This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: Critical Challenges 2002: Technology Takes On
In 1985, when espionage was a civilized if aggressive game played by the West and the Soviet Bloc, the death of William Francis Buckley was a nasty reminder of how brutal the business could be. Buckley, chief of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's bureau in Beirut, Lebanon, was abducted by Islamic Shiite fundamentalists on 16 March 1984. He was tortured intermittently for the next 15 months before dying after a torture session at age 57. Six years later, his skull and some bones were found in a plastic sack beside a road near the Beirut airport.
Such ruthlessness was unusual among the Cold War's bureaucratic spooks. "The worst that would happen..., if you were an American with diplomatic immunity caught spying in Moscow, was that you'd be held for a few hours and then reluctantly let go and declared persona non grata," R. James Woolsey, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in Langley, Va., told IEEE Spectrum. In those days, there were rules and even a grudging respect for the enemy when the game was played well. The stakes were often so esoteric--missile throw weights, nuclear megatonnage, or machinations in Guatemala or Angola--that the only spectators were the practitioners themselves. A manual for a new U.S. reconnaissance satellite falling into Soviet hands counted as a traumatic intelligence failure.
Ah, the good old days. Now, an intelligence lapse can mean thousands of civilians dead, hundreds of billions of dollars in economic losses, babies stricken with potentially fatal diseases, and video images of unspeakable horror ricocheting around the globe. Rarely has intelligence been so vital to U.S., Russian, and European national security, and never before has the intelligence challenge been viewed so grimly.
As the wreckage from the terrorist attacks of 11 September smoldered, cries of "intelligence failure" sounded in the U.S. Congress and were duly amplified in print and broadcast media. Unquestionably, the catastrophe revealed dire weaknesses and equally dire obstacles to their correction. The world's sprawling intelligence agencies had evolved over decades to counter the Cold War's relatively stable and arcane threats. The question now is, can these agencies adapt fast enough to a foe that is far more fanatical and decentralized, whose culture is incomprehensible to most outsiders, and whose action plan boils down to murdering as many Westerners as possible? Although many intelligence services are affected, the heaviest burden will fall on the sprawling U.S. espionage apparatus, the largest and best equipped.
Of course, modern terrorism encompasses other entities besides the shifting array of international radical Islamic groups. But of all militants, these last have demonstrated the most determination and success in killing Westerners and destroying Western property. Therefore, U.S. and allied intelligence officials--and even their former Cold War adversaries--are now focusing their resources on these groups. Of special interest is al Qaeda, the radical organization believed to be behind the 11 September and earlier attacks and with whom the Saudi-born multimillionaire Osama bin Laden is identified.
As U.S., European, and Russian intelligence begin adapting themselves to al Qaeda and its kind, the demise of William Buckley--by some accounts the CIA's top expert on terrorism--prefigures the rough going ahead. Whereas espionage once had some rules, "That's simply not true in a war against a bin Laden or a Saddam Hussein," Woolsey affirmed, adding "I compare them to Torquemada," the 15th century leader of the Spanish Inquisition. "There are no rules."