Inside the secret world of U.S. intelligence with Stanford scholar Amy Zegart

In her new book, Stanford scholar Amy Zegart examines the evolution of the U.S. intelligence community and how technology is changing how it operates.

Despite a proliferation of spy-themed entertainment, many Americans, including some of the country’s top policymakers, know little about the U.S intelligence community and often get much of it wrong, says Stanford scholar Amy Zegart.

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Stanford scholar Amy Zegart discusses how emerging technologies have had profound changes on U.S. intelligence.

In a new book, Zegart examines what is at risk when intelligence is grossly misunderstood. “Spy-themed entertainment has become adult education and appears to be influencing how Americans think about hot-button intelligence issues,” said Zegart, a senior scholar at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and the Morris Arnold and Nona Jean Cox Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

In Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence (Princeton University Press, 2022), Zegart also traces how American espionage has evolved over the centuries and what’s at stake in its future as technology rapidly changes and transforms all aspects of government and society.

More intelligence about intelligence

For nearly three decades, Zegart has studied the secret world of U.S. intelligence and Americans’ attitudes toward it, including the influence fictional spies have had on everyone from students in her classroom to the upper echelons of government.

Fictional movies and TV shows about U.S. intelligence – known also as “spytainment” – are giving Americans an unrealistic impression about the U.S. intelligence community and the issues they portray, Zegart said. For example, the “do whatever it takes” interrogation methods used by 24’s Jack Bauer – such as waterboarding, a technique that simulates drowning and is considered by many to be a form of torture – don’t work as the show depicts they do. The ticking time bomb scenario that frequently drove the show’s storylines is also not how terror plots unfold, and intelligence officers – like Homeland’s Carrie Mathison – don’t run rogue, without oversight.

Amy Zegart’s new book, Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence, examines the past, present and future of U.S. intelligence. (Image credit: Princeton University Press)

The idea for Spies, Lies, and Algorithms originated when Zegart was teaching the course U.S. Intelligence Agencies in Theory and Practice at UCLA, where she taught before joining the Stanford faculty in 2012.

It was 2009, and public trust in the U.S government had declined to historically low levels. At the time, the U.S. intelligence community was embroiled in controversy. The Iraq War, which Zegart points out in the book “began with faulty intelligence,” was in its sixth year. There were ongoing debates about the National Security Agency’s expansion of its warrantless wiretapping program in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, and the Senate Intelligence Committee was getting ready to investigate the CIA’s detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists in secret prisons across the world.

When Zegart showed up to teach on the first day of her class, she expected protestors outside her classroom and empty seats inside. Instead, it was standing room only, with students eager to learn more about U.S. intelligence, Zegart recalled.

Many had questions about controversial issues they were reading in the news and watching on TV and movies: They wanted to know more about the Iraq WMD intelligence failure, whether CIA black sites violated the law, if the National Security Agency was eavesdropping on their phone calls.

Zegart, in turn, was also curious. She wanted to learn more about her students’ attitudes toward these issues. She surveyed her students and was troubled by some of the patterns that emerged in the data, particularly what appeared to be a connection between television viewing habits and attitudes toward torture. Zegart found that those who watched the TV show 24 – which frequently depicted the use of violence and torture to extract information from terror suspects – were statistically more likely to approve of waterboarding and justify other extreme forms of counterterrorism methods, like rendition, than those who didn’t tune in to spy-themed dramas.

These findings were replicated when Zegart conducted two national surveys in 2012 and 2013 with the polling firm YouGov.

Across all surveys, Zegart saw just how little Americans knew about what the National Security Agency and other agencies in the intelligence community did, despite the deluge of news at the time surrounding the massive leak of classified information from the NSA by the organization’s former employee and contractor, Edward Snowden in 2013.

Over the following years, Zegart has seen a similar lack of understanding among policymakers about how intelligence agencies operate. For example, in 2009 during the confirmation hearings for Leon Panetta to become the next director of the CIA, Zegart noticed members of the Senate Intelligence Committee using 24 plotlines in the questions they posed to the nominee.

And it’s not just students and policymakers who appear to be influenced by spytainment, but military trainees as well. Zegart shares in her book how the dean of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Army Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan, was so concerned about how 24’s depiction of torture was affecting his cadets that he met with the show’s creative team in Los Angeles to ask them to stop producing episodes that portrayed such brutal techniques as being effective. And in what Zegart describes as “a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moment,” when Finnegan showed up to the meeting in his uniform, the crew presumed he was an actor.

Understanding intelligence in a digital age

Zegart’s book also explores how spycraft is evolving. In a digital world, furthering a better understanding of U.S. intelligence is more important than ever before, because technology is transforming who gathers intelligence and how.

Intelligence is no longer shrouded in classified files at Langley; it’s found online in public spaces like Google Earth, where anyone can uncover government secrets hidden in plain sight. For example, thanks to the thousands of satellite images readily available, Stanford scholars – not special agents with security clearances – were able to sleuth out nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.

“Today, anybody with a cellphone and an internet connection can collect or analyze intelligence,” Zegart said. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, the most important intelligence about the annexation didn’t come from classified information, it came from selfies that Russian soldiers posted on social media with Ukrainian highway signs in the background, she pointed out.

“What that means is that superpower governments no longer control the collection and analysis of intelligence like they used to in the Cold War. It’s a totally different enterprise today,” Zegart said.

Meanwhile, technological changes have also led to more people in the American public needing intelligence.

For example, threats to critical infrastructure – like the cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline in 2021 – mean sectors from the financial services industry to public utility companies need intelligence about threats to their systems. And interference by foreign adversaries on elections means more voters need information about how to safeguard elections, said Zegart.

Simultaneously, intelligence agencies themselves have also had to balance the advantages and disadvantages that new technologies, like artificial intelligence, quantum computing and social media, offer in gathering intelligence around the world.

“These tools have incredible potential, but they also have real limits and real risks,” Zegart said. For example, when it comes to detecting nuclear threats from a foreign threat, relying on artificial intelligence to inform analysis is not enough. “Imagine going to the president and saying, ‘Mr. President, we think that China is likely to invade Taiwan, because that’s what the AI tells us.’ It’s not so compelling, right? Analysis isn’t just about data. It’s also an act of persuasion,” Zegart added.

All these changes call for a new mindset about how the intelligence community thinks about classified information, said Zegart.

“We need to fundamentally reimagine what intelligence can do and should do in a digital era, and that starts by realizing that secrets don’t play the role they used to,” Zegart said.

Making intelligence more transparent is a huge shift for intelligence agencies, and while the CIA has made some progress on being more transparent with the public about what it does, it still feels counterintuitive.

“It’s an unnatural act for secret agencies to be public, but it’s really important for the American people to understand what they do,” Zegart said.