Monday, July 7, 2008

Part 6 -- Previous Attempts To Define Intelligence/Agency Attempts (What Is Intelligence?)

Part 1 -- The Problem Of "Intelligence"
Part 2 -- The Importance Of A Clear Definition Of Intelligence
Part 3 -- The Reasons For A Lack Of A Definition
Part 4 -- What Would A Good Definition Look Like?
Part 5 -- Previous Attempts To Define Intelligence/Legislative Attempts

Perhaps it does not really matter how Congress defines intelligence. Perhaps the drafters left the definition vague by design. After all, representatives and senators do not actually carry out the business of intelligence. That task belongs to professional men and women in designated government agencies. Even if the law fails to convey a useful, nuanced definition of intelligence, the people responsible for spending the fifty billion-dollar intelligence budget should still have a clear idea of what it is they are supposed to do.

Not so fast.

The U.S. Intelligence Community established a public face in late 2002 on its community website. While the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), who owns the site, has updated it to include the leadership changes revolving around the most recently appointed DNI, Mike McConnell, there is no definition of intelligence on that website.

Until fairly recently, however, the DNI defined intelligence as “…A body of evidence and the conclusions drawn therefrom that is acquired and furnished in response to the known or perceived requirements of consumers. It is often derived from information that is concealed or not intended to be available for use by the acquirer." (Note: While this definition is no longer available through the main website, it is still visible through the Internet Archive ( by searching for . Based on this data, it appears that the definition was pulled from the main site sometime after 25 September 2006). Clearly, intelligence is more than information in the eyes of the community and has been so since at least 2002. However, this definition, too, is odd.

"Evidence" is a legal term and it implies an attempt to establish the truth about something that has already happened. Yet, the best intelligence focuses on the future. Even Sun Tzu knew that "what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge." Foreknowledge, in turn, is inherently probabilistic, neither entirely true nor entirely false until after the event occurs. Also disturbing is the idea that intelligence is "furnished in response to known or perceived requirements of consumers." This passive construction implies that intelligence is merely some sort of library, answering questions but not actively engaged in learning and understanding information relevant to decisionmakers.

There are two additional flaws in this definition. First, it states that intelligence “is often derived from information that is concealed…” This is a seriously misleading statement. While intelligence can use concealed, or secret, information, the vast majority of the information used by modern intelligence professionals is openly available (A more detailed discussion of the role of secrecy in intelligence comes later). Second, the activity described in the definition does not adequately differentiate intelligence from other activities. For example, the definition above could just as easily fit a human resources manager as an intelligence professional. Human resources professionals undoubtedly gather information, draw conclusions from it and provide that information and their conclusions “in response to known or perceived requirements” of the decisionmakers they support. There is even an element of secrecy, or, at least, privacy, concerning human resource work. Clearly, these two roles are very different. A good definition of intelligence should capture that.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence's website currently, however, does not include a clear, concise definition of intelligence. Interestingly, neither does the CIA's website except in an earlier attempt to define intelligence for children. Up until 2006, on its children’s webpage the CIA had this to say: "What is intelligence? This question is not easy to answer and, depending on who you ask, you may get different answers.” The Agency has recently updated its website to the much more banal, “Quite simply, intelligence is the information our nation’s leaders need to keep our country safe.” Information about the readiness of the US military, about the health of the US economy, and about the security of our nuclear energy plants and other pieces of critical infrastructure are all necessary “to keep our country safe”. None of these, however, are traditionally considered intelligence activities.

Other agencies, such as the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, also rely on mission statements that include the word intelligence but do not define it. The Department of Defense (DOD), where eighty percent of the intelligence budget resided until the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, does have a definition of intelligence, just not a very useful one. Intelligence, according to Joint Publication 2-01, Joint and National Intelligence Support to Military Operations, is:

1. The product resulting from the collection, processing, integration, analysis, evaluation, and interpretation of available information concerning foreign countries or areas.

2. Information and knowledge about an adversary obtained through observation, investigation, analysis, or understanding.

While the Joint Staff definition, published in October 2004, strangely leaves out the explicit reference to terrorism incorporated in the statutory definition as amended in 2001, it still remains unclear exactly who intelligence is for and what it is designed to do.

Tomorrow -- Previous Attempts To Define Intelligence/Expert Attempts

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