The thing about intelligence…


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 by The 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.

I would be grateful to hear what the KoW masses think!


14 thoughts on “The thing about intelligence…

  1. davidbfpo says:


    Long day, so just a couple of thoughts.

    1) Intelligence is similar to navigation; it is startling when you start with a wipe board containing icebergs, maps and sat navs. The audience thinks they’re in the wrong room.

    2) Intelligence tries to offer narrative(s) yes, today I would contend it tries to give decision-makers (not always politicians) advice that contains (in fact aims for) certainty.

    3) Intelligence now needs to adapt, national security still exists and is vital; what is looming larger is public security (I’m trying to be an optimist).

    • Ben Weller says:

      I agree that intelligence needs to adapt. To that end, would it be useful to define each strand of intelligence activity by the threat it counters?

      – Counter espionage.
      – Espionage itself is a counter to the threat of being left behind by competitors.
      – Counter terrorism (cyber threats, threats to rights, threats to public infrastructure)
      -Counter uncertainty

      Just a thought.

  2. Rob Dover says:


    Many thanks for that.

    On your number 2). Is this the trap of thinking that social phenomena can be captured as a science? Or can it – if one had enough processing power, for instance? The point I was getting at was, if one contains and dissuades enough people from ‘loud target group a’ from shouting then their view is absent. And the absence of this view is as affecting in one direction as it might be in the other if they were noisy…

    Public security.. sounds like when we’ve cracked one another somewhat larger problem may emerge!

  3. Pingback: Everything You Say Will Destroy You | Rearranging Prejudices

  4. Gunrunner says:

    Let’s not forget industrial espionage as a key component of today’s intelligence activities.

    Conducted by commercial competitors and foreign governments, industrial espionage does more than just give one company an advantage over another, it also help’s a country gain competitive intelligence regarding technology and capability.

    Intelligence is more than taking a sneak-peek into the inner-workings and intents of a government.

    • Rob Dover says:


      You’re absolutely right. As always.

      In the 90s the FTSE 100 had a collective intel budget larger than the British government’s intel budget (spread across all activities) and that obviously makes business, corporate or industrial intelligence a big deal.

      But as for our foreign competitors, and we’ll assume that the UK is just an offshoot of your great nation, the stories about them are legion and whilst their hackers try to steal corporate and industrial secrets by brute force, their procurement people are hoovering up ‘our’ IP for fun. If money buys power, and manufacturing is their key way of generating it.. we’re being pasted twice (in the finance and in the technology grab).

  5. Thank you for inspiring this discussion. I expect to follow it with great interest.

    I am only posting now so I can check the box to be notified of additions to the discussion thread. However, I’ll take this opportunity to say that one aspect I’m looking forward to is the use of misinformation as a weapon in the intelligence wars. I suppose that people posting false images of themselves to attract attention is one of the more humorous/nonlethal[?] applications of this tactic.

    Other than that, I’ll simply lurk.

    • Ben Weller says:

      While at university I really enjoyed a talk given by someone who operated on behalf of the British government behind the “Iron curtain.” I wish I could remember his name and organisation but this was about 7 years ago now.

      His role involved intelligence gathering. What I found amazing at the time was the overall impression he gave: that they were very close to their Russian counterparts much of the time, often having big banquets together and getting heinously drunk.

      The benefit of this transparency was that there was a “back-channel” – a way for government agencies to communicate in a way that was unofficial. Sort of like how investment banks make anonymous trades with competitors through an intermediary so that deals can be done without anyone losing face, the governments of the Soviet Union and Britain traded information anonymously through their intelligence operatives.

      This facilitated a greater degree of trust between the two states and may have contributed to maintaining a balance to better facilitate the prevention of ‘hot war’. This concept is alluded to in the film “The sum of all fears” but it was fun to hear it straight from an ex-intelligence operative’s mouth and to see his photos of him and his Russian counterparts downing vodka and smoking cigarettes together and then to imagine that they were in the process of helping to broker world peace at the time.

    • Chirality says:

      “…so that deals can be done without anyone losing face…”

      Nothing to do with losing face. It’s purely economic – so that competitors don’t move their bid-offer spread in the knowledge (intelligence) of a large seller/buyer in the marketplace e.g. lower a buying price in the knowledge that a competitor is trying to sell a large block of a financial asset.

      (for the tangentially interested the same can be achieved in Order Management Systems with ‘iceberg’ orders – large trades being broken up into many smaller individual orders).

      The financial markets are though an interesting example where ‘market intelligence’ can be crucial to corporate economic prosperity.

  6. Chirality says:

    I don’t wish to spiral this into semantics again (like defining altruism) but I think that before you can discuss what this thing we call intelligence does to society, you do really need to tie down the definition a little more. ‘Intelligence’, like ‘strategy’ or ‘terrorism’, has become a somewhat ubiquitous term, meaning different things to different people (an aside: does social networking act as a conflator of meanings or a tool for the rapid spin & dissemination of alternate meanings?)

    Is intelligence a purely acquisitive term (the collection of knowledge / data) or is it a more of a ‘process’? Dynamic – the acquisition/collection of information AND the possible application of that information. Is it the gathering of information for a purpose (economic prosperity or security)? i.e does purpose proceed the intelligence gathering (directed) or does it come after intelligence gathering? Or both?

    Does the definition of intelligence change from the State level to the industry level to the individual corporate level to the personal level?

    • Rob Dover says:

      And that’s exactly the debate that I think needs to be had.

      Academically, I think the term has become synonymous with analysis. Whilst in the public realm it has become synomymous with espionage (largely due to popular cultural references and loose terminology).

      One way to reconceputalise what I was saying is to think of it through the collection of information (broadly defined) concerned with terrorism. What effect has the passive and active collective of information, with the purpose of identifying, curtailing and rolling back the threat from terrorism done to social relations (their nature, their quality etc). But none of this can be done without looking at the other revolutions in how we work, and we relate to each other.

      But to address your point, it might be that the umbrella term ‘intelligence’ is meaningless – we might instead discuss espionage, analysis or strategy(?)

  7. davidbfpo says:

    Ben Weller,

    I would suggest the talk you heard was about BRIXMIS, the strange confidence-building UK Military Mission to the Soviet Army in (East) Germany:

    Tony Geraghty and another wrote good books on their work. The Four Powers each had a mission, just in case you heard their story.

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