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Vaults, Mirrors, and Masks: Rediscovering US Counterintelligence

Vaults, Mirrors, and Masks: Rediscovering US Counterintelligence edited by Jennifer E. Sims and Burton Gerber. Georgetown University Press, 2009, 320 pp.

What better way to learn about the intelligence community and counterintelligence (CI) than from author-editors who have lived a life of it? The credibility of the editors brings about a certain foundational knowledge that one could never gain from just studying the subject in an academic setting. As if Georgetown University (GU) was not enough of a powerhouse school in the national security arena, both editors have extensive national security, intelligence, Capitol Hill, and global operations experience. Specifically, Dr. Jennifer E. Sims is the professor in residence and director of intelligence studies at GU, and Burton Gerber served for 39 years as an operations officer in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and now teaches at GU. This book has credibility on these issues alone.

Most books on intelligence and security come from national-level reporters who write books based upon interviews from other people; reporters write stories from facts in talking to people who have “been there-done that.” What makes Vaults, Mirrors, and Masks different is that Sims and Gerber are those people and have lived it for nearly 40 years. Bringing nearly 80 years of combined experience in a subject makes you the subject matter expert in the room.

Their collection of short essays and writings by credible academics and former senior government executives gives a solid taste on a variety of national security and intelligence subjects. Take-away nuggets were plentiful, as the book is broken into three parts: (1) “Framing the Problem”; (2) “Tools and Tactics”; and (3) “Strategies.”

 The first part informs readers why decision makers want intelligence (good, relevant information to help them win) and provides readers with the definition of counterintelligence, which differs depending who you work for and where. The bottom line is that we want information to be better informed so that our decision makers can make the best decision possible at that time. Learning about counterintelligence enables readers to  fully understand that others want what you have, and using the tools of counterintelligence keeps others at bay; “security systems, deception and disguise: vaults, mirrors, and masks” is what we use to gain these advantages.

Dr. Sims dives into the history of CI first, making sure that the reader is aware of where we came from so that we can go forward. Most interesting to a student of history is how history always repeats itself; Sims discusses from the get-go legal issues, implications for strategy, and the theories of CI. Not just the CI involved in terrorism but adversarial CI that touches any modern headlines.  She writes about “China topping the list of those trawling for intelligence on the United States” and how “defense-related technologies have been a particularly attractive target . . . the threat from China seemed perhaps the fastest growing,” These have all been very popular and repetitive topics in the news. The espionage threats, which have been around for centuries, are not going away anytime soon.

Other items from Sims and Gerber range from issues related to preserving civil liberties in an era of CI, using the web as a surveillance tool, to disrupting foreign CI. These issues, along with the other essays provided by leading national security experts, offer suggestions for the intelligence community to consider as a future path. As an example, the second section speaks of specific issues related to human intelligence with regards to the CIA and the military changing over time because of technology. A most impressive argument was by former Marine officer Vincent H. Bridgeman in dissecting DOD human intelligence practices, with the summary that it is not a pretty one. Other items to note connect the strong collaboration and relationship between law enforcement’s role in CI and how the interagency views and executes in the CI world.

This book also spotlights perhaps the weakest points in the US force—our footprint in business counterintelligence and cyberspace arenas— filling in many gaps where open press coverage lapses. One look during an April 2009 Wall Street Journal article shares with us similar items with reference to the cyber-theft of sensitive information in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. During the same month, employees from Hilton Hotels were accused of corporate espionage in taking trade secrets from Starwood Hotels to establish a new, competitive hotel chain. The vulnerability of our US systems has never been greater, and the knowledge in this book that a foreign government does not need to send human intelligence out to US soil—they would only need to log on to create damage. Sims and Gerber write that “modern adversaries can conduct attacks orchestrated from afar . . . minimize their presence . . . and manipulate their opponents’ perceptions.” This standoff capability is the ultimate upper hand. After reading this section, readers will want to run home and ensure their firewall is turned on at the home computer.

The final section, “Strategies,” delves into such CI subjects as domestic intelligence, private-sector items, and the way ahead. Playing Monday morning quarterback with regards to the 2004 reorganization of the intelligence community is not where their comments dig to be harmful, but Sims and Gerber acknowledge that “the government’s intelligence apparatus is just one state of the ongoing process of intelligence reform.” Their opinion is spot-on in that “much more needs to be done” and that the United States should continue to “take a hard look at ourselves to measure the result against a theoretical standard derived from historical practice.” We can and will improve our thoughts and actions regarding CI in the United States, and this book aids the reader in developing thoughts in how to defeat the enemy. Writing and discussing CI brings forward the ideas of being both offensive and defensive by taking nothing for granted. It is easy to loose sight of the target when you are fixated on too many things. Just when you let your guard down, the scorpion will sting you.

In summary, the title of this book is most appropriate. Much like a magician, things are not always as they seem. History is full of smoke and mirror deception, and modern-day stories, ranging from the street shell games in New York City to Ponzi schemes, prove this point. It makes one wonder if what you are reading or looking at is real. Is it? If you are looking for an authentic read from folks who have breathed intelligence for a career, you will want this book in your professional collection.

 Maj Larry Colby, USAFR

National Capitol Region

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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