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Answering My Critics Part 1: Intelligence Isn't Counter-Terrorism

(As a former intelligence officer, Michael C is trying to explain his larger theory on intelligence, a simple idea with complex ramifications: Intelligence is Evidence. Click here to read the previous posts.)

After my month on "Intelligence is Evidence", I received several well-written emails questioning my core thesis. One of my goals for this series--rolling out essentially a long form article in pieces--was to get immediate reaction, to adjust on the fly and modify my thesis. Today I attempt to do that.

As I shifted through the comments, I realized that we--bloggers, journalists, soldiers, politicians, pundits, and academics--use “intelligence” vaguely. I say “Intelligence is Evidence” to properly define intelligence: information collected--usually clandestinely or covertly--about foreign actors who will/can influence America. Evidence is a collection of facts and opinions about a topic, either in law enforcement or academia; intelligence is a specific brand of evidence.

Nevertheless, the intelligence community has developed its own mythology around intelligence, developed its own set of assumptions and biases that pollute our understanding. Intelligence--the IC believes--is anything happening overseas and anyone operating in secret. Intelligence is always faulty, and always predicting the future.

But intelligence isn’t any of those things; those are relics of the Cold War applied to a globalized world.

Just like the quest to define “war”, (I tried to define war here. I’m not the only one; trying to make an exhaustive list of even just Small Wars Journal articles on this theme would take days.) intelligence means different things to different people. My next few articles will address three specific misunderstandings:

1. Intelligence is counter-terrorism.

2. Intelligence is uncertainty; evidence is surety.

3. Intelligence is predictions; evidence describes the past.

I'll start with the myth that intelligence is counter-terrorism. An email from a family friend made this point clear: intelligence isn’t evidence, it is a process like law enforcement. I see this point regularly confused in print and in blogs too. On one hand, I am sympathetic to this viewpoint because I understand how it developed. The CIA, which was/is supposed to lead all intelligence collection, began doing things surreptitiously back during the Cold War; doing operational things that felt like warfare, but weren’t, technically. When 9/11 changed the entire focus of national security to solely terrorism, the CIA thus took the mantle of pseudo-law enforcement officer.
But that doesn’t make intelligence law enforcement. Instead, that means that an intelligence agency is conducting warfare or law enforcement, depending on the situation. Worse, it conflates “counter-terrorism” with “intelligence”, assuming the two are equal and synonymous. Counter-terrorism is an entire process, and intelligence is about the collection and analysis of information. Evidence isn’t synonymous with law enforcement, nor should it be. Same with intelligence.

Law enforcement does increasingly deal with trans-national threats. That doesn’t mean that crime became something intelligence agencies/professionals had to handle operationally. To study? Yes. To action? No.

This couldn’t be clearer in the very misleadingly titled, “How the Arab Spring Weakened Intelligence” in Newsweek. The author quotes several intelligence experts bemoaning the fact that their primo sources in Arab dictatorships had evaporated, almost overnight. This hamstrings counter-terrorism. Meanwhile, the author missed the fact that all our intelligence agents acting as counter-terrorists missed the signs for the Arab Spring. They also missed that supporting brutal dictatorships who use torture on their own citizens did a lot to create the terrorists they chased. Intelligence-professionals-turned-counter-terrorists focused so much on one branch of intelligence--that related to terrorism--that they missed all the other areas that would have monumental consequences for U.S. international relations.

This has been again brought up in the newest “Top Secret America” article released by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin.  The article ostensibly describes intelligence agencies doing “intelligence”. Again, though, properly defined, intelligence is a supporting activity to the counter-terrorism mission. Yes, a nebulous conflagration of intelligence and special operations troops are deployed around the world fighting terrorists. Just because they are secret/clandestine/covert, though, doesn’t make them “intelligence”.

Tomorrow, I’ll tackle whether intelligence by definition requires a lower threshold of proof.