Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Part 7 -- Previous Attempts To Define Intelligence/Expert 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
Part 6 -- Previous Attempts To Define Intelligence/Agency Attempts

If Congress cannot provide a useful definition of intelligence, and neither can the agencies that conduct it, the professionals who devote their careers to the study and practice of this unique art should logically be able to accomplish something where others have failed. They, too, have been largely unsuccessful.

Perhaps no one in recent years has done as much on this issue as Dr. Michael Warner, a former member of the CIA's history staff and currently with the DNI. Beginning with Sherman Kent’s 1949 definition that intelligence “is the knowledge which our highly placed civilians and military men must have to safeguard the national welfare”, Warner walks through seventeen different, historical attempts to define intelligence in his 2002 paper, “Wanted: A Definition of Intelligence”. His sophisticated analysis points to much the same conclusion as this series of posts: That intelligence must be more than mere information. The "missing ingredient" for Warner, however, is secrecy. His definition, that intelligence is "secret, state activity to understand or influence foreign entities," adds this nuance but still seems too limited.

In the first place, states conduct at least some activities to influence foreign entities which are secret but which are not generally considered intelligence such as planning for war and research and development programs in support of new weapon systems. Likewise, there is much activity designed to understand a foreign entity, such as an analyst conducting internet based research, which is widely considered intelligence that is not secret. Even Sherman Kent recognized, as early as 1949, that most of the information used by intelligence professionals was not secret: “Some of this knowledge may be acquired through clandestine means, but the bulk of it must be had through unromantic open-and-above-the-board observations and research.” (Strategic Intelligence For American World Policy, p 49)

Much of this is quibbling, however. Warner is attempting to develop a more general definition of national security intelligence, one that has broad applicability, not one that can be picked apart from the edges. In this respect, he has added a factor, secrecy, that is, for many people, an essential part of the intelligence function – the first thing they think about when they think of the word “intelligence”. What, then, is the role of secrecy in defining intelligence?

The Issue Of Secrecy In Defining Intelligence

While Dr. Warner is likely referring primarily to operational secrecy, which is a vital tool for preserving certain intelligence sources and methods, it is unclear that operational secrecy is required in all cases, particularly when one considers intelligence writ large. National security notions of intelligence often include the concept of secrecy but law enforcement organizations rarely do and business enterprises actively steer away from the concept. These different approaches are a function of the different purposes of these organizations. Law enforcement agencies must eventually take a criminal to court and, in the US at least, the accused must normally face his or her accuser in a public trial. Ultimately, any operational concerns give way to the due process provisions of the US Constitution. In business, much of what is normal intelligence activity in national security circles is illegal. Businesses pay a high price for violating these rules and most are loathe to be seen engaging in stereotypical intelligence activities.

Even within the national security community, the view that activities must be secret in order to be called intelligence also seems at odds with the current direction of the intelligence community itself. The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD Commission) did not ask for more secrecy in any of its recommendations -- recommendations almost universally adopted by President George W. Bush. In fact, they went in the opposite direction, insisting, "We are convinced that analysts who use open-source information [i.e. non-secret information] can be more effective than those who don't."

On the other hand, while these institutional notions of secrecy cannot or do not act as defining elements of intelligence activity, generalized notions of secrecy pervade all three activities. Police routinely keep the progress of their investigations secret and companies, such as Apple Computer, are notorious for their secrecy. Even in the example used earlier, where you were doing research to purchase an automobile, some amount of “secrecy”, about your intentions, your price point, your preferences, was in your interest as you shopped for the best deal. The value of secrecy in personal affairs has long been recognized. The Latin poet Seneca said, “If you wish another to keep your secret, first keep it to yourself.” Dr. Samuel Johnson, the 18th Century essayist, said, “To keep your secret is wisdom; but to expect others to keep it is folly.” Even Benjamin Franklin has weighed in on the subject, “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.”

Even in these everyday examples, though, secrecy for its own sake can be counterproductive. Consider the example of a “no comment” response at a press conference. The immediate reaction is often that the speaker has something to hide, that there is a story there. Most communications professionals advise organizations to be willing to talk about those things that can be discussed and to avoid even the perception of excessive or unnecessary secrecy. Robert Mueller, Director of the FBI, noted this in his 2008 speech to the National Press Club: “We recognize that if we are to be successful as a global intelligence and law enforcement agency, we must be as transparent as possible.”

Secrecy, then, must serve a purpose. The examples in the text above serve as a guide. In cases where secrecy was valuable, that secrecy helped preserve the current and future options of a decisionmaker. Police, for example, keep their investigations secret so that the criminals they are chasing do not flee before they are captured, businesses keep secrets in order to maintain a competitive advantage and countries keep their activities secret in order to more effectively conduct diplomacy or fight wars. Secrecy, then, whether in the generalized or institutionalized sense of the word, is not an essential element of intelligence but, rather, a component, a possible course of action, when considering the needs of the decisionmaker that the intelligence activity supports.

The logical consequence of this perspective on secrecy is that, first, if there is no advantage to be gained from secrecy, then secrecy is not necessary and may even be counterproductive. Second, once secrecy is no longer necessary to preserve current and future options for a decisionmaker, the intelligence unit and the decisionmaker can make their activities, processes and documents public. One of the most startling examples of this principle in action was GEN Norman Swarzkopf’s complete briefing, within hours of the conclusion of hostilities during the 1991 Gulf War, of both the intelligence available and the operations conducted by the Coalition Forces during that conflict. With the conclusion of combat, the plans, and the intelligence on which they were based, no longer needed to be kept secret.

The Needs of Decisionmakers And The Role Of Covert Action In Defining Intelligence

Beyond the question of secrecy, decisionmakers also want more than mere “understanding” from intelligence professionals regarding an issue. Benjamin Bloom's widely regarded Taxonomy of Educational Objectives places "understanding" only one level above "knowing," the lowest of the objectives. Many decisionmakers, particularly those that have held elected or appointed office for some time, already understand the nuances of their portfolios. They seek foreknowledge, not knowledge, and it is the higher order objectives of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation that seem more in line with what these decisionmakers expect from intelligence.

Warner also adds the idea that national security intelligence is about influencing foreign entities. This clause makes no sense is the context of law enforcement and private sector intelligence but that was clearly not Warner’s purpose either. There are other quibbles here as well. Diplomatic initiatives, which are often conducted in secret with the goal of influencing foreign activity, are not traditionally considered intelligence activities. Warner, however, is likely talking about covert operations, such as assassinations and secretly engineered coups. Like secrecy, covert operations are bound up tightly with the typical person’s understanding of intelligence and what it does. This understanding is not entirely misplaced either. The CIA’s current mission statement states that it will both collect and analyze information and conduct covert action.

There is, however, a big difference between collecting and analyzing information about a situation and doing something about that same situation. In this respect, Warner’s definition does raise another interesting question: Is covert action a fundamental part of the definition of intelligence? Generally, there are two broad schools of thought. The first focuses on the historical fact and the common perception that covert action is connected to intelligence activities. The second, (of which I am a member) highlights operational and psychological reasons why policymaking in general and covert operations specifically should be excluded from the definition of intelligence.

Operationally, intelligence professionals fundamentally focus their time on activities, entities and people outside their parent organizations. For example, law enforcement intelligence professionals primarily watch criminal organizations, national security intelligence professionals examine the activities of other states and intelligence professionals in the private sector spend much of their time thinking about the competition. This is not to say that these professionals spend no time trying to understand their parent organizations. They must do this if only to understand the questions that are relevant to the organization as a whole. The bulk of these intelligence professionals' time and the core of their duties, however, is to collect and analyze information about entities outside their parent organizations. As a result, they often become experts on these other entities but do not understand their own organizations at the same level of detail as those charged with running the organization’s operations.

One of the clearest examples of this divide between intelligence and operations comes from the military. On most military staffs, the roles of intelligence officer and operations officer are clearly separate. Here the decisionmaker (the commander of the unit) tasks the intelligence officer with understanding the enemy’s capabilities, limitations and intentions. In turn, the operations officer is responsible for coming up with options for the commander. To do this, the operations officer must intimately understand the capabilities and limitations of his or her own unit, something with which the intelligence officer must do in only a very general way. To ask the intelligence officer, then, to come up with plans (or, in a broader governmental context, to formulate policy or, in the business sense, to provide recommendations) is to ask the intelligence officer to operate in an area where he or she is clearly not the expert – to do the job tasked to the operations officer! Young military intelligence officers who insist on discussing their ideas of appropriate courses of action with the commander (rather than limiting their comments to enemy activities and capabilities) are usually subject to frank counseling sessions with the operations officer, whose job it is to vet “good ideas” against the realistic capabilities of the unit.

The second reason often cited for excluding policy-making activities from a definition of intelligence is psychological. While collecting and analyzing information helps frame an issue, making a recommendation or committing to a policy, in some sense, commits the intelligence officer to that course of action. The intelligence officer now has reason to want that particular course of action to succeed. The fear is that this will bias the intelligence officer’s view toward information collected and analyzed in the future. Having made the recommendation, the intelligence officer will now experience psychological pressure to see all future events and interpret all future pieces of information as consistent with the recommendations he or she has made. There is good evidence to support these concerns. Scott Plous, in his entertaining textbook, The Psychology of Judgment and Decisionmaking, refers to this effect as postdecisional cognitive dissonance. Studies in this area suggest that, contrary to popular belief, people feel more positive about decisions after they have been made.

Outside these broader objections to mixing intelligence with policy, there is another good reason to keep the two separate, at least at the national security level and in a democracy. It makes sense, in a government where the ultimate decisionmaker is elected and is to be held accountable by the people of that country, to separate the activities of knowing, understanding, analyzing, and synthesizing information about a foreign entity—activities largely conducted by unelected government employees—from the conscious act of attempting to influence foreign entities (activities authorized by elected officials). The former is designed to inform policy, while the latter is an act of policy.

This is not to say that intelligence officers never participate in covert operations, make recommendations or engage in policy discussions. It is only to say that, when they do so, they are not doing “intelligence” anymore. They have crossed the line and are now squarely on the side of operations with all the risks that entails. Intelligence professionals need to tread cautiously here.

Tomorrow -- Previous Attempts To Define Intelligence/Law Enforcement And Private Sector Attempts

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