Introductory note: My colleague, Jim Breckenridge, and I are spending the summer thinking and writing about intelligence. For us this means intelligence in the national security arena, of course, but it also means intelligence in law enforcement, business and countless other areas where we see intelligence or intelligence-like activities. I hope to post some of Jim's thoughts later this summer, but I decided to start with one of my favorite topics, "What Is Intelligence?" I find the answer to this question -- which I intend to lay out in a multi-part series -- to be particularly interesting.
Two other quick notes. First, this is yet another example of what I like to call "experimental scholarship" -- using blogs or other new technologies to publish and solicit peer input for what would normally be considered "scholarly" works (For earlier examples see my series of posts on using wikis to do intel analysis, word usage in recent NIEs and re-defining words of estimative probability). Second, those of you familiar with my earlier work might note the eerie resemblance of parts of this series of posts to my 2006 paper, with Mike Beerbower, titled "Towards a New Definition of Intelligence" in the Stanford Law and Policy Review. Full credit goes to Mike for his contribution to this evolution of my thinking.
The Problem Of Intelligence
At first blush, the question asked in this post, “What is intelligence?” seems like an easy one. Everyone knows – or thinks they know – about intelligence. It is about spies, secrets and James Bond. Intelligence is at least as old as Sun Tzu, the Chinese general who discussed the use of spies 2500 years ago, and is perhaps as old as recorded history.
More recently, it is what the US "lacked" before the attack on the twin towers on September 11, 2001 and what "failed" in Iraq with respect to Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction. Law enforcement agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), both claim they need more intelligence to do their jobs. Even businesses now gather intelligence on their markets and their competitors and charitable foundations use intelligence-like capabilities to watch their particular interests.
If intelligence services were an industry, it would be about the same size, at $100 billion (including all national security activities and a rough estimate of the amount law enforcement and the business community spends on intelligence and intelligence-like activities), as the engineering services industry in the
The US Intelligence Community is the best known intelligence organization but it is by no means the only one in the
Despite its size, longevity and importance to world affairs, the profession of intelligence, what it is and what it does, is not widely understood – even among those who do it. Consider the following four activities:
- Writing a highly classified report on crop yields in a small African country.
- Executing a secret coup in an enemy country.
- Conducting routine police patrols in a crime-ridden part of a large city.
- Openly talking to a competitor’s employees at a local bar.
No matter how strongly you feel about your responses, the truth is that different people answer these questions very differently. In fact, I have asked these same questions, and others, of hundreds of students and intelligence professionals alike and there is rarely a consensus in terms of scoring. For many of the questions, the distribution of the final scores deviate little from what you would expect from random chance.
Why would this be so? Consider the activity of writing a highly classified report on crop yields in a small African country. Some people focus on the fact that the report is highly classified; Top Secret, perhaps. For these individuals, intelligence is about secrecy. Secrecy in intelligence, however, is usually about how difficult it is to collect the information, not how useful it is once it has been acquired. Those who tend to focus on the utility of the report note that this report, with its narrow focus, will likely be of interest to a relatively small number of users. Intelligence professionals, in particular, typically view it as the kind of report that the intelligence community routinely generates for background purposes, in case some decisionmaker needs it at some time in the future. The classification of such a document, taken in isolation, generally gets little weight from experienced intelligence officers.
Now consider the activity of executing a coup in an enemy country. This, for many unfamiliar with intelligence, is the essence of an intelligence activity. It is the substance of novels and films and fills the popular conception of what intelligence is and does. Many intelligence professionals do not see this type of activity as intelligence at all, however. The information collected and analysis conducted regarding the enemy country much more closely meets their internal definition of intelligence. The decision to act, to actually engineer and execute a coup is, in these professionals' minds, an act of policy. The fact that covert action falls within the realm of US intelligence organizations is, for them, an accident of history, not a fundamental intelligence function.
The final two activities on the list above, a police officer on the beat and talking to competitors in a bar, highlight how intelligence, as a profession, has grown outside its traditional, national security, boundaries. Businesses, whether they are looking at their competitors, their markets, or the physical security of their employees, are increasingly using the tools and methods traditionally available to the intelligence professional. In fact, as will become obvious in Jim's discussion of the broader history of intelligence, business necessity has often driven intelligence activities and improvement in intelligence capabilities. While it may seem like the idea of law enforcement intelligence is also new, it, too, dates back centuries. While most people don’t think of the cop on the beat as a collector for the law enforcement intelligence professional, that is exactly the role (among others, obviously) that individual serves.
Tomorrow: The Importance Of A Clear Definition Of Intelligence