(No) risky business—the obligation of intelligence
23 Sep 2016|

In his recent The Strategist article, The importance of intelligence, Michael Morell argues that we, by which he almost certainly means the West, are in the midst of a golden age for intelligence. He suggests two reasons for this, one of which is that intelligence is an indispensable part of the policymaking process. In Morell’s opinion, without intelligence, policymakers cannot understand the many and varied issues they face.

I’d question the basis for Morell’s optimism for this golden age. Instead, I’d contend that a particular reason for the indispensability of intelligence is the heightened degree of risk aversion amongst today’s policymakers. Intelligence promotes itself as being able to reduce surprise and improve understanding. The allure of something that makes it possible to avoid, or even eliminate, unpleasantness dovetails conveniently with our current political system that seeks to punish perceived failures by those in positions of power and authority—be they politicians, bureaucrats, or military officers.

 With the present worldwide deployment of Western military forces, whether they’re conducting counter-piracy patrols off the Somali coast, confronting Russian and Chinese military posturing in the North Sea and South China Sea respectively, bombing extremists in Iraq and Syria, or countering the flow of narcotics from those countries south of the US, there’s an unprecedented desire by decision-makers to ensure nothing adverse happens on their watch. Such an occurrence would be one of the swiftest ways to harsh public criticism and/or a significant loss of status.

That global presence creates a resultant burden for the IC (Intelligence Community) to collect and analyse information on a similarly global scale. In his February 2016 Congressional testimony (PDF), the current US Director of National Intelligence discussed issues which fall within the scope of the US IC, such as artificial intelligence, homegrown terrorism, energy prices, the conflict in Syria and elections in Venezuela. Intelligence appears to have increasingly become about knowing something about everything, moving beyond its traditional span of providing warnings of the threats posed by a nation’s enemies. That increase in scope may be good for the business of intelligence, but it leads to a dilution of focus away from those issues where the IC can provide the most significant contributions.

It’s an overused cliché to say that there are intelligence failures and operational successes. Recent history has numerous examples where strategic surprise has been blamed on the inability of the IC to connect the dots or even have the dots at all. The nuclear tests by India in 1998, the attacks by al-Qaeda on 9/11, and the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq are but three examples which have contributed to an idea that if we had more intelligence (making the assumption that intelligence is a quantifiable and scalable resource) we would’ve had a better understanding of the threats and therefore could’ve made better decisions.

To achieve the required level of omniscience over a large (and expanding) range of issues, it’s become the accepted wisdom among some (PDF) that vast amounts of information need to be collected, which can then be processed into usable intelligence. It was, after all, the previous director of the NSA who suggested that, to find the needle in the haystack, you need to collect the entire haystack (the assumption being that the haystack will have at least one needle in it). Advances in computer processing and storage capacity mean that such a thought, which would’ve previously been considered impossible, is now seen as a viable option.

The consequence of those developments is that intelligence provides a ready-to-use fall guy for when things do go wrong—sometimes due to the actions (or inactions) of policymakers. It’s revealing that when asked about security issues public figures don’t say ‘there is no threat’ but instead often reply that ‘there is no specific intelligence of a threat’, or (and perhaps worse), ‘our intelligence agencies have no specific information of a threat’. Thus the political impact of any subsequent failure or surprise can be kept at arm’s length.

To get the most out of the dollars it provides to the IC, policymakers should heed Morell’s advice that the IC is good at collecting information and producing intelligence on hard targets, so the IC should be directed to focus on only those things. The risks posed by those hard targets frequently have the most acute consequences when things do go wrong. For other issues, particularly those with more publicly available information, policymakers should be willing to accept a greater degree of risk. However with a recent head of Australia’s Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet lamenting, ‘…the political class’s unwillingness to put boundaries around its ambitions for what will be done,’ I’m not optimistic.