Strategic Intelligence Research Paper

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Intelligence is the provision of information about targets of concern, mostly foreign, for the use of decision makers, mostly governmental. The information normally prioritizes secrets and/or forecasts, and the degrees of animosity toward the targets (ranging from hostility all the way over to friendliness) are likely to shape the various efforts. The intelligence that is called ‘strategic’ is especially alert to the more competitive ranges of this spectrum, and is also loosely distinguished from what is called ‘tactical’ intelligence—the strategic seen as having wider scope, longer time horizons, and organizationally higher standing. Such strategic intelligence is several thousand years old, yet it lacked widely known, sharply focused manuals and treatises until the twentieth century (except in the narrow domain of cryptology).

The long delay was no doubt related to the traditional secretiveness of most of the intelligence activities—but also to slowness in differentiating them from broad statecraft and diplomacy and generalship, and from each other, and eventually institutionalizing various intelligence functions: distinct modes of information collection and analysis and interface with decision makers, and systematic counterintelligence shielding of one’s own efforts from those of others. With these developments in the twentieth century have come incentives for elaborate doctrine and theorizing inside the intelligence organizations—and outsiders are increasingly being allowed to play a part, often driven also by their own concerns for social science applications and/or for greater democratic account- ability. A significant literature is emerging.

1. History Of The Emergence Of Intelligence Institutions And A Literature

Some of the most ancient Mesopotanian tablets are cryptograms, and Western memory has highlighted espionage activities since the sieges of Troy and Jericho. Systematic literature on generalship, statecraft, and diplomacy became abundant, and commonly included passages on the need to have spies and to do assessments of information, but little, however, about exactly how to do the assessments, and even less about the subtleties of exactly how to direct one’s spies, and almost nothing about how to be a spy and perform espionage. For the latter, from among published works that ever achieved wide circulation, one would have had to rely on some fiction and a few memoirs.

Sheer secretiveness does not suffice to explain the slowness of emergence of a systematic intelligence literature: such literature began to appear with the emergence of modern science—and appropriately was first about cryptology (ca. 1550), the aspect of intelligence that could most readily benefit from the application of the mathematics, etc., with ‘how to’ orderliness. Traditional espionage had required secretiveness too—but about methods that were thought to be sufficiently inculcated through age-old conventional wisdom and craftsmanship apprenticeship not to require formal treatises for transmission of new specialties to novice practitioners or for continued scholarly updating, as cryptology soon did.

Many advances in science and technology were of course also contributing importantly to a general, lurching modernization of warfare and statecraft in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—and to a precipitation (which finally became rapid in the late nineteenth century) of new institutionalized specialties, crystalized out of the age-old fluid mixes of generalship, statecraft, and diplomacy. Again cryptology helped lead the way, from ‘black chambers’ of the seventeenth century to ‘signals intelligence’ (SIGINT), salient with the advent of telegraphy.

But until after Napoleon, the crystalization of intelligence functions in Europe was mostly discontinuous, ad hoc, and personalistic. Generals and admirals, rulers and their top advisers constructed intelligence outfits (usually rather small) as they saw fit and employed them idiosyncratically. There was a general presumption that diplomats would engage in espionage, discreetly, as part of their role as reporters to their home governments; likewise postal services dutifully would intercept accessible messages; merchant captains would be available to be debriefed, similarly traders and merchant bankers; clerics would commonly collaborate; and so forth, ad hoc.

Yet eventually the long century of relative peace after 1815 enabled the career diplomats to consolidate for themselves, as reporters, a professional status and ethic of personal abstention from conducting espionage—though their embassies and consulates might continue to harbor other functionaries in roles that did provide cover for agent running. Also, military attaches (likewise naval and later air) acquired a formally recognized ‘licensed spy’ status that was mutually convenient to the governments concerned. And the spread of democracy led to emphasis on differentiating one’s counterintelligence security arrangements, domestic from international.

In the twentieth century, technical collection (TECHINT) methods proliferated, utilizing new technologies in SIGINT and beyond it: notably overhead reconnaissance (imagery intelligence, IMINT). Such new or reconstituted intelligence specialties, specifically identified as such, were incompatible with continuation of ad hocery; they required distinct stable career bureaucracies, at least within the armed services, and probably also outside lest political, economic, and other civilian priorities be absorbed subordinately into military juggernauts, even in peacetime. Instead, civilian intelligence services could do some of the espionage and could highlight open sources of information, contributing to a more complete (‘all-source’) system of collection. To be sure, that would complicate coordination in all-source assessment/analysis of the collected information and in dissemination of it to the policy makers. So additional new institutions would be needed to reintegrate the recently proliferating institutions. And each of them, old and new, would come to need doctrines, for its own stable identity and its missions.

All of this was in fact the swiftly evolving setting for twentieth-century discourse about strategic intelligence.

2. Components Of The Twentieth Century Intelligence Literature

Informed discourse about intelligence requires access to evidence. Yet successful conduct of intelligence requires much secretiveness and deception. The conflict between these two principles is the central dilemma retarding scholarship about the subject—in this era when the complexity and importance of the functions and institutions has finally achieved general recognition, while the prevailing standards of respectability in social science do not comport easily with the dubious quality of evidence available for open discourse about intelligence. The field is nearly unique in that evidence is not only hard to find because it is deliberately hidden but additionally is hard to trust because often it has been deliberately planted to deceive. At least some governmental relaxation of long enforced secrecy restrictions is virtually prerequisite for building an evidentiary base usable by outsiders. Yet various possible governmental motives for relaxation rouse suspicions that even the releases are being directly or indirectly rigged. Governments do hold the keys. Investigative journalists, especially those with current events preoccupations, can be stymied; defectors and adversaries can be denigrated and largely discredited; veterans can be held to oaths of silence; archives can be kept closed and/or purged. Nevertheless, whenever stonewalling erodes and instead validation gradually proceeds, any and all of these potential sources can come cumulatively to constitute the evidentiary base for informed open discourse.

That is what has in fact been slowly occurring— especially with momentum from the United States—in a widening circle of democratic and ex-communist countries during the decades since the USA’s traumatic encounter with Vietnam. Exposes have led step by step to treatises. And much that in the past had indeed been factual but had been presented as intelligence fiction, so as to elude restrictions, can now be accorded less ambiguous credibility, even become part of the accepted data base. Historiography and some social science can take hold.

Among outside historians, about twentieth-century intelligence the most outstanding achievement thus far is the UK’s Christopher Andrew’s successive masterworks (1985, 1995, Andrew and Gordievsky 1990) on the services of each of the major intelligence powers. For coverage of earlier centuries also, the general masterwork is German: (Piekalkiewicz 1988); about cryptology it is American (Kahn 1996). Now, even for intelligence history as recent as the Cold War, multiarchival international research collaborations are sometimes successful, e.g. Russians and Americans (Fursenko and Natfali 1997, Murphy et al. 1997). For sheer massive contemporary updated data accumulation by an outsider no one anywhere rivals the USA’s Jeffrey Richelson (1999).

But most important for durably connecting strategic intelligence with social science are the works that do not just add to the base of openly available evidence but use it to rethink and generalize intelligence problems. In this genre, usually the writers who have been best positioned to take early advantage of the new permissiveness come from among former intelligence practitioners (or supervisory associates) who happen to be of uncommonly reflective—even scholarly—disposition, have familiarized themselves with the open literature currently available in their respective periods, and soberly resolve to contribute their own perspectives to its cumulative advancement. Milestone works of this kind in the United States have been Kent (1966), Johnson (1989), Shulsky (1991), and in the UK, Herman (1996), all of them distinguished for comprehensiveness as well as for insider/outsider complementarity of strengths.

What kinds of contributions can they make, in the widening discourse based on increasingly available data and personal contacts? And how about authors who remain essentially outsiders yet want to study the arcane world of ongoing intelligence—not just its history? What does the existing literature already exhibit and foreshadow about the feasibility and value of various research directions?

Scholars can act like investigative journalists and ‘speak the unspeakable,’ in reports that are also additional evidence for generalization by others.

Scholars can act as systematic ethicists, judging different forms or instances of intelligence activity. Much of such effort has been devoted to evaluating covert action (intrigue, etc.), but not much yet about intelligence in the stricter sense, where problems like loyalties and means–ends relationships also abound, worth normative exploration.

Epistemologists and cognitive psychologists have wide room to apply their disciplinary skills studying problems of perception misperception deception that arise in intelligence collection and assessment, and in counterintelligence where these complexities are loosely tagged a ‘wilderness of (interfacing) mirrors.’ The pioneering studies here were done as academic political psychology (Jervis 1970, 1976).

There is room for management-school faculties to contribute insights from their fields of management psychology and of operations research. Here quantitative methods are central whereas most other outsiders’ work on intelligence, thus far, has been entirely qualitative or only rudimentally quantitative. However, rational-choice game-theory modelers’ increasing emphasis on their players’ information levels may come to alter this imbalance, if the applicability to intelligence studies gets recognized.

Political scientists as well as psychologists can conceptualize and taxonomize in their studies of intelligence. This is a function that insiders are very familiar with on their own; they eagerly construct, debate, and reconstruct their secret lexicons, knowing full well the value of verbal precision (and deliberate imprecision). But such efforts on the inside are prone to express conflicting parochialisms.

Taxonomies by outsiders may be more objective, a moderating influence, and sometimes their conceptualization can even introduce or clarify ideas that have not already become familiar to insiders blinkered by their own secret terminology.

Similarly, outside social scientists can sometimes venture into speculative scenario writing, which implicitly can be a useful cross-check upon the range and content of comparable exercises done inside, even when the outsiders are not privy enough to the latter for the cross-checking to be made explicit.

Political scientists as well as like-minded historians can make cross-national comparisons leading to some mid-level theorizing–for example about how much the interface between intelligence analysts and top policymakers is affected by characteristics of different countries’ governmental systems, be they pluralistic or relatively centralized.

All these modes of widening discourse about strategic intelligence, besides having benefits for the scholars and some practitioners, contribute to making civil society in general more knowledgeable about this important dimension of world affairs. Thus the discourse can tend to enhance broad democratic accountability, with long-term advantages that probably outweigh the occasional damage from excessive leaks and disclosures. But wide acquiescence by insiders comes only very slowly.


  1. Andrew C 1985 Her Majesty’s Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community. Viking, New York
  2. Andrew C 1995 For the President’s Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush. HarperCollins, New York
  3. Andrew C, Gordievsky O 1990 KGB: The Inside Story. 1st edn. HarperCollins, New York
  4. Fursenko A V, Naftali T 1997 One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushche , Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964. 1st edn. Norton, New York
  5. Herman M 1996 Intelligence Power in Peace and War. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  6. Jervis R 1970 The Logic of Images in International Relations. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  7. Jervis R 1976 Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  8. Johnson L K 1989 America’s Secret Power: The CIA in a Democratic Society. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
  9. Kahn D 1996 The Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing, rev. edn. Scribner, New York
  10. Kent S 1966 Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy, rev. edn. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  11. Murphy D E, Kondrashev S A, Bailey G 1997 Battleground Berlin: CIA s. KGB in the Cold War. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  12. Piekalkiewicz J 1988 Weltgeschichte der Spionage: Agenten, Systeme, Aktionen [World History of Espionage: Agents, Systems, Operations]. Sudwest Verlag, Munich, Gemany
  13. Richelson J T 1999 The U.S. Intelligence Community, 4th edn. Westview, Boulder, CO
  14. Shulsky A N 1991 Silent Warfare: Understanding the World of Intelligence. Brassey’s (US), Washington, DC
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