Book Review: Spies, Lies and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence

Spies, Lies and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence by Amy B. Zegart

American intelligence is not an easy world for an outsider to understand. For starters, there are 18 different agencies or departments of the US federal government which conduct intelligence. This includes every branch of the military, the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, the DEA and more. All these different organizations have different objectives and skill sets. They are nominally organized under the office of the Director of National Intelligence. Collectively they are referred to as the Intelligence Community. 

In Spies, Lies and Algorithms author and academic Amy Zegart provides an overview of American intelligence. Her book is a guide to understanding what intelligence is. It delves into the various agencies that engage in it, and the types of intelligence they gather. It discusses the challenges to effective intelligence, counterintelligence, and the growing relevance and importance of cyber intelligence. 

Ziegart is a Stanford professor and Senior Fellow at both the Hoover Institution and Stanford’s Institute for International Studies. She is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, and has at times been a consultant to US intelligence agencies. She has long been interested in, and studied US intelligence. She is the author / editor of two previous books on intelligence. She is well positioned to write this primer.

Zegart starts out by clarifying that intelligence work is not James Bond or Jason Bourne.  Intelligence is information gathering and analysis of that information. Later in the book she covers the rise of covert operations within intelligence agencies. Covert operations differ from intelligence. Intelligence produces analysis for policy makers to take action. Covert ops are secret actions taken to advance US interests while giving deniability to the government. Both intelligence and covert operations have had successes and often failures. (Think 9/11 and Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, among others). The author delves into the history of failures and also the “seven deadly biases” that can contribute to them.

There is quite a bit of history throughout the book, but the main focus is on explaining the world of intelligence. The chapter on congressional oversight is a good example. While historical context is given, the emphasis is on explaining what good oversight is and is not. 

Finally Zegart turns her attention to the future of intelligence and the growing importance of cyber warfare. This section delves into both the history of cyber threats and the need for better cyber actions on the part of the US government. The picture she paints here is not pretty. 

Cyber is a fast changing world, and the understanding of cyber threats is rapidly evolving. In Zegart’s telling the Intelligence Community has so far been behind the curve in anticipating and countering these threats. 

Coupled with cyber threats is the rise of OSINT, or Open Source Intelligence. Today, anyone with an internet connection can take part in information gathering and analysis. Many private citizens and groups are.  The ideas and perceptions they bring to light can draw the Intelligence Community’s attention and focus away from their work. Many of those ideas and perceptions have proven to be misinterpretations of the available information. Others may prove to be extremely valuable (see this article on TikTok in the current Ukraine crisis).

The gap between Silicon Valley and the intelligence agencies is another challenge. Effective cyber intelligence will rely on a solid working relationship between the two. What can and will be done to bridge that gap is still to be determined. 

Spies, Lies and Algorithms is an excellent guidebook to US Intelligence. It’s well worth a read by anyone interested in a better understanding of Intelligence. Four stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐.

Steve's Book Stuff participates in affiliate programs for the booksellers asterisked below.  Purchases you make through an affiliate link will return a small commission to me, at no additional cost to you. Thanks for your support, it helps me buy books to read and review!

Borrow or Purchase Spies, Lies and Algorithms here:

📙  Borrow this book: Find out if your library has the ebook or audiobook available through OverDrive or Libby.

📘 Buy this book: Amazon* | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-Million* | AbeBooks* | Powell’s | ThriftBooks 

📗 Support Indie Bookstores: Buy this book directly from* or find an Independent Bookstore near you*

📚 Visit my shop to see all my reviewed books. 

Title: Spies, Lies and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence
Author: Amy B. Zegart
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publish Date: February 1, 2022
ISBN-13: 9780691147130
Publisher’s List Price: $29.95 (Hardcover as of 02/2022)

Note: I listened to the Audiobook version:
Audiobook Publisher: Highbridge Audio
Publish Date: February 1, 2022
ISBN-13: 9781696606714
Publisher’s List Price: No Listed Price (as of 02/2022)