Making Sense of Intelligence

What’s in a name?

In the lexicon of international relations, key terms such as  intelligence and diplomacy are often bandied about without much regard for their actual meaning.

Diplomacy is a non-violent approach to the management of international relations which features a dedication to dialogue, negotiation and compromise. Since at least the time of Chamberlain in Munich, however, diplomacy has come to be associated with weakness, appeasement, cheap talk and caving in to power.

And the diplomat? A dithering dandy lost in a haze of obsolescence somewhere between protocol and alcohol.

Intelligence, on the other hand, consists of  timely and accurate  information of vital interest to those in government on the basis of its relevance to national interests and objectives. It enjoys a generally positive, even romantic image, sustained in part by its mysterious reputation and buttressed by countless novels and films.

Contrary to the received wisdom, intelligence cannot be “good”, or “bad”, as it is often characterized in the media. A particular piece of  information is either intelligence, or it is something else – chatter, gossip, spin or dis-information. Even facts, if they are disconnected from the preoccupations of policy and decision-makers, don’t qualify.

Bottom line? Because of the ambiguity and confusion surrounding its nature and provenance, much of what passes for intelligence is anything but.

Intelligence is frequently associated with secret agents and spies. While these sorts of people may from time to time be implicated,  most intelligence comes from far less glamorous sources.

How is foreign intelligence gathered? In some instances the sources are secret – paid informers working inside a target organization, for example. Secret intelligence may also be generated using covert means, such as espionage, deception, intercepted communications or subterfuge.

None of this, however, is necessarily the case. In many instances, the most useful intelligence  is not that which is purchased or obtained clandestinely, but instead is the result of relationships which have been developed and nurtured over time on the basis of confidence, trust and respect.

That sort of information is known in the trade as humint, or human intelligence, and at its best it can be invaluable.

In a world exploding with data and commentary, raw, or unassessed material – of the sort gathered through signals intelligence, for example – is not always of great value. The most reliable interpretations tend to come instead from careful research and painstaking analysis using open sources,  and are constructed upon deep knowledge and a seasoned understanding of the issues.

In that respect, it is easy to overlook the intimate connections between intelligence, policy and diplomacy.

Foreign intelligence is about what is happening in the world. Foreign policy is about what governments would like to see happen. And diplomacy – as with other  instruments such as development assistance and armed force – is one way to make those things happen.

Serious problems arise when intelligence is made subservient to policy, as was the case when the USA went to war over Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. Similar disasters occur whenever governments allow policy, or preferences, or ideology, to trump intelligence – think, for instance, of Sputnik and the so-called  “missile gap”, the failure to foresee the fall of the Shah of Iran or the attacks of 9/11 , or willful blindness in the face of an imploding Soviet Union.

On balance, the forecasting record of purpose-built intelligence agencies has been spotty, and their products have proven prone to political manipulation.

So, can intelligence be made more intelligent?

Foreign ministries and diplomats assigned abroad should play major role in the generation and assessment of foreign intelligence. Diplomats, and especially those comfortable operating “outside the bubble”,  should be spending much of their time establishing and maintaining networks of local contacts who represent a tremendous source of humint.

Public diplomats, given their outward orientation and dedication to open dialogue and meaningful exchange with civil society partners, opinion leaders, and the general population, should be particularly prodigious intelligence producers.

And guerrilla diplomats, with all of the above plus proximity to the grass roots and extreme cultural competence, might be expected to top the list.

But, here’s the rub. Foreign ministries and diplomats are, if anything, producing less intelligence than was once the case. This may be attributed to a pernicious double whammy: the absorptive and analytical capacity of foreign ministries has diminished as a result of resource reductions, while  diplomatic missions,  often saddled with functions previously the responsibility of headquarters,  are moving away from intelligence yielding activities.

Canada’s embassies and consulates, by way of illustration, are being transformed into something resembling whole-of-government points of service abroad, “international platforms” where the “client” is becoming the new point of reference. As political officers spend more and more time satisfying customers, organizing visits and preparing briefing materials, they will be hard-pressed to get out of the office, where the real representational work is done.

More bureaucracy means less diplomacy, and less diplomacy means less intelligence.

Somehow, this connection seems to have been lost, and governments everywhere are poorer as a result.