Le’ Notes #32: Intelligence, the basics

This post covers the basics of intelligence: what it is, why it’s important, and how it works.

What is intelligence?


When the word “intelligence” is brought up, you might have vivid images of a savvy English spy, drinking a martini (“Shaken, not stirred”) and conversing with a drop-dead beauty while surreptitiously listening in to the big bad mob boss on the other side of the club. Most likely, the word is associated with espionage and sabotage, the work of CIA spooks in third world countries like Jason Bourne (Bourne series) or Michael Westen (Burn Notice). But that is often the exception, rather than the norm. Most of the time, intelligence analysts are quietly sitting behind a computer and staring at a screen, occasionally yawning and adjusting his buttocks, waiting for a ping to come up. Covert action, like depicted in Hollywood movies, are also included in the activities of intelligence, but they arguably make up a very small piece of the overall pie.

Lowenthal, in the book Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy, understands intelligence as “information that meets the stated or understood needs of policy-makers and has been collected, processed, and narrowed to meet those ends.” Lowenthal’s definition then puts intelligence as both a product and process. The end result, the specific information, is intelligence, and so is the process by which the information is processed.

Sherman Kent, in Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy, understood intelligence as knowledge, organisation, and activity. Intelligence aims to produce knowledge of the world, particularly what Kent terms “high-level foreign positive intelligence”, which he defines as:

“…the kind of knowledge our state must possess regarding other states in order to assure itself that its cause will not suffer nor its undertakings fail because its statesmen and soldiers plan and act in ignorance.”

Intelligence activities have to be organised, to be able to pool the talent of analysts, spooks, and general resources into one huge organisation that will be used to such knowledge and tailor it to meet the need of policy-makers. This entails two-way communication between intelligence agencies and the policy-makers. The policy-makers decide WHAT they want to know — be it the political situation in Syria, economic trends in Bangladesh, or the workings of the Hindutva organisations in India — and the intelligence agencies find out the information and present it for the policy-maker to make a decision.

Thus, in essence, intelligence is about gathering relevant information and using that information to guide policy. Feats of espionage and sabotage in foreign countries, along with the occasional spy-on-spy battles, only make up a small part of the entire intelligence process and activity. It is not about predicting the future. The best that intelligence can do is provide a proximate reality up to that point in time. Whether their intelligence was correct or even useful, such may only be known after the decision by policy-makers have been made.

Why do we need intelligence agencies?


Lowenthal states four reasons why we need intelligence agencies:

  1. To avoid strategic surprise. The foremost reason why any country would want intelligence agencies is to avoid any surprise that may endanger their way of life. A strategic surprise is something that comes completely out of left field. We didn’t have any idea it would happen. For example, Pearl Harbor could be considered a strategic surprise because the Japanese were not expected to actually confront the U.S., but they did anyway and it dragged the U.S. into the war. Contrast this with tactical surprise. The 9/11 attack was an example. Intelligence agencies knew that an attack on the U.S. was imminent, yet they didn’t have any knowledge of the means by which the attack would be carried out.
  2. To provide long-term expertise. Policy is an ongoing process, yet policy-makers often don’t stay in office long enough to see the long-term effects of their policies. Moreover, the perpetual election cycle means that each new President has to brought up to speed on what the previous administration left behind. This is where intelligence comes in. Similar to academics, intelligence agencies have accumulated a body of knowledge that would be helpful for new administrations.
  3. To support the policy process. We want policy-makers to make informed decisions. Intelligence has the power to inform policy using the knowledge it has gathered over the years. Good policy often requires good intelligence, although this is not a general maxim. Bad policy, on the other, may not always be the fault of bad intelligence. I’ll go into this later.
  4. To maintain secrecy of information, needs, and methods. Intelligence agencies are equipped with means to protect their intelligence (often national secrets) from being used or stolen by foreign agencies.

How does intelligence and policy work?

Surprisingly, the process where policy and intelligence interact is similar to the path by which may pursue in writing an academic paper. Although this time, you have an annoying politician asking the report to be done yesterday and your boss constantly saying there’s not enough money to finance a covert op. No wait, that’s pretty much similar to doing a PhD minus the occasional brawl in a foreign country with a rogue black ops agent.

In an ideal setting, policy-makers tell intelligence agencies what they need intelligence on. Say, for example, POTUS wants to know the aptitude of North Korea’s missile program. The intelligence agencies then begin to work with these parameters in mind. They collect data and information from various sources, mostly open sources, such as newspapers, the Internet, and publications; only a small amount of information is actually obtained by “other” means such as tapping,  hacking, covert ops, waterboarding, etc. They then process and analyse this mountain of information. They separate fact from fiction and decide which information is relevant to answering the question. Once they’ve thought they have enough information, they disseminate that information to the policy-makers, who would then make decisions.


“The numbers, Mason!”


So we would see that policy-makers have significant control over intelligence (in both process and product), and intelligence cannot cross over to the policy realm and make decisions. Lowenthal describes this as a “semi-permeable membrane”:Slide1.PNG

Such is the ideal setting, but the reality is much more complex. Intelligence agencies and politicians are not always on the same page. Politicians want instant solutions, often seek confirmation rather than evidence, are more concerned with their power bases (e.g. political parties, benefactors, etc.), and often do not appreciate the work intelligence does. On the other hand, intelligence agencies are more cautious, sceptical, and objective. This often creates clashes of interest, which could either occur when (a) intelligence starts deciding policy or (b) policy intrudes too much into the process of intelligence.

Scenario (a) is aptly described in the Bourne series and is made particularly clear in The Bourne Ultimatum and The Bourne Legacy. A rogue CIA implements a global black ops program, which they may operate without governmental oversight. The rogue CIA believes they have knowledge of threats — the character thereof and ways to counter them — but are slowed down by politicians. The sluggishness of the decision-making process inspires them to create covert ops forces under Operation Treadstone, Blackbriar, and Project Outcome.

Scenario (b) has seen its share of real-world examples. One often-cited example is the events leading to the 2003 Iraq invasion. At that time, policy-makers pressured intelligence agencies to produce “evidence” of an Iraq WMD program. Although there was no compelling evidence for a WMD program, policy-makers cherry-picked intelligence and often pressured intelligence agencies to fabricate plausible “intelligence” so Powell could argue for the case in Congress.

Managing this delicate relationship remains an important issue. How much should politicians interfere in intelligence? Should intelligence be allowed to make decisions on its own? If so, under what circumstances?


So far, I’ve covered the basic questions of what intelligence is, the importance of it, and how it works in a policy-making setting. We know that intelligence is about knowledge; knowing almost everything about something. It is about organisation; how you organise a bunch of analysts and the organisation itself within the complex state bureaucracy. It is also about activity; what and how you gather intelligence. The foremost reason for having an intelligence agency is to protect yourself from being surprised and keeping your private information safe. Finally, we’ve seen how the ideal process of intelligence should occur and what would happen if one side overpowered the other.

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