Early appraisals of the foreign policy implications of the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol Building have tended to argue that it gravely tarnished the example of U.S. democracy, leaving our adversaries stronger and emboldened. I would like to offer a dissenting perspective and an assessment of its significance for the intelligence struggle now underway between the United States and its autocratic foes, particularly regarding human intelligence (HUMINT).
Make no mistake, our Capitol’s defilement by a mob bent on using intimidation to overturn the results of a presidential election was a national shame that demonstrated that our democratic garden badly needs tending. But the assault was not the only thing that happened that day. Immediately afterward, Congress resolutely resumed its task of validating a decision by American voters to turn out a sitting president. As citizens, we tend to fixate on the ignominious elements of our society, but most assuredly many abroad, who every day suffocate under truly oppressive and self-perpetuating regimes, are savvy enough to filter through the sturm und drang to note the deeper lesson: Despite more wobble than we would have liked, U.S. democracy and its institutions prevailed over a leader intent on manipulating and intimidating them to remain in office.
Our system was tested by this failed quasi-autogolpe. We passed, but the mere fact of its occurrence hopefully awakened us to the need to constantly work on our democracy’s imperfections. We who have enjoyed its fruits for so long too easily take for granted how rare it is in this world. Smug expressions of mirth by representatives of autocratic regimes are disquieting, but their malice flows from a recognition of their own vulnerability to the yearnings of their people to decide their own affairs and live free from tyranny.
So, how does this relate to intelligence, to HUMINT? An intelligence service’s ability to win over human sources is a function of its ability to understand and harness human motivations. Traditional doctrine tends to center on baser, negative drives, like money, ego, coercion, or revenge, which every intelligence service leverages to some degree. The key competitive advantage of the United States, as the leader of the free world, however, has been its superior ability to appeal to more altruistic human impulses.
Framed differently, for those who live their lives under the thumbs of genuine autocrats, where political opponents are routinely jailed, tortured, and killed; ordinary political expression stifled and punished; whole populations interned; democratic trappings–if they exist at all—are curated to achieve pre-ordained outcomes; and corruption permeates all levels of society, the example of our tumultuous and sometimes ugly democracy retains its allure as a viable alternative path, even after recent events. Arguably even more so.
A legendary former CIA officer, Paul Redmond, often asserts that it is an actuarial certainty that the U.S. government is penetrated by hostile foreign agents. While sad experience over the years supports his calculus, I also believe it an actuarial certainty that deep within the repressive regimes that secretly work to undermine us there are those who know exactly how this is being done, but are revolted by it and the odiousness of their systems. They believe their own people deserve better, and they possess the fortitude to act decisively by partnering with us to serve the higher causes of popular government and the rule of law. These individuals can expose the dark secrets that perpetuate their repressive systems and threaten our own if sensitively and professionally presented this alternative.
We accept that geopolitical rivals spy on one another, but aggressive interference in our domestic political affairs by covertly meddling in our elections and pouring gasoline on our smoldering societal divisions is a different matter. In doing this, U.S. adversaries sow dragon’s teeth, because their obsessive control at home inevitably results in the steady accumulation of pent-up pressures caused by the obstruction of their citizens’ natural yearnings for freedom and justice. A centerpiece of the U.S. intelligence response should thus be to intensify efforts to find and make common cause with those within these regimes who aspire to a better future. The growing pervasiveness of technology in modern life makes this a challenge to do safely, but that is a tradecraft problem that American ingenuity can surely address. The key point is that our special advantage in the HUMINT domain lies in our ability to attract not those who are flawed, depraved, or naïve, but those who are strong and principled. Despite our democracy’s recent struggles, and perhaps even enhanced by them, this soft-power spinoff advantage is as true now as ever.