Historian Mark Stout – Feb 10,2012
Intelligence is a field that usually builds on itself. Old tools and techniques stay useful for years, even centuries. Spies figured in the oldest battle about which we have detailed tactical information, the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE, and they are still key sources today. Intelligence personnel have been tapping cables for more than 150 years now and they aren’t likely to stop anytime soon. True, intelligence techniques often undergo some updating but they usually remain recognizable. Codes and ciphers have grown more sophisticated over the years, for instance. Similarly, cameras were carried aloft on balloons and birds then later on airplanes and finally satellites.
Seldom, however, does the intelligence business completely abandon a technique. I was pondering this the other day while talking with a colleague about the earliest days of the intelligence business. She mentioned that the science of prediction had its roots in ancient Greece with Aristotle. This caused me to suddenly recall divination. In the ancient world emperors and generals had specialists who would read the entrails of chickens, cast bones, or observe the flights of birds to determine the likely outcome of an impending battle or important political move. On military campaigns a Roman general would often bring sacred chickens under the care of special chicken handlers. When the general wanted to know if the move he proposed to undertake would meet with success, the chicken handler would open the chicken cage and throw grain in front of the birds. If the birds gobbled it up, this was a good sign. If they didn’t, the general should rethink his plan. One Roman general, eager for combat in the First Punic War was so frustrated when the chickens wouldn’t eat, that he grabbed them and threw them into the sea saying “Well then, let them drink.”
Today we look on such practices as magical mumbo-jumbo but weren’t they also an intelligence function? I’m not the first person to have this realization, of course. In fact, the legendary Allen Dulles describes such practices as “the earliest sources of intelligence” in his classic book The Craft of Intelligence. For a more scholarly approach, you might look at Intelligence Activities in Ancient Rome: Trust in the Gods, But Verify by Professor Rose Mary Sheldon of the Virginia Military Institute, the leading expert on intelligence in the ancient world.
This line of thought encouraged me to think of other intelligence techniques that have been completely abandoned. I came up with only one: for many years the US Intelligence Community employed psychics for their purported clairvoyant abilities. The CIA has declassified its records on their part in this, something called STAR GATE. As far as we know publicly, such efforts were abandoned in the mid-1990s. (For what it’s worth, I worked in the Intelligence Community from 1990 to 2003 and I heard, early on, a hint of the existence of such a program, but as far as I know, I never saw any of its products. I would have instantly rejected a piece of reporting that came across my desk if I’d heard that it came from psychics.) It has been widely reported that the KGB explored the use of psychics for many years, but I haven’t heard anything to suggest that the Russians have continued down this road.
Are there other abandoned intelligence techniques that I’m not able to think of? Let me know if you’ve got any in mind that I’ve left out.