Britain’s MI6 makes headlines these days when caught buying secondhand Russian military intelligence from German agents freelancing on the side -- and that's when they’re not being shown on Russian TV attempting to recruit “assets” in Moscow. The French, in turn, were caught some years ago rifling through the luggage of visiting U.S. corporate executives and bugging their seats on Air France. But they had their turn to crow when they caught a CIA Mata Hari in a clumsy attempt to gather intelligence by seducing a French trade official.
The impression of post-Cold War decline in the intelligence industry may be deceptive, says TIME correspondent Doug Waller. Where the world’s intelligence services were once the cloak-and-dagger sharp edge of geopolitical conflict, today most are conscripted primarily in the service of their countries’ commercial ambitions. “The nature of the game has changed,” says Waller. “The priority today is economic intelligence, and the most important information -- as it did in the Cold War -- comes from spy satellites and signal intercepts. That’s where most of the agency’s $28 billion budget is spent.”
The U.S. intelligence network is still widely regarded as the world’s best, says Waller. So the fact that we’re reading in the New York Times about a covert operation against Saddam Hussein is probably reflective of the fact that someone in high places saw the plan as so much of a dinosaur that they decided to kill it in the media.
As for the French, who reoriented their efforts toward industrial espionage during this decade, very little has been heard since the seat-bugging incident. And in an era of highly publicized bungles, that may be a disquieting indicator of excellence.