Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Part 3 -- The Reasons For A Lack Of A Definition (What Is Intelligence?)

Part 1 -- The Problem Of Intelligence
Part 2 -- The Importance Of A Clear Definition Of Intelligence

Why is there no generally accepted definition of “intelligence”?

It is certainly not for lack of effort. Numerous attempts to define intelligence exist in federal law, in the mission statements of the various agencies, corporations, and other bodies that conduct intelligence activities, as well as in the writings of scholars and intelligence practitioners. The net effect of all these attempts, however, is to only sow confusion.

For example, until very recently, the CIA, on its “kid’s page”, found the question, "What is intelligence?” so difficult that it balked at providing an answer, noting, “What is intelligence? This question is not easy to answer and, depending on who you ask, you may get different answers."(Note: The CIA has upgraded it’s “Kid’s Page” and now states that “intelligence is the information our nation’s leaders need to keep our country safe.” This is, as we shall see shortly, a deeply misleading definition).

Mark M. Lowenthal, a long-time veteran of the national security and private sector intelligence communities, notes in his book, Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy, "Virtually every book written on the subject of intelligence begins with a discussion of what 'intelligence' means, or at least how the author intends to use the term. This editorial fact tells us much about the field of intelligence. In spite of earnest efforts to lay down a comprehensive definition of what they do, even seasoned intelligence professionals often see their field as something vague and nebulous, which is constantly re-imagined in a never-ending search for purpose.

This lack of clarity is largely the artifact of two historical trends and one, more recent, development. Historically, intelligence units were small and focused on the relatively few wealthy or politically powerful citizens in an enemy country or competing organization. These units were also quite insular, using codes and compartments to isolate key bits of information even from other members of the organization. In this context, decisionmakers from Sun Tzu to George Washington often operated as their own spymasters and the decisions they made were intricately bound up with the intelligence operations they ran. As a result, and also along historical lines, academia traditionally had little role in analyzing or generalizing the activities of these intelligence organizations. Sherman Kent, often referred to as the “Father of US Intelligence Analysis”, noted the lack of academic contributions in 1955:

“What [intelligence] lacks is a literature.... What I am talking about is a literature dedicated to the analysis of our many-sided calling, and produced by its most knowledgeable devotees.... The literature I have in mind will, among other things, be an elevated debate."

A lack of academic evaluation was partly a function of the system under consideration. Information regarding intelligence operations was difficult to get, if it existed at all. It is also likely that many of these historical figures discouraged excessive investigation into their sources and methods either in order to preserve a capability or out of vanity. Whatever the reason, the lack of academic scrutiny meant that intelligence, as a concept, remained undeveloped. (Note: There is still quite a ways to go to catch up with other disciplines even today. According to the College Board, there were at least 220 undergraduate degree programs in engineering in the United States and 131 undergraduate architecture programs. Compare this to the approximately 45 undergraduate programs offering any courses at all in intelligence nationwide).

Beginning with World War I and increasing exponentially since the advent of the internet, the tidal wave of information now available to each of us is the development that has served, in some senses, to expand the definition of intelligence. Analysts at all levels and in all disciplines can now find online for little or no cost formerly expensive or difficult to find resources and capabilities once available only to elites. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the International Relations and Security Network, have entered the world of intelligence along with a variety of commercial enterprises, such as iJet and STRATFOR – entries made possible by a steady stream of information from all parts of the world on virtually any subject. Even casinos claim to use intelligence (Thanks, Kathleen!).

Where these organizations fall on the spectrum of intelligence and intelligence-like activities is unclear but the overlap in sources, methods, capabilities and purposes only serve to highlight the need for and lack of a clear, "big-tent" definition of intelligence.

Tomorrow -- What Would A Good Definition Of Intelligence Look Like?

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