2012 was a strange year for spy agencies. Between the government's secret drone program, David Petraeus's sex scandal, and a new Mao-suited, Disney-loving, nuclear saber-rattling North Korean dictator, intelligence news often seemed like it was right out of a Hollywood script. Meanwhile, film glitterati were busy insisting that "Argo" and "Zero Dark Thirty" hewed to historical reality. Except for those made-up parts -- like Argo's dramatic escape from Iran (not so dramatic in real life) and ZD30's misleading torture scenes suggesting the CIA's harshest interrogation methods led straight to bin Laden when they didn't. (I guess when director Kathryn Bigelow boasted that, "What we were attempting is almost a journalistic approach to film," she had a very creative view of journalism or a very heavy reliance on the word "almost").
Below I've listed my picks for the top five most important intelligence stories of the year. I am also giving honorable mention to the most important national security speech that you probably didn't hear or read but should.
1. Cyber fail. Despite an ominous warning from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta
that the United States faces a "cyber Pearl Harbor," Congress failed to pass
cyber security legislation protecting America's critical infrastructure. As
Senators Susan Collins and Joseph Lieberman wrote in a December New York Times op-ed, a cyber attack "is not a matter
of if, but when." Digital networks, from banks to dams to electrical grids to
defense contractors and Internet behemoths like Google, are being hacked daily by
a rogue's gallery of bad actors -- including individuals, criminal gangs, and
nations like Russia, China, and possibly Iran. Roughly 80 percent of America's
critical infrastructure is privately owned and still frighteningly vulnerable.
Why? Because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business leaders lobbied
aggressively against even the watered down, voluntary cyber security measures proposed
in the Collins/Lieberman bill.
2. Year of the drones. You know something has gone global when Libyan rebels can order one off the Internet and kids can make their own out of Legos. It seemed like every week this year, a drone strike was taking out al Qaeda's #3. Two key longer-term trends also emerged in 2012. The first was the Pentagon's massive expansion of drone bases around the world. The second was the Obama administration's halting first steps toward codifying its targeted killing policy. Together, both trends suggest that drones have moved from an interim band-aid fix to a permanent fixture in the U.S. national security arsenal. Refining the legal and policy architecture for lethal drone strikes (when, where, and how should the CIA vs. the military be in charge?) will be a major issue in the year ahead. So too will debates about domestic drone uses and international norms for targeted killing as the proliferation of drone technology accelerates.
3. Torture debate redux: Just when you thought those Abu Ghraib photos and waterboarding discussions were history, "Zero Dark Thirty" and a much lesser known, 6,000-page classified Senate report have reignited the torture debate. Most interrogation experts have long argued that torture does not work. And while social scientists cannot conduct torture experiments in a lab, related research on sleep deprivation finds that subjects are less able to think clearly and divulge accurate information even if they want to when denied sleep. Yet polling shows that Americans are decidedly more pro-torture now than they were in the Bush administration. Spy-themed entertainment appears to be the reason why. My August 2012 national poll (which surveyed a representative sample of 1,000 Americans) found that spy TV show and movie watchers are significantly more likely to approve of assassinating terrorists, waterboarding them, chaining them naked in uncomfortable positions, and transferring them to countries known to use torture than people who haven't watched fictional spies vowing to do "whatever it takes."