Intelligence – meaning collecting needed information, usually by secret methods and then analyzing thiscollection to determine its meaning – is both very well-known and very little understood. In the United States, at least, hardly a day goes by without some mention or discussion of intelligence in the media. So, at a public but superficial level, intelligence seems familiar. But much of what actually goes on intelligence is, of necessity, not well-known because of the security requirements.
As I note in my new book, “Intelligence has a long past. What sort of future does it have?”
Unless one is a historical determinist, which I am not, the future is determined to some degree by choices. Therefore, I have examined the future of intelligence as a set of vectors that can have both positive and negative effects: technology, analysis and governance.
Technology is perhaps the most obvious but also the most difficult to assess, as much technology can be either benign or malign, depending on how it is used. The ongoing technological revolution poses a number of threats and opportunities, usually within the same space: the internet of things, the avalanche of data, artificial intelligence and machine learning all possess this Janus-like duality. I would suggest that there is, at this point, a gulf between the technology devotees, who tend to be somewhat hyperbolic, and the intelligence managers, who understand the importance of technological change but have not found entirely meaningful ways to adapt this to their tasks. Bridging this gap may be the biggest intelligence technology challenge.
Analysis will remain, I believe, the main means of interaction between intelligence services and their political masters. Analysts will have to deal with the technological challenges noted above but the ongoing policy maker need for intelligence that is comprehensible to them – meaning something more and less than reams of data. Here I revert to a Clausewitzian model: the more technology we add to deal with the “fog” of too much data, the more “friction” we introduce as well.
Finally, the key to governance of intelligence, at least in a democracy, is public support. Intelligence agencies are allowed to do extraordinary and secret things by permission of the voters through the people whom they elect to office. This creates a conflict between the necessity of some level of transparency and the necessity for some level of secrecy. But public support also depends on the public and political perception of how well intelligence is doing, often expressed in terms of the bad things that did or did not happen. For U.S. intelligence, this has become more difficult and more political as a result of a series of events: the Iraq WMD analysis, activities in the campaign against terrorists, the Snowden leaks and the hostility of the incoming Trump administration. Intelligence officers see themselves as apolitical servants of the state but the political milieu matters.
The future of intelligence? I revert to one of the frequent responses of intelligence analysts: “It depends.”
Mark M. Lowenthal, PhD, an internationally recognized expert on intelligence, is President and CEO of the Intelligence & Security Academy, LLC. His new book The Future of Intelligence is now available from Polity.