Friday, July 11, 2008

What Is Intelligence? (Final Version With Summary)


  • There is no standard definition of “intelligence”. Popular thinking and the best efforts of legislatures, agencies and academics to the contrary, no generally agreed upon definition of intelligence exists. This problem is exacerbated when the newly formed intelligence communities in law enforcement and the private sector are included.
  • Developing such a definition is important in order to create realistic expectations in the minds of the decisionmakers intelligence is designed to support. This is particularly true in a democracy where the electorate views the notions of secrecy and unaccountable power often linked with intelligence activities with hesitation.
  • Two activities, secrecy and covert operations, typically associated with intelligence are not, in fact, necessary to define intelligence. Secrecy, or more accurately, confidentiality, is only necessary to preserve options for the decisionmaker that the intelligence activity supports. Covert operations, on the other hand, are better viewed as an act of policy than as an intelligence activity.
  • Common threads run through many of the earlier attempts to define intelligence, however. These threads, pulled together, result in a good working definition of intelligence:

    • Intelligence is a process, using primarily unstructured information from all sources and focused externally, that is designed to reduce the level of uncertainty for a decisionmaker.

Online Version:

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
Part 7 -- Previous Attempts To Define Intelligence/Expert Attempts
Part 8 -- Previous Attempts To Define Intelligence/Law Enforcement And Private Sector Attempts
Part 9 -- Defining Intelligence

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Part 9 -- Defining Intelligence (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
Part 7 -- Previous Attempts To Define Intelligence/Expert Attempts
Part 8 -- Previous Attempts To Define Intelligence/Law Enforcement And Private Sector Attempts

There seems to be three possibilities at this point. The first is that intelligence doesn’t really exist; that what people call intelligence is better described with one or more other nouns but, due to sloppy thinking, these concepts get lumped, without real reason, under the rubric of “intelligence.” There is scant evidence for this line of thinking. Intelligence certainly exists in the minds of the people who practice it and the decisionmakers who pay for it. As an historical reality, as an industry, as an academic discipline, as a career field, intelligence is growing and thriving. To make the claim that it does not exist is to fly in the face of all of these facts.

A second line of thinking (one with more weight behind it) is that intelligence really is “secret state activity” and nothing more. The law enforcement, private sector and other communities have appropriated the word “intelligence” to describe their activities without real cause. Perhaps they have done it for marketing purposes – to make their activity seem more “sexy”. Perhaps they have done it to acquire resources from Congress (Since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the intelligence budget in the US alone has almost doubled). Whatever the reason, it is not intelligence to these authors because it is not done by the spies and analysts within the national security communities of the world.

This, too, seems to be faulty logic. While notions of secrecy are often linked to intelligence activity, it is clearly, based on the earlier discussion, not a requirement. Likewise, activities in other fields such as business and law enforcement, often, for all practical purposes, mirror activities in the national security arena (Comment: It is worth noting here, perhaps, that the US national security intelligence community actually contains three law enforcement organizations, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department Of Homeland Security as well as one primarily business focused agency, The Department of the Treasury). There is no real reason not to acknowledge the similarities. Anything else comes across as arbitrary.

The only option left is to admit that there is a common core of intelligence and intelligence-like activities that cut across disciplines; that there is a general notion of intelligence that defines what is intelligence, what isn’t intelligence and what exists at the margins – a “big tent” definition of intelligence.

What might such a definition look like? The first place to look is in the common features of the various definitions of intelligence. Next, it makes sense to compare the features identified by this analysis to traditional intelligence activities to see if these practical, day-to-day intelligence tasks meet the criteria established in the theoretical analysis. Finally, we should look at activities that are not traditionally considered intelligence and activities that are arguably at the margins of the definition in order to finalize a working definition of intelligence.

Where to begin? Clearly, intelligence is a process and virtually all previous definitions of intelligence recognize that either implicitly or explicitly. It is something that happens, not something that simply is. Many of the previous definitions of intelligence have gone as far as to outline this process, including such activities as collection, analysis and dissemination within the definition itself. Others have highlighted the final product (which is just as much a part of the "process" as any other component activity). What is interesting is that the actual issue of process is an open theoretical question within the intelligence community. Academics and practitioners have proposed several models over the years but none of them has yet captured the full scope of activities and experience of real world intelligence work.

The fact that the process of intelligence is still subject to academic debate does not mean that there are not common functions embedded in each instance of intelligence activity. Just as there are common features to each act of engineering or architecture no matter how trivial or how significant, there are many common features, and wide agreement, on much of what makes up the intelligence process. What is still missing is a complete, empirically based description of this process.

The previous discussions and definitions also make it clear that intelligence is a decision support function – it is for a decisionmaker. From earliest times, leaders have funded intelligence operations in order to have the information and analysis that they needed to make better decisions. Today, this decisionmaker can be the President of the United States, a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a Fortune 500 company or you, trying to decide what kind of car to buy. Intelligence that is not decisionmaker focused is, like a self-licking ice-cream cone, designed only to satisfy itself.

Embedded in the concept that intelligence is for a decisionmaker are also whatever notions of secrecy the definition of intelligence might contain. If secrecy is part of the definition then its only legitimate purpose is to preserve current or future options for the decisionmaker. In fact, given the problems that business and law enforcement have with traditional ideas of “secret” intelligence, it is probably better to include here the concept of “confidentiality” as the more inclusive term, of which secrecy is merely a subset. In other words, confidentiality is a term that travels well between each of the disciplines (and even outside the three discipline structure that makes up the bulk of the topics discussed in this series of posts); secrecy only works well with one.

Less clear is the purpose of intelligence. What does intelligence actually do for the decisionmaker? Sun Tzu’s answer to that question was “foreknowledge” while others claim that the purpose is merely to “provide context”. Some break the purpose down into a number of discrete activities such as describe, explain and predict. Others draw even finer distinctions between making predictions and forecasting and estimating. Robert M. Clark, in his book Intelligence Analysis: A Target Centric Approach provides a simple catch-all for all of these activities. Intelligence, he claims is designed to reduce the level of uncertainty for the decisionmaker. In its simplest form, then, answering factual questions helps reduce a decisionmaker’s level of uncertainty. For example, a chief of police might want to know the approximate size of a particular gang, a CEO might want to know basic facts and figures about the size and profitability of one of his competitors or a politician might want to know the biography of a new president of an allied country. Providing these answers clearly helps reduce uncertainty and, in some sense, helps to inform the decisionmaking process.

On other hand, this type of descriptive information is becoming easier and easier to find and decisionmakers are becoming less willing to fund intelligence organizations that simply “know stuff”. Increasingly, the emphasis is for intelligence organizations to provide estimates of what the future holds, to predict the future actions of the gang, the competitor or the new foreign president. It is these insights into the future that makes intelligence worth the money spent on it because it is these insights into the future that allows decisionmakers to allocate resources today to take advantage of opportunities or to mitigate threats before they become realities. While finding, collecting and verifying information are undoubtedly part of the intelligence process, they are mostly necessary pre-conditions for the more in-demand tasks involving the generation of estimates and forecasts.

These three descriptors of intelligence – that it is a process, designed to reduce the level of uncertainty and that it is for a decisionmaker – taken as a whole actually describe any number of decision support activities. A human resources director who sorts through employee performance reports and makes recommendations to his or her boss regarding who the company should promote is doing work that, so far, is identical to intelligence work. Likewise, an operations officer who examines the readiness reports from a military organization’s subordinate units or a police sergeant who informs the chief who passed and who failed marksmanship training both meet these three basic criteria

There are two additional criteria which help distinguish intelligence activity from other decision support activities, however. The first is that intelligence is focused externally – it is fundamentally about “them”, not about “us”. Intelligence is always concerned with the other guy. Since earliest times, spies, envoys and other agents have been sent out by kings and businesspeople to find out what other kings and businesspeople were doing. Today, the “they” in this definition can be criminals for law enforcement professionals, competitors for businesses and other nations or transnational groups for the national security community.

This external focus does not mean that intelligence professionals do not need to know anything about the internal workings of the organization they support. Quite the contrary, intelligence professionals have an obligation to understand the organization they support if only to better understand what is relevant and what is less relevant or even irrelevant to their decisionmakers. For example, an investigative unit examining a drug gang would be very interested in information regarding the gang’s suppliers and routes but would be considerably less interested in the gang members’ individual grocery lists. A local supermarket, on the other hand, might be more interested in the grocery lists than in the drug routes. While this example is a bit fanciful, it makes the point. What you see and what you want to know depends on where you stand. Intelligence professionals must not only intimately understand the environment in which their organization is operating, they must understand enough about their own organization’s capabilities, limitations and plans to know what information and which estimates are most important to that organization.

The final aspect of the definition of intelligence deals with the kinds of information intelligence units typically use. First, intelligence actively collects and uses information from all sources. For many people unfamiliar with the history of intelligence, this only makes sense. Assuming the sources were reasonably reliable, why would you exclude them from your analysis? This is exactly what has happened in the past, however. Even today, there is still a debate in some circles about the role of open source information in intelligence analysis. Despite this, for most people and virtually all intelligence professionals, distinguishing information based on its source (rather than it s relevance to the questions at hand) and using some of it but not other bits, makes no sense.

Most other professions do not habitually use information from all sources. The word “habitually” was carefully chosen. There are clearly exceptions in all cases. There are times when an intelligence inquiry is narrowly focused on a single source or type of source. Likewise, there are times when other professions use a broad range of sources. Even those that theoretically use information from all sources often do not do so in practice, however. For example, an engineer, whose firm had been recently contracted to build a bridge, would be far more likely to collect information regarding the various kinds and cost of steel than he or she would be to collect information on the psychological motivations for building the bridge. Intelligence professionals, interested in the construction of the exact same bridge, would likely collect all types of information available about the bridge. Such an approach is necessary in intelligence because not all information is available all of the time and the intelligence professional never knows when two or more pieces of information might come together in a unique and insightful way. While admittedly a criterion that is somewhat fuzzy around the edges, the omnivorous nature of information collection in intelligence tends to distinguish it from other activities.

Second, and more important for the definition of intelligence, is the kind of “all-source” information that intelligence traditionally uses. Intelligence tends to specialize in collecting and analyzing “unstructured” information. What is unstructured information? It is easiest to understand, perhaps, in contrast to its opposite, structured information. Structured information is information that is both generally reliable and has an underlying order to it. Temperature readings taken at the same location at the same time each day for a year is an example of a set of structured data. Rows of daily, weekly and monthly sales information in a spreadsheet or crime reports sorted geographically are both examples of structured data sets. Structured data is very useful because analysts can manipulate and analyze this data in a number of very practical and powerful ways. Sophisticated geographical analyses and statistical manipulation work well with structured data and typically yield valuable insights.

Unstructured data is the exact opposite. In its worst case, it is unreliable or even deliberately deceptive information. It may include data in many different formats or languages. The exact same thing may be said or written in many different ways. Rumors, fuzzy photographs and hearsay are all (or mostly) unstructured data. Some data is so unstructured as to be meaningless. So important is this idea of structure to the analysis of data that an entire science has been built around removing the structure from data in order to protect it – encryption. The best encryption algorithms essentially attempt to remove any traces of structure from a data set, to make it seem like a random stream of data. Cryptanalysts, on the other hand, spend their lives trying to find the underlying pattern in the data set in order to make it meaningful once again.

While all professions acknowledge the “garbage in, garbage out” principle that recognizes that data must be reliable in order for analysts to be able to work with it, most professions use methods that assume that the information is reliable. Intelligence professionals assume the exact opposite. Intelligence analysis methods assume that at least some of the data is untrue or even deliberately deceptive. The best of these methods actually help the analyst identify false and misleading information (Note: This is not to say that intelligence never uses structured data. Certainly, if available, such data tends to lead to more accurate forecasts, at least within the usually narrow confines of such a data set. It is also important to distinguish here structured methods, which are often used by intelligence analysts, from the unstructured data these methods typically use. The point here is that intelligence professionals are, to a greater degree than other professions, unstructured data specialists).

The vast majority of the data we encounter on a day-to-day basis, however, is not very well structured. Despite the best efforts of technologists and gadgeteers, most of the information, from personal conversations and body language to blogs, videos, Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds, and other as yet undeveloped new technologies, that surrounds us every day is largely unstructured and likely to remain that way for some time. The ability of intelligence to deal with this vast body of unstructured data is an important distinction that sets intelligence apart from other, otherwise similar, professions.

As the discussion up to this point has shown, the definition of intelligence is a contentious issue within the intelligence communities. The academic study of intelligence and the relatively new discipline of “intelligence studies” in particular, combined with a proliferation of information resources brought on by the technological advances of the last 50 years are forcing these communities to come to grips with this basic lack of theoretical structure. Some question the need for a definition of intelligence, considering it self-evident, others disagree strongly with the idea of intelligence as a separate process while still others fall somewhere in between or even outside this spectrum.

Still, a definition is a basic concept. While acknowledging the controversy, I believe that it is imperative that professionals have an operational definition of intelligence; one that distinguishes intelligence from other activities while also giving practitioners some insight into the unique body of knowledge and set of skills that is their profession. With all these things in mind, I suggest, then, that:

  • Intelligence is a process, using primarily unstructured information from all sources and focused externally, that is designed to reduce the level of uncertainty for a decisionmaker.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Part 8 -- Previous Attempts To Define Intelligence/Law Enforcement And Private Sector 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
Part 7 -- Previous Attempts To Define Intelligence/Expert Attempts

The search for a definition of intelligence is not limited to the realm of national security. Businesses routinely collect intelligence on their competitors and on the economic environment, while law-enforcement officials have adopted a number of intelligence initiatives designed to help prevent crime or catch criminals. If intelligence, as a concept, is to mean anything at all, it should be large enough to contain not only the national security community but also the intelligence communities within business and law enforcement. Failure to establish such a comprehensive definition damages—perhaps fatally—the notion of intelligence itself.

Intelligence in the private sector suffers from two problems. First, just as the word “intelligence” itself has a very different meaning to psychologists and members of the national security community, so does “business intelligence” mean two different things to many business professionals.

The most common definition of the term is in the context of a partially or wholly automated decision support system for a business and has nothing to do with the kind of intelligence discussed in this series of posts. Here business professionals use the word "intelligence" to describe, for the most part, what the business knows about itself and, as a result, the word “intelligence” is more closely associated with the psychological definition of intelligence than with what national security professionals mean by intelligence.

Central to this popular definition of business intelligence are various software packages that track a wide variety of the generally reliable data associated with the business such as sales, inventory turnover and production. Intelligence studies students looking for “business intelligence” jobs are often frustrated, for example, by the requirements for experience with SAP and COGNOS and other “BI” software. This internally focused type of business intelligence work, which relies on hard numerical data from reliable sources, does not resonate at all with the externally focused meaning of intelligence with which most intelligence studies students are familiar. Yet, the fact remains, this is the most popular meaning of the term "business intelligence" in the private sector.

Beyond the dissonance created by the term “business intelligence”, private sector intelligence suffers from yet another problem: diffusion. There are so many intelligence-like functions within the business world that it has been very hard to pin down what intelligence, in a private sector context, really means. For example, intelligence analysts work in marketing departments as well as personnel security departments (particularly in companies with a global presence). Intelligence analysts help perform background checks as part of due-diligence investigations for the banking community (looking very much like law enforcement professionals when they do so) but also participate in more traditional “political risk assessments” for business consulting firms like Price-Waterhouse-Coopers (in much the same way and using the similar data and tools as the CIA). Financial analysts trying to pick the next hot stock and intelligence analysts looking at the competition both use much the same data and with some of the same purposes in mind but are looked on as entirely different professions.

The distinctions between these professions seem very real to the participants but, in many ways, those differences are ones merely of scale or target and not method or ultimate purpose. Furthermore, in many cases, what the private sector intelligence community is doing looks very much like exactly what the law enforcement or national security communities are doing. The only difference is who is paying these intelligence professionals’ salaries and the purpose to which the intelligence is put.

This diffusion in the private sector intelligence community is similar to the early days of the US national security community, where information was “stovepiped” along channels named for the source of the information. The US Intelligence Community is still struggling with its stovepipes and it is likely that the private sector will struggle with theirs for some time to come. Despite this, there have been some attempts to define intelligence within some of these channels. For example, the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals, states that intelligence is "any combination of Data, Information, and Knowledge concerning the Business environment in which a company operates that, when acted upon, will confer a significant Competitive advantage or enable sound decisions to be made." This definition is much like other intelligence-is-information definitions but adds an unhelpful clause implying that, unless intelligence is acted upon, it is not intelligence.

The law-enforcement intelligence community is somewhat better off, but just barely. For example, the Department of Justice's October 2003 National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan defined intelligence as "the product of systematic gathering, evaluation, and synthesis of raw data on individuals or activities suspected of being, or known to be, criminal in nature.” This definition did go further than any other in identifying intelligence as more than mere information but chooses to limit its scope in a way that ignores one of the great theoretical advances in criminal justice in recent years: community-oriented policing.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) defines community-oriented policing as "a policing philosophy that promotes and supports organizational strategies to address the causes and reduce the fear of crime and social disorder through problem-solving tactics and police-community partnerships." Intelligence that does not serve this purpose -- that focuses exclusively on criminal individuals and activities—would seem to be considerably less useful under this modem policing strategy. This is why, perhaps, the law enforcement community chose to use a different definition in the November 2004 report, funded by the DOJ, Law Enforcement Intelligence: A Guide For State, Local And Tribal Law Enforcement Agencies: "Law enforcement intelligence, therefore, is the PRODUCT of an analytic process that provides an INTEGRATED PERSPECTIVE to disparate information about crime, crime trends, crime and security threats, and conditions associated with criminality. (Caps in original)"

This might be interpreted as an advance in law enforcement intelligence, an improvement on older thinking, were it not for the fact that in the exact same month and year, November 2004, another publication (funded, of course, by the DOJ) reaffirmed the 2003 definition! Law Enforcement Analytic Standards was an attempt to establish minimum standards for law enforcement intelligence analysts. It traced its intellectual roots to the National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan and as a result, focused on "lower crime rates, whether through apprehension, suppression, deterrence, or reduced opportunity." This bizarre game of dueling definitions clearly only muddies the theoretical waters even further.

Tomorrow -- Defining Intelligence

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

Monday, July 7, 2008

Part 6 -- Previous Attempts To Define Intelligence/Agency 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

Perhaps it does not really matter how Congress defines intelligence. Perhaps the drafters left the definition vague by design. After all, representatives and senators do not actually carry out the business of intelligence. That task belongs to professional men and women in designated government agencies. Even if the law fails to convey a useful, nuanced definition of intelligence, the people responsible for spending the fifty billion-dollar intelligence budget should still have a clear idea of what it is they are supposed to do.

Not so fast.

The U.S. Intelligence Community established a public face in late 2002 on its community website. While the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), who owns the site, has updated it to include the leadership changes revolving around the most recently appointed DNI, Mike McConnell, there is no definition of intelligence on that website.

Until fairly recently, however, the DNI defined intelligence as “…A body of evidence and the conclusions drawn therefrom that is acquired and furnished in response to the known or perceived requirements of consumers. It is often derived from information that is concealed or not intended to be available for use by the acquirer." (Note: While this definition is no longer available through the main website, it is still visible through the Internet Archive ( by searching for . Based on this data, it appears that the definition was pulled from the main site sometime after 25 September 2006). Clearly, intelligence is more than information in the eyes of the community and has been so since at least 2002. However, this definition, too, is odd.

"Evidence" is a legal term and it implies an attempt to establish the truth about something that has already happened. Yet, the best intelligence focuses on the future. Even Sun Tzu knew that "what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge." Foreknowledge, in turn, is inherently probabilistic, neither entirely true nor entirely false until after the event occurs. Also disturbing is the idea that intelligence is "furnished in response to known or perceived requirements of consumers." This passive construction implies that intelligence is merely some sort of library, answering questions but not actively engaged in learning and understanding information relevant to decisionmakers.

There are two additional flaws in this definition. First, it states that intelligence “is often derived from information that is concealed…” This is a seriously misleading statement. While intelligence can use concealed, or secret, information, the vast majority of the information used by modern intelligence professionals is openly available (A more detailed discussion of the role of secrecy in intelligence comes later). Second, the activity described in the definition does not adequately differentiate intelligence from other activities. For example, the definition above could just as easily fit a human resources manager as an intelligence professional. Human resources professionals undoubtedly gather information, draw conclusions from it and provide that information and their conclusions “in response to known or perceived requirements” of the decisionmakers they support. There is even an element of secrecy, or, at least, privacy, concerning human resource work. Clearly, these two roles are very different. A good definition of intelligence should capture that.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence's website currently, however, does not include a clear, concise definition of intelligence. Interestingly, neither does the CIA's website except in an earlier attempt to define intelligence for children. Up until 2006, on its children’s webpage the CIA had this to say: "What is intelligence? This question is not easy to answer and, depending on who you ask, you may get different answers.” The Agency has recently updated its website to the much more banal, “Quite simply, intelligence is the information our nation’s leaders need to keep our country safe.” Information about the readiness of the US military, about the health of the US economy, and about the security of our nuclear energy plants and other pieces of critical infrastructure are all necessary “to keep our country safe”. None of these, however, are traditionally considered intelligence activities.

Other agencies, such as the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, also rely on mission statements that include the word intelligence but do not define it. The Department of Defense (DOD), where eighty percent of the intelligence budget resided until the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, does have a definition of intelligence, just not a very useful one. Intelligence, according to Joint Publication 2-01, Joint and National Intelligence Support to Military Operations, is:

1. The product resulting from the collection, processing, integration, analysis, evaluation, and interpretation of available information concerning foreign countries or areas.

2. Information and knowledge about an adversary obtained through observation, investigation, analysis, or understanding.

While the Joint Staff definition, published in October 2004, strangely leaves out the explicit reference to terrorism incorporated in the statutory definition as amended in 2001, it still remains unclear exactly who intelligence is for and what it is designed to do.

Tomorrow -- Previous Attempts To Define Intelligence/Expert Attempts

Part 5 -- Previous Attempts To Define Intelligence/Legislative 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?

  • "Go up through the Negev and on into the hill country. See what the land is like and whether the people who live there are strong or weak, few or many. What kind of land do they live in? Is it good or bad? What kind of towns do they live in? Are they unwalled or fortified? How is the soil? Is it fertile or poor? Are there trees on it or not?”-- Numbers, 13:17

Most modern intelligence professionals would interpret Moses’ commands to his Israelite scouts as intelligence requirements. The process of doing intelligence is something that virtually every leader and every country has done since the earliest times. References abound in ancient manuscripts to intelligence-like activities. In addition to the Bible, Sun Tzu writes extensively about the use of spies in The Art Of War and even Beowulf gets what we would today refer to as an intelligence briefing from Hrothgar before going off to fight Grendel’s mother:

  • “Untrod is their home; by wolf-cliffs haunt they and windy headlands, fenways fearful, where flows the stream from mountains gliding to gloom of the rocks, underground flood. Not far is it hence in measure of miles that the mere expands, and o'er it the frost-bound forest hanging, sturdily rooted, shadows the wave. By night is a wonder weird to see, fire on the waters. So wise lived none of the sons of men, to search those depths! Nay, though the heath-rover, harried by dogs, the horn-proud hart, this holt should seek, long distance driven, his dear life first on the brink he yields ere he brave the plunge to hide his head: 'tis no happy place! Thence the welter of waters washes up wan to welkin when winds bestir evil storms, and air grows dusk, and the heavens weep. Now is help once more with thee alone! The land thou knowst not…”
Despite this, most serious efforts to define intelligence have happened only relatively recently. In fact, while Jim will discuss the history of intelligence in much greater detail in his posts, developing the modern definition of intelligence in the US begins, from a statutory standpoint, at least, in 1947.

Legislative Attempts To Define Intelligence

As with the many other things it changed, World War II radically altered the paradigm in which intelligence operatives functioned. The scale of the conflict, combined with extremely rapid methods of overseas communication, resulted in an explosion of information from the war zones. The influx of reporting required whole teams of people to sift and analyze information to produce finished intelligence. Absent from this technologically driven explosion of information was a correspondingly well-developed theory of intelligence. Sun Tzu and George Washington were both experienced and accomplished spymasters, but neither had much useful advice for intelligence professionals with the technological capabilities to produce reams of new and relevant information on a daily, almost hourly, basis. What was the purpose of having all this information? How did each piece fit with the other pieces? Which pieces were important and which pieces were not? Most importantly, what should be given to decisionmakers?

As a result, the U .S. government decided that intelligence services created out of wartime necessity should not be disbanded but should, instead, shift their footing to a peacetime role as guarantors of national security. The National Security Act of 1947 transformed the Office of Strategic Services into the CIA and codified the organization and function of the intelligence community. The 1947 Act served as the foundation of the United States' intelligence activities (until the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004), yet nowhere did the Act say exactly what intelligence was. Congress attempted to rectify this oversight in the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1993, which amended the 1947 Act with the following definitions:

(1) The term "intelligence" includes foreign intelligence and counterintelligence.

(2) The term "foreign intelligence" means information relating to the capabilities, intentions, or activities of foreign governments or elements thereof, foreign organizations, or foreign persons.

(3) The term "counterintelligence" means information gathered and activities conducted to protect against espionage, other intelligence activities, sabotage, or assassinations conducted by o r on behalf of foreign governments or elements thereof, foreign organizations, or foreign persons

Essentially, the amended Act says that "intelligence is information," a definition that is both misleading and demonstrably untrue. Information is the raw material of intelligence, not the finished product. Modern intelligence professionals know that they have to provide more than mere information to the decisionmakers for which they work. In the first place, mere "information" on virtually any topic has become trivially easy to get through the internet, traditional media outlets or by simply calling or emailing someone using the wide variety of communication devices and systems available in even the most remote parts of the globe today. In the second place, information, in order to be truly useful, needs to be analyzed from the perspective of a particular decisionmaker. The same piece of information, for example, on the prospect for typhoons along the coast of China will mean something very different to rice farmers in China and rice farmers in the US. In short, all intelligence concerns information, but information alone does not constitute intelligence.

President Harry Truman began to recognize (p. 56), as early as 1956, the change in the nature of intelligence: "[World War II] taught us this lesson – that we had to collect intelligence in a manner that would make the information available where it was needed and when it was wanted, in an intelligent and understandable form. If it is not intelligent and understandable, it is useless."

Information was no longer enough and the decisionmakers knew it. It had to be intelligent and understandable — analyzed -- as well. Information-centric definitions of intelligence were clearly flawed, but, as previously mentioned, there was no academic community of intelligence professionals to resolve these types of questions. Intelligence, still a secret art at this point, had no lively, open, academic debates, no peer-reviewed journals or competing schools of thought. Even as intelligence capabilities grew and matured, intelligence theory remained locked in its infancy. Thus, the 1993 amendment to the National Security Act of 1947 relied on a definition of intelligence that was already outdated. The only other significant amendment to the definition in the fifty - seven years between the 1947 Act and the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 occurred in 2001 when Congress added the clause, "or international terrorist activities" to the definitions of foreign intelligence and counterintelligence.

The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 represents the most significant intelligence-related legislation since the original National Security Act. The 2004 Act further amends the definition of "national intelligence" laid down in the 1993 amendment of the 1947 act:

The terms "national intelligence" and "intelligence related to national security" refer to all intelligence, regardless of the source from which derived and including information gathered within or outside the United States, that

(A) pertains, as determined consistent with any guidance issued by the President, to more than one United States Government agency; and

(B) that involves

(i) threats to the United States, its people, property, o r interests ;

(ii) the development, proliferation, or use of weapons of mass destruction; or

(iii) any other matter bearing on United States national or homeland security.

The amendments are again purely administrative, detailing changes in how government agencies collect and use intelligence. The 2004 Act makes no effort to examine the validity of the assumptions that underpin the legislature's current understanding of what intelligence is. This amendment to the 1993 definition does not describe the purpose of intelligence, nor does it define whom intelligence is designed to serve. Instead, it makes a circular journey through a forest of legislative language to arrive, in the end, precisely where it began: "intelligence is information."

Tomorrow -- Agency Attempts To Define Intelligence

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sunday Funnies: Girl Spinning On Escalator (LiveLeak via Gizmodo)

If you are tired of thinking about intelligence, national security and all that stuff and haven't yet seen the video of the girl spinning on the escalator (From LiveLeak via Gizmodo), you owe it to yourself: