The thing about intelligence… – 26 September 2011


I convene a final year module at my university called ‘intelligence and national security’, which is a curiously popular module, for which I’m always grateful. The module is my baby. Every year I try new ways of trying to engage my students with the one intellectual thing in life for which I have a real passion for, and this year I’m majoring on electronic media (in the organisation and group work bits). There will of course be a ‘regular’ reading list, but I also want to put on a weekly blog piece that will hopefully be one the things they definitely read every week, and more importantly (because this is one of the things I’m very keen on) via the comments section, they’ll get your views and get to engage with you too. University seminars are fine for debate,  but they are of course time-limited, the benefit of a blogging environment is that it can be done over a longer-time with varying intensity and can spur off into non-blogging contact etc. I want to give it a go, and if KoW people get tired of it, I’ll switch it over to my microsite.

Defining the oldest social practice

If prostitution is the oldest trade, then spying must surely be a very close second place. For as long as there have been things to protect, or advantages to be sought then there have been people engaged in activities geared at discovery or disruption.

Modern writing on intelligence has tied itself in artificial knots over whether intelligence is a practice that is ‘government only’, and certainly the literature reflects this, and is exclusively geared around protecting citizens, core infrastructure and securing diplomatic advantage. Any cursory glance at ‘intelligence’ would tell you that it really wasn’t a practice that was exclusively vested in the government realm (e.g. Shorrock, T. (2008). Spies for hire: the secret world of intelligence outsourcing. New York: Simon & Schuster), nor is it always about securing core interests or defending against threats, although some of these cases are highly contested and confused.

Part of this contest rests on where one sits in relation to various government and private agencies. For those environmental protestors in the Midlands who had the surveillance against them so vividly revealed byThe Guardian newspaper in mid-2011, intelligence is a tool of repression, squashing their legitimate right to peaceful protest.  For those in the Maghreb and North Africa, who have risen up to overthrow their autocratic governments in early 2011, government security and intelligence services have long been aimed at restricting a plurality of political views and choices and as the recent Radio4 documentary ‘file on four’ asserted, they have done so with the assistance of European companies. But, conversely, for those who are not engaged in interest group activism, for those who work within the targets of the activists, or for those within the mainstream of political thought, government and private intelligence activity is there to ensure the smooth and undisrupted running of society and the economy.

So, we could follow the standard textbook definitions of ‘secret government information’, or ‘information that is analysed and used to inform and direct government action’ but it is clear that such a definition would exclude the private intelligence sphere (where it is not being used to assist government), and it crucially excludes an explicit reference to ‘power’. A private individual could (presumably illegally) collect an enormous amount of information on ‘target a’, but if they collected it and then never found a route to dissemination it is a powerless collection (think wikileaks without a publish button), but it is precisely the next steps that government agencies (and some private intelligencers), and who they feed into, that makes their intelligence effort more important, more worthy of note.

So, we might choose to separate out government intelligence from private intelligence. We might choose to think carefully about whether we want to create a very distinct tranche of activity called ‘analysis’, which is an activity that supports intelligence, rather than being intel itself. And we might want to treat intelligence differently from espionage, which is the form that is most obviously seen in popular culture like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and other literary cultural references.

So, we could think about intelligence very narrowly. And that would be perfectly fine. We’d know our machinery very well, and we might even be able to accurately discuss how one bit feeds into another bit, and what that means. But what concerns me – intellectually – is how the available depth of this narrowness has effectively sheened over the meta-picture of what this set of practices does to society.

So, what does this mean in the real world? Well, I was recently discussing the recent series of short films by Adam Curtis (for an example of his older work see here) with the brightest man I know. And he wasn’t keen on Curtis. Or any of the ideas he had presented. And I reflected on why I like the Curtis films so much, and it’s not because the ideas are overwhelming strong, it’s just that he’s found an overwhelmingly strong way of presenting them. He provides the viewer with a way into massive ideas, which are always grounded in eras when it seems it was possible to have big (and possibly crazy) ideas.

The ‘what this does to society’ question is, I think, really important. I am as sanguine as I think it is prudent to be about what government agencies do, but that is based on my politics being mainstream, my life being that of a dull academic and all the other trappings of being aspiring middle-class in England today. If I had a different set of background indicators, I might feel very differently. But even with my indicators, I feel very much less sanguine about the activities of foreign powers in the UK, and also private companies (see Thomas’ fine article on social networking) hoovering up every trail I generate.


So, the sorts of things we might want to observe here are about how we bond as a real society, the people physically near us, and as virtual communities. The fracture of society was most visibly and obviously seen with the recent riots (see posts passim), but it can be seen in a different way with the way we view our home communities (elongated commuting distances and times distance us from our community, for example) and also if we happen to live in Aberystwyth or Cumbria (for instance) we might also feel a very different sense of Britishness , and also a very different understanding of what London (as our main city and the financial and political hub of the country… including Cardiff.. means to them).


Such observations might also focus on the temporal dimension. If I happened upon a dozy thought when I was fourteen (and it is possible that it happened occasionally) there was nowhere for me to ‘post’ it. No facebook or twitter to capture it forever. No central sms or email log to enshrine it as part of the Dover intellectual trajectory… but now this lineage can be very easily captured, and very easily analysed and some of the ridiculous notions of youth that people will inevitably reject as they get older and see sense are tagged to them in a super-gluey way. Beware aspiring politicians…  But also be aware for future social interactions. Gone – perhaps – will be the mystery of people’s views and past-lives, and I can think of several friends whose every, er, liaison appears in technicolor surround sound on their facebook page.. some of the mystique around verbal interactions and body-language has been replaced by a keen eye for navigating around computer systems. In an off-the-cuff moment, Naomi Klein was undoubtedly right when she said that this electronic social network vision of the world was one dreamt up by socially awkward 15year old boys, who wanted to observe without interacting.


Nonsense aside, such technologies have altered the way we interact with each other, the way we manage self-identity and the way our personal trajectories can be observed and analysed. That classic politics debate about ‘public and private spheres’ has been conflated, and conflated very rapidly. I have yet to hit mid-30s and I can still remember the pre-technological revolution. .. So, when we think of intelligence, I think we have to also think about ‘surveillance’ be it passive or active, and societal relations. What is the surveillance for, and what are we gaining or losing because of it?

A final thought though:


Is it all about narrative?


One way of thinking about intelligence might be to think of it in terms of competing narratives. And I don’t necessarily mean this in serious IR theory terms, but more in an everyday understanding of the term.

The efforts against terrorism have been mainly about preventing atrocities, but they’ve also been (some connected and some disconnected) about shaping the political landscape, acceptable narratives, dominant discourses. During the Cold War the intelligence fight was partly about preventing military dominance or a decisive swing in the bipolar balance, but it was also about which particular world view was going to prevail – again, connected and disconnected – and one can see this far earlier than the Cold War, in the 1920s, in British universities  where Russian communists set about very successfully to mould the trajectory of British intellectual thought. Such contests are just as present today in our universities, from a plurality of sources.

The path to our modern day variant of globalisation (and its maintenance) has been done as Richard Aldrich wisely attests to, with intelligence agencies as the toilet cleaners of globalisation, ensuring the pipes remain free from blockages. So, our democracy and our economic system are protected by intelligence agencies and the work they do. I would venture that intelligence is the single most important political phenomenon that we need to understand, but it’s also the most niche and critically unloved of academic disciplines.


So, I will end my stream of consciousness there.


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