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Answering My Critics Part 2: Intelligence is Slightly Better Than A Ouija Board

(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.)

“Although our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating.”
    - Clausewitz

Yesterday, I said that intelligence is not counter-terrorism or law enforcement. Intelligence helps make judgements in the international relations realms, which sometimes bleeds into counter-terrorism and international law enforcement, but they aren’t synonymous. At all.

Today, I will tackle the idea that intelligence is evidence, just with a much lower threshold of proof required for action. For example, Steve Connors made this point in his comment:

Intelligence is a far lower bar in terms of actually providing proof and, at best, serves only to provide decision makers with possible courses of action based on a balance of probabilities. Evidence on the other hand, seeks to establish an absolute.

Dion left a link in his comment to a Rand article called “The Big Difference Between Intelligence and Evidence”. The key line:

“Usually intelligence does not offer crystal-clear answers, and we should not hang decisions to go to war or do anything else on its ability to do so.”

On one level, I agree with the distinction here; intelligence usually requires less facts to support its conclusions. This has developed because for years intelligence dealt in an incredibly murky realm, a realm of espionage, counter-espionage, and dirty dealers no one wants to get in bed with. Especially during the Cold War, establishing certainty virtually never happened.

But pause. Intelligence deals with issues like...declaring war. Like nuclear disarmament. Like punishing human rights violators. Why should decisions that have trillion dollar impacts and could cost millions of lives have a lower thresholds for action than evidence, that deals with the life and death of a single individual?

Intelligence now deals with a range of threats, from foreign states to tiny terrorist groups. When it comes to counter-terrorism or trans-national criminal threats, analysts can often get very, very accurate in their final opinions. The point is we don’t have to assume intelligence is always faulty, or always vague. Often it is, but it doesn’t have to be.

This is a sincere problem with intelligence from the tactical to the strategic: too many people give intelligence too big of a pass. Instead of demanding better analysis, better evidence and stronger thresholds for action, decision makers throw their hands up and say, “Oh well, it’s just intelligence.”

In the end, the actions taken by officials or law enforcement or military officers, because of intelligence, shouldn’t be justified simply because we don’t know more. “Don’t know” isn’t the same as “can’t know”. We shouldn’t excuse inexcusable actions--bombing a civilian convoy, invading Cuba, funding the Contras, or invading Iraq--simply because intelligence can only do so much, and the threats we imagine scare us so.

As I introduced on Monday, this is a relic of the Cold War, a particularly entrenched relic. Intelligence can produce varying levels of accurate analysis, just because it couldn’t in the Cold War against the Soviet Union doesn’t mean it can’t against terrorists, insurgents or other trans-national actors. The Rand article provides the telling detail. Written before the Iraq invasion, it subtly says (in my paraphrasing), “Don’t worry that we don’t have enough evidence, intelligence makes a ton of mistakes. Go with your guts, it seems like Saddam has weapons of mass destruction right?”

two comments

Michael, Could you re-post the link to the Rand paper, I could not get it to work. Your analysis of this subject is very keen and interesting. Having lost someone very close to me in a combat zone during the past decade, exploring all aspects of the decisions made is paramount and personal for me.


Sorry Derek, I fixed the link.