Monday, June 10, 2019

How To Teach 2500 Years Of Intelligence History In About An Hour

Original version of the Art of War by Sun-Tzu
As with most survey courses, Introduction to Intelligence Studies has a ton of information that it needs to cover--all of it an inch deep and mile wide.  One of the most difficult parts of the syllabus to teach, however, is intelligence history.

Whether you start with the Bible or, as I do, with Chapter 13 of The Art Of War, you still have 2500 years of history to cover and typically about an hour long class to do it.  Don't get me wrong.  I think the history of intelligence ought to be at least a full course in any intelligence studies curriculum.  The truth is, though, you just don't have time to do it justice in a typical Intel 101 course.

I was confronted with this exact problem last year.  I had not taught first-year students for years, and when the time came in the syllabus to introduce these students to intel history, I was at a bit of a loss.  Some professors gloss over ancient history and start with the National Security Act of 1947.  Some compress it even more and focus entirely on post Cold War intelligence history.  Others take a more expansive view and select interesting stories from different periods of time to illustrate the general role of intelligence across history.  

All of these approaches are legitimate given the topic and the time constraints.  I wanted, however, to try to make the history of intel a bit more manageable for students new to the discipline.  I hit on an approach that makes sense to me and seemed to work well with the students.  I call it the Four Ages Of Intelligence.

The first age I call the Age of Concentration.  In ancient times, power and knowledge was concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of people.  The king or queen, their generals, and the small number of officers and courtiers who could read or write were typically both the originators and targets of intelligence efforts.  These efforts, in turn, were often guided by the most senior people in a government.  Sun Tzu noted, "Hence it is that which none in the whole army are more intimate relations to be maintained than with spies."  George Washington, as well, was famous not only as a general but also as a spymaster.  

The Age of Concentration lasted, in my mind, from earliest times to about the early 1800's.  The nature of warfare began to change rapidly after the American and French Revolutions. 
Washington and the capture of the Hessians at Trenton.  
Large citizen armies and significant technological advances (railroads, telegraphs, photography, balloons!) made the process of running spy rings and collating and analyzing the information they collected too large for any one person or even a small group of people to manage.  

Enter the Age of Professionalization.  The 1800's saw the rise of the staff system and the modern civil service to help generals and leaders manage all the things these more modern militaries and governments had to do.  Of course, there had always been courtiers and others to do the king's business but now there was a need for a large number of professionals to deal with the ever-growing complexities of society.  The need for more professionals, in turn, demanded standardized processes that could be taught.  

For me, the Age of Professionalization lasted until the end of World War II when the Age of Institutionalization began.  Governments, particularly the US Government, began to see the need for permanent and relatively large intelligence organizations as a fundamental part of government.   
Logos of the CIA And KGB
Staffs and budgets grew.  Many organizations came (more or less) out of the shadows.  CIA, KGB, MI5 (and 6), ISI, and MSS all became well known abbreviations for intelligence agencies.  The need for intelligence-like collection and analysis of information became obvious in other areas.  Law enforcement agencies, businesses, and even international organizations started to develop "intelligence units" within their organizational structures.  

All of this lasted until about 1994 when, with the advent of the World Wide Web, the Age of Democratization began.   Seven years ago (!), I wrote an article called "Top Five Things Only Spies Used To Do But Everyone Does Now."  I talked about a whole bunch of things, like using sophisticated ciphers to encrypt data and examining detailed satellite photos, that used to be the purview of spies and spies alone.  Since then, it has only gotten worse.  Massive internet based deception operations and the rise of deepfake technology is turning us all into spymasters, weighing and sorting information wheat from information chaff.  Not only the threats but also the opportunities have grown exponentially.   For savvy users, there is also more good information, a greater ability to connect and learn, to understand the things that are critical to their success or failure but are outside their control, than ever before--and to do this on a personal rather than institutional level.

There are a couple of additional teaching points worth making here.  First is the role of information technology in all of this.  As the technology for communicating and coordinating activities has improved, the intelligence task has become more and more complicated.  This, in turn, has required the use of more and more people to manage the process, and that has changed how the process is done.  Other disciplines have been forced to evolve in the face of technological change.  It is no surprise, then, that intelligence is also subject to similar evolutionary pressures.

It is also noteworthy, however, that the various ages of intelligence have tended to become shorter with the near-logarithmic growth in technological capabilities.  In fact, when you map the length of the four ages on a logarithmic scale (see below) and draw a trendline, you can see a pretty good fit.  It also appears that the length of the current age, the Age of Democratization, might be a bit past its sell-by date.  This, of course, begs the question:  What age comes next?  I'm voting for the Age of Anarchy...and I am only half kidding.

Is this a perfect way of thinking about the history of intelligence?  No, of course not.  There are many, many exceptions to these broad patterns that I see.  Still, in a survey class, with limited time to cover the topic, I think focusing on these broad patterns that seemed to dominate makes some sense.