Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Part 2 -- The Importance Of A Clear Definition Of Intelligence (What Is Intelligence?)

Part 1 -- The Problem of "Intelligence"

Why, then, is there this lack of consistency in defining intelligence? On the one hand, it is not unusual for non-professionals to have romanticized notions of what a certain profession does. For example, largely because of the prevalence of courtroom dramas on film and TV, many people tend to believe that lawyers spend much of their time in court. In fact, the opposite is true. Most lawyers spend very little time in court and some lawyers spend no time at all participating in jury trials. It is easiest, then, perhaps, to attribute the common public misconceptions about what intelligence is and what it does to an entertainment industry with an insatiable appetite for espionage dramas.

Easy, perhaps, but dangerous as well. The ability of the non-professional to understand the capabilities and limitations of intelligence, the relatively limited role of secrecy in most intelligence activities and the part intelligence actually plays in policymaking in business, law enforcement and national security activities is critical to sound decisionmaking. Yet, textbooks on American government rarely give more than a passing mention to the role of intelligence in the US government and it is highly likely that no more than 25 colleges and universities offer courses in intelligence at present.

This lack of understanding is particularly dangerous in a democracy. The perception of excessive secrecy and unaccountable power common among many US citizens is clearly contrary to the fundamental tenets of democracy and freedom these same citizens want. As Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), General Michael Hayden has said:

  • “As a secret organization serving an open and free society, CIA has been granted an enormous public trust. That’s what secrecy is in a democracy. Not a grant of power, but a grant of trust. Each day, we have to earn that trust—as our democratic system demands—by acting as our fellow citizens expect us to: Skillfully, boldly, and always in keeping with the laws and values of our Republic. That’s our social contract.” (21 JUN 07, Speech, Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations)

The responsibilities inherent in this “social contract” cut both ways, of course. Not only does the public have a responsibility to better understand intelligence and its function in modern decisionmaking but also intelligence professionals have a responsibility to better explain what it is they do and how they go about doing it.

That is, as soon as they figure it out themselves.

While the confusion in the mind of the public is, at least, partly understandable, the lack of consistency among intelligence professionals is baffling. It is one thing for the average person to be unable to define “law”. It is another thing entirely for a lawyer not to know (or, at least be able to find) what “law” is. Yet, that is precisely the position intelligence professionals find themselves in today.

Arriving at a clear definition of intelligence is particularly important for people seeking to teach intelligence. Our desire is to spend most of our time teaching how to do intelligence; to prepare the next generation of analysts and other intelligence professionals for the challenges that lie ahead, not to merely re-hash the arguments of the past. In order for that to make sense, we need to establish an operational definition of intelligence – one that students and instructors in business, law enforcement and national security intelligence courses can translate into a set of theoretical concepts and practical skills that represent not only today’s best practices but also provide direction for researchers going forward.

Tomorrow -- The Reasons For A Lack Of Definition

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