Ideas of Intelligence: Divergent National Concepts and Institutions. (Intelligence)

By Davies, Philip H. J. | Harvard International Review, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Ideas of Intelligence: Divergent National Concepts and Institutions. (Intelligence)


Davies, Philip H. J., Harvard International Review


Since World War II, much effort has gone into defining "intelligence." This effort has even given rise to what is sometimes called intelligence theory, which can be traced to Sherman Kent's desire to see intelligence programmatically examined, addressed, and subsumed by the mainstream social science tradition. During World War II Kent served in the Bureau of Analysis and Estimates of the US Office of Strategic Services, and later headed the Office of National Estimates of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Virtually all intelligence theory could be considered a footnote to Kent. His conviction that intelligence should be a broad-based analytical discipline is embodied in his maxim "intelligence is knowledge," which has set the precedent for most subsequent debate.

Since Kent's day, many alternative approaches to intelligence have been suggested by a succession of authors. In his 1996 Intelligence Power in Peace and War, British scholar and former intelligence officer Michael Herman tried to present the range of conceptualizations of intelligence as a spectrum, ranging from the broad definitions that approach intelligence primarily as "all-source analysis" (typified by Kent's view) to narrow interpretations that focus on intelligence collection, particularly covert collection. Herman notes in passing that the broader interpretations tend to be favored by US writers and narrow approaches by the British. What Herman does not pursue, however, is the fundamental difference this matter of definition effects in the British and US approaches to intelligence and how those conceptual differences have been reflected in their respective intelligence institutions and in legislation. It is entirely possible that by asking "what is intelligence?" we may be barking up the wrong intell ectual tree. The real questions should perhaps be "How do different countries and institutions define intelligence?" and "What are the consequences of those different definitions?"

A Study in Contrast

Conceptual divergences in the concept of intelligence are particularly worth keeping in mind when comparing Britain and the United States. The 1995 US Congressional Aspin/Brown Commission examined the British national intelligence machinery. Likewise, one of the first actions of the British Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee after its creation under the 1994 Intelligence Services Act was a similar evaluation of US methodologies. Neither side found anything to incorporate from the other's methods, and yet neither seemed to detect that they were talking--and hence thinking--about entirely different things when they were talking about intelligence. To a large degree, transatlantic dialogue on the subject of intelligence has tended to be conducted at cross-purposes.

In current usage, "intelligence in US parlance tends to refer to "finished" intelligence that has been put through the all-source analysis process and turned into a product that can provide advice and options for decision makers. Perhaps the classic US definition comes from a past edition of the Dictionary of United States Military Terms for Joint Usage, which states that intelligence is "the product resulting from the collection, evaluation, analysis, integration, and interpretation of all available information which concerns one or more as pects of foreign nations or areas of operation which is immediately or potentially significant for planning." This definition includes the collection of raw information, but the end result does not become "intelligence" as such until it has been thoroughly analyzed. Hence, in the US context, intelligence production means analytical production.

This very broad sense of the term intelligence was used as far back as 1949 when Kent argued that intelligence consists of three "substantive" elements: first, descriptive background; second, reportorial current information and threats, the "most important complicated element of strategic intelligence"; and third, the "substantive-evaluative" analytical process of evaluation and "extrapolation. …

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