Thursday, July 3, 2008

Part 4 -- What Would A Good Definition Look Like? (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

The changing nature of intelligence coupled with the wide variety of new entrants and the lack of academic evaluation over the centuries has muddied the waters of today. Now, a common definition of intelligence has to, potentially, take into account not only the intelligence activities of nation states but also those intelligence or intelligence-like activities conducted by law enforcement, NGOs or the private sector. Such a definition would be, ideally, broad enough to apply to any level of activity.

Imagine two seemingly very different scenarios. In the first, a country seeks intelligence on the capabilities and intentions of an enemy; in the second, you are in the process of buying a car. In the first case, the country performs a wide variety of activities designed to collect information such as listening to the enemy’s broadcasts or reading its newspapers, perhaps even sending in some spies, recruiting some agents and planting some bugs.

In the second instance you, too, might spend time gathering relevant information by listening to advertisements or automobile shows like Car Talk or Top Gear. You would almost certainly read the newspapers, check out the classified ads and search the internet for deals. You might even send in a “spy”, a friend, to go to a nearby car dealer to assess how willing the dealer was to negotiate. You might even go yourself, telling little white lies about your car-buying intentions in order to keep the salesperson guessing. Clearly, both you and the country would want to hide some of your information or activities from the other party.

Armed with some information on the enemy, the analysts of our hypothetical country would begin to sift through it, to come to conclusions that would help the decisionmakers in the country better understand the intentions of that enemy. Likewise, you would need to sift through your automobile research to see what seemed relevant and what seemed unhelpful. Finally, both must come to a tentative conclusion regarding the intentions of the “other side”, enemy or car salesperson. It is tentative because of all the uncertainty involved; uncertainty due to the quality of the sources, uncertainty due to the limited amount of time devoted to the analysis, uncertainty because of the possibility of deliberate deception in both cases. It is from these analytic conclusions, no matter how formally or informally constructed, that decisions can now be made.

Other than the focus of the inquiry and the scale of the investigation, there does not appear to be much difference in the process involved in these two cases. Yet the first is clearly traditional intelligence activity while the second is not. Is there a substantive difference between these two activities and, if not, then what definition of intelligence would cover them both?

One standard that cannot reasonably be applied is “importance”. Just because an example is a relatively unimportant one, as is the example of doing the research to buy a car, it does not mean that an honest theorist can eliminate it from consideration. Whether you are building the Taj Mahal or a dog house, you are still employing the principles of engineering and architecture. The importance of the example does not matter. Likewise, a good definition of intelligence needs to encompass a broader range of activity than just that found in the national security arena. A good definition of intelligence must work across disciplines, indeed across history, and must work for both simple and complex examples.

A good definition of intelligence must also clearly differentiate intelligence activity from non-intelligence activity. It should be possible to know, based on the definition, whether one is engaged in intelligence activity or not, otherwise, intelligence is not a profession; it is merely an attempt to re-brand some other, more established, activity as “intelligence”. In other words, a good definition of intelligence should make it clear not only what intelligence is but, equally clearly, what it isn’t.

Tomorrow -- Previous Attempts To Define Intelligence

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