle for Redemption.”
Spies, Lies, and Algorithms
The History and Future of American Intelligence
By Amy B. Zegart
Princeton. 405 pp. $29.95