Intelligence: actions and their meanings
20 Jan 2014|

In his book Against All Enemies, Richard Clarke relates an incident when in 1993 he was attempting to persuade President Clinton to ‘snatch’ a terrorist (a practice nowadays known better by its more formal tag of ‘extraordinary rendition’). His proposal was encountering opposition from the White House Counsel, who argued that such a course of action would be a violation of international law. Al Gore belatedly joined the meeting and, upon hearing Clinton’s quick summary of the two sides of the argument observed, ‘That’s a no-brainer. Of course it’s a violation of international law, that’s why it’s a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass.’

The message behind Clarke’s anecdote is that you should judge the merit of a government’s actions in large part by the policy that lies behind them, not by the acts themselves. In recent months, there has been considerable media discussion on the subject of intelligence, largely because of the revelations provided by Edward Snowden’s protracted leaks, the ensuing debate about proper intelligence practices, and President Obama’s selective reforms. Since it’s unlikely we’ve seen the end of Snowden’s leaks, in this post I want to say a few basic things about intelligence and why it matters. No secrets will be revealed. But I think it’s important to put some context around the core issues.

Despite the popular misconceptions about intelligence—that it’s a James Bond-like activity, conducted with great personal derring-do—in reality, it’s typically a prosaic activity. Intelligence is a tool of government policy and, as such, reflects the slow, incremental accretion of data across months, years and decades. Because it’s a tool of policy, intelligence collection and assessment by itself is neither intrinsically good nor bad, though it certainly might be either elegant or inept. What is good or bad is the policy that intelligence supports. For governments with a strongly revisionist agenda—like Nazi Germany—intelligence supports ends that Australians would find objectionable. But for states with an essentially status quo agenda in international relations, and a set of objectives which broadly promote a stable, liberal, prosperous international order, intelligence is a mechanism for supporting those objectives.

So I don’t buy the argument that all intelligence is bad, nor the notion that all intelligence is merely about self-interest—though, since the judgment about good or bad turns upon policy settings, I’m quite happy to admit some intelligence is bad and some, undoubtedly, is about self-interest. Though at the broadest level, judgments about intelligence must turn upon the policies that the intelligence supports. Australia, like the other members of the five-eyes community, wants a world where good people win and bad people lose. It’s prepared to invest in intelligence in order to support that notion.

How does intelligence help policy-making? Intelligence is about the collection and assessment of information. Good intelligence gives the policymaker more pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, and thus provides a better picture of the world. By doing so, it makes patterns more recognisable. It helps guide the targeting of policy effort. It can correct the assumptions upon which current policies are meant to lie. It provides the policymaker with a source of knowledge about the world—separate from open media sources or diplomatic exchanges. And it can—at least to some extent—be selectively targeted in response to a perceived need.

Does it always prove so helpful? No. Intelligence is neither perfect nor perfectly accurate. By nature, it tends to be patchy—typically, it provides the policymaker with more pieces of the puzzle, but not all the pieces. Sometimes the pieces of different puzzles are mixed together. Sometimes assessments are misled by a collective group-think that refuses to consider alternative explanations. Sometimes history misleads—for example, the under-estimation of what Saddam Hussein had achieved in the WMD field by the time of the first Gulf War contributed to the over-estimation of what he had achieved a dozen years later. Sometimes, as Joseph Nye has argued, the nub of the problem is a mystery rather than a secret—a secret can, in theory, be stolen whereas a mystery has no solution. And sometimes, as Amy Zegart has argued in her work Spying Blind, the institutional structure of the community tends to be blind to emerging threats.

Are some intelligence activities illegal? Yes. But to go back to Clarke’s anecdote, so what? True, some will claim that we would think this bad if it were done by an authoritarian government. To which Professor Severus Snape would undoubtedly answer ‘obviously’. It’s unlikely the authoritarian government would be conducting such activities in pursuit of noble goals. I certainly don’t want to argue that the end always justifies the means, though. What ends justify which means is a matter for government, which is why specific intelligence operations require ministerial approval. And ministers codify—and enforce—Australian standards of what’s tolerable. The same liberal, non-threatening, cooperative values that make us good international citizens also set the rules by which we manage intelligence activities. We don’t indulge in extra-judicial executions, for example, because that would undermine the broader thrust of our international effort. The type of society we are acts as a brake on the kinds of intelligence activities we undertake.

Over the past decade or so, the War on Terror has spurred the idea that Western intelligence agencies must be better able to pursue targets with low signal-to-noise ratios. That idea isn’t an unreasonable one: after all, for a war in the shadows, we should grow better eyes. But intelligence isn’t just about defeating terrorists. It’s about national advantage and, ultimately, about saving Australian lives. In a time of Asian geopolitical transformation, it’s about strengthening our capacities to achieve the sort of Asian regional order we want.

When news of Australian intelligence operations in Indonesia first broke, Prime Minister Abbott said those operations weren’t intended to harm Indonesia. The point is perfectly valid. Australian intelligence agencies don’t pursue an agenda in Indonesia separate from Australian government policy. And that policy doesn’t aim at a weakened, fractured Indonesia—it aims at a stronger, more cohesive Indonesia, an Indonesia that will be a better partner for Australia in pursuit of a stable, liberal, prosperous, regional order. We shouldn’t be shy of defending instruments that allow us to better pursue our grand strategy. And we should keep our grand strategy in mind as further Snowden revelations appear.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and an adjunct associate professor at the Griffith Asia Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user frodrig.