In 2003, the CIA abducted Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr off the streets of Milan. He was suspected of recruiting foreign jihadist fighters and then facilitating their way to Iraq. With Hassan shipped off to Egypt for interrogation, the operation at first appeared to be a success. What happened over the following months and years demonstrated how technology may be the undoing, if not the end, of covert operations.

Twenty-three CIA officers were convicted, in absentia, by the Italian courts of kidnapping Nasr. The operation’s CIA involvement was brought to light when the Italian government traced the activity of cell phones belonging to CIA personnel, ironically using a version of Analyst Notebook, which America had provided to the Italian government as part of a post-9/11 counterterrorism package. Using this software, they found the metadata from the CIA operatives’ cell phones showed that they were at the location of Hassan’s kidnapping at the same time he went missing.

Since the Edward Snowden affair, metadata has become a household word, as has awareness of how powerful this data can be in the wrong hands. When you consider the proliferation of biometric scanners in airports and even on city streets, the difficulties involved in inserting clandestine operatives for covert operations become even more profound. Conducting long-term analysis of big data may be the final blow to the traditional tradecraft we are all familiar with from spy novels and movies.

Cover-identity documents, disguises, and counter-surveillance routes may very well go the way of the dodo, but will this leave America’s intelligence professionals dead in the water without a purpose in life? Or will technology itself facilitate the birth of a new form of intelligence gathering?

Traditional tradecraft

In the military, we often refer to the trade secrets we use to conduct operations as ‘tactics, techniques, and procedures.’ Spies use the term ‘sources and methods.’ The ‘methods’ category primarily refers to tradecraft. While supposedly a deeply held secret, many methods of clandestine tradecraft are widely known and featured in films, books, and television shows. Take for example the counter-surveillance route that a spy walks to try to identify enemy counterintelligence agents following him around. Consider the ‘dead drop,’ in which a secret message is hidden away somewhere for the spy’s handler to pick up later that day. Of course, tradecraft gets much more sophisticated than this, but these are examples of basic methods spies use to slip below the radar and go unnoticed.

Former Mossad officer Michael Ross comments on the subject that, “Traditional tradecraft will never be obsolete. Spies will still need to learn cover, detect surveillance, cross borders, recruit sources, conduct clandestine meetings, communicate covertly, engage in direct-action operations and all the myriad of activities that have been relevant to the profession for centuries.”

The spies who use tradecraft are usually those engaged in HUMINT, or human intelligence. That is, the art and science of recruiting sources who have access and placement that allows them to gather information the spy wishes to obtain. HUMINT is considered by many to be the bread and butter of intelligence gathering, although it has given way over the years to SIGINT, or signals intelligence, which eliminates the human factor and gives wrist-wringing bureaucrats more quantifiable metrics.

Human beings are messy and unpredictable, but technology gives us something to measure, which in turn gives policymakers a false sense of security. Of course, SIGINT is only as good as the human beings who interpret it. As a member of the Special Operations Task Force in Iraq, this author recalls numerous examples where Rangers and Special Forces teams were ordered to conduct direct-action raids on the same targets multiple times because someone in the operations center was convinced a terrorist was living there based on SIGINT. Of course, every soldier on the ground knew it wasn’t true as we hit the same target night after night.