Monday, June 30, 2008

What Is Intelligence? (Part 1 -- The Problem Of "Intelligence")

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 US. It would be five times the size of the architectural services industry.

The US Intelligence Community is the best known intelligence organization but it is by no means the only one in the US. This community of 16 government agencies, however, employs over 100,000 people (only a small percentage of which are “spies”). That is substantially larger than the number of employees at either 3M or Microsoft, over 5 times the size of Google and 20 times the size of T. Rowe Price. If the US Intelligence Community were a company, it would be about 45th on the Fortune 500 list of the largest companies, somewhere between Microsoft and Sears (Even within the government, however, it is a large organization, with over three times the budget of the State Department). In many communities, intelligence organizations are major employers and the problems these organizations face are more like the ones faced by big business than they are like the ones faced by the heroes of the latest spy thriller.

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.
How “intelligence like” do they seem to you? How well do they fit your own, internal definition of intelligence? Imagine now a scale from 1 to 5 where 1 is an activity that is not “intelligence”, that does not fit your internal definition of intelligence, and where an activity that received a 5 would nearly perfectly fit your internal definition of intelligence. How would you score the activities above?

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


Anonymous said...

Agree with your premise, but believe it may need to go further. There may well be a very interesting national intelligence aspect to the cop on the beat...he/she is certainly a sensor, and one of the front line looking for activity outside of the ordinary. Had the front line had some of the data it needed, 9/11 may well have been averted. Same holds true with the guys talking shop in the bar...not that certain nations would EVER engage in economic espionage, but it is worth noting that recent cases have pointed that way. Thus, please do not draw too narrow a boundary here. Understand the need to bound the problem, but also see a need to include some features which may be morphing as we speak.
Tom McCormick
LTC, MI (USA, Ret)

Anonymous said...

Kristan - A worthy pursuit, this. The first thing I want to point out is that "Executing a secret coup in an enemy country" is not intelligence. It is covert action. While usually undertaken by organs of the intelligence community, using some of the sources and methods also used in intelligence collection, by and of itself it should not be part of the discussion.

Kristan J. Wheaton said...


I agree and hope to show the large degree of overlap as I move forward. More importantly, I hope to walk the reader through the consequences, theoretical and practical, of this overlap.


I couldn't agree with you more and I assume that both you and I would give a "1" to this question. In the mind of the average Joe, though, and in the mind of some intel professionals, this is a 5. I see that as part of the problem I hope to resolve over the next several posts.

Thanks to you both!


Anonymous said...


Thanks very much for this discussion. It is very much necessary.

The Central INTELLIGENCE Agency's mission statement consists of three discrete missions:
1. Collecting information that reveals the plans, intentions and capabilities of our adversaries and provides the basis for decision and action.
2. Producing timely analysis that provides insight, warning and opportunity to the President and decisionmakers charged with protecting and advancing America’s interests.
3. Conducting covert action at the direction of the President to preempt threats or achieve US policy objectives.

"Intelligence" as a single word standing alone has the connotation of "covertly acquired information." However, as the US Intelligenc Community has developed, Intelligence now has the connotation of "covert collection, analysis, and action."

Since "intelligence" is sexy, many non-intelligence functions and offices have attempted to hijack the word and tack it onto their disparate titles. A few examples, with their more accurate descriptions:

*Business Intelligence: Database research.
*Competitive Intelligence: Vast majority of CI is research and reporting, some is covertly acquired intelligence, but that tends to violate the industry's ethical standards.
*Law Enforcement Intelligence: Vast majority of activities and analysis of LEI would be better termed Information analysis and reporting for decision support.

And in reality, what the vast majority of academia calls "Intelligence," as in "Intelligence Studies," would be better termed "Information Analysis and Reporting for Decision Support."

Is Information Analysis and Reporting for Decision Support part of the CIA's mission? Sure it is. Does that analysis and reporting use covertly acquired information ("intelligence")? Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't.

Is part of CIA's mission covert action (overthrowing a hostile government)? Yes it is, a very important part.

Then what separates "Intelligence" from "Analysis for Decision Support," or "Database Research"?

I'd argue that the defining factor of Intelligence is precisely the covertness that is implicit in the generally understood meaning of the word.

Therefore, I propose a definition that separates the wheat from the chaff:

Intelligence is: Clandestinely collecting, analyzing and acting on information that is subject to security protection by its owners.

This eliminates Open Source Information, Database Research, Analysis for Decision Support, and many other activities that have attempted to don the Intelligence mantle.

Loose definitions are the bane of productive discussion. There are numerous on-going discussions regarding issues of importance to the Intelligence Community which could all benefit greatly from a more clear definition. This is a great discussion starting point.

Thanks again.

Kent Clizbe

Anonymous said...

I'd like to go further back than just Sun Tzu; how about Joshua of Israel - and the order to spy out the land of Canaan? Re-read that report - it is essentially a precursor for today's LRS. Add to that, the spotting, assessing, and recruiting of Rahab the Harlot in a successful HUMINT operation that led to covert action to aid the overt attack against Jericho.
There's nothing new under the sun.

Kristan J. Wheaton said...

Ahhh! You have been reading ahead...