When espionage scholar Col. Rose Mary Sheldon reads the Torah, she sees it not only as a holy document, but also as the first spy saga ever written.
"Take a familiar story like Noah and the flood: What animal does Noah send out to find out if there's land?" Sheldon posed last week to about 60 people at Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne. "A dove – first documented case of aerial intelligence."
Sheldon – an officer with the Virginia Militia, which functions as a reserve to the state's National Guard, and head of the Virginia Military Institute history department – noted at the event that the Torah is loaded with stories of reconnaissance missions, military conquests and intelligence gathering.
"Moses, before he even enters the land of milk and honey, sent 12 spies out to do reconnaissance to find out how best to conquer the land," Sheldon told the audience of Hebrew-schoolers and the synagogue's Israel Committee. "This is a fairly standard list of requirements. It includes economic and agricultural possibilities of the land, military intelligence about troop strength and fortification."
Sheldon's talk was not limited to Torah, though. She spoke at length about the current state of U.S. military intelligence, a timely topic considering the debate under way in Washington over the proper role of spies employed by the Pentagon versus those of the CIA.
"When America cut back on sending people to study foreign languages in the '70s, '80s and '90s, it was a really stupid idea," said Sheldon, who earned a Ph.D. in ancient history and Roman provincial archaeology from the University of Michigan. "Now, we have people studying Arabic and Farsi. We should have been doing that 25 years ago."
When asked how present-day counterintelligence differs from that of the Cold War era, Sheldon lamented the fact that back then, the United States had just one target – the Soviet Union – but that today, with stateless terror groups and a handful of terrorist-sponsoring nations, intelligence officers have to concentrate on many parts of the globe at the same time.
"The best we can do for counterintelligence [now] is to track where their money comes from," she said of such groups. "It's very hard for us with big intelligence organizations and intelligence staffs to infiltrate small groups."
She also stressed the difficulty in turning members of terrorist groups into informants to spy against their own.
"In the old days, you could get people to spy for two things: ideology and money. Al Qaeda – they've got money with Osama bin Laden, and they have all the ideology they need," she said.
Turning to the U.S. military presence in Iraq, Sheldon pointed to the Roman empire's botched occupation of Mesopotamia in 116 A.D. for some parallels to the current war in the Middle East.
"[The Romans] come rolling into Mesopotamia, they disperse the army, they win everything, they get to Babylon and, as soon as they're taking R&R, the entire country blows up in insurgency," said Sheldon, who has spoken about this subject on National Public Radio's "With Good Reason" program. Insurgents "don't have to kill every one of you – they just have to make it so expensive that you want to get up and go home."
After the talk, she elaborated on the similarities between the two campaigns.
"The Parthian king – when he knew the Romans were coming down – told his troops, 'Drop your weapons, get out of your uniform, get into the hills and let them pass through. When they come back, we'll stab them in the back,' " said the colonel, adding, "that's probably the last thing Saddam Hussein told the Republican Guard."