The intelligence services’ place in the ‘post-truth’ age
The United States security services faced a hefty amount of criticism recently, something they’ve no doubt grown accustomed to. Regularly, accusations of malpractice – for instance, the use of torture or assassinations in drone strikes – are levelled at American spy chiefs by human rights groups and foreign governments. This time though, the attacks came from the security services’ own commander-in-chief, Donald Trump.
In response to a joint intelligence services report that Russian hackers interfered in the recent US election to favor Trump, the then President-elect took to twitter on several occasions, questioning the agencies’ credibility. This provoked nearly 120 former intelligence officials to sign a letter to the President, written by the liberal veterans’ organization VoteVets.org. The intervention criticized Trump for making “malicious attacks aimed at de-legitimizing [the] intelligence community,” and urged him to “live up to the awesome responsibility with which you are being entrusted.”
Mossad, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, and GCHQ are familiar names to many of us. They are the spy agencies that covertly guard us from the shadows, or intrude menacingly into all our lives, depending on your point of view. But most of us have only a limited understanding as to what these agencies actually do and how they go about doing it.
How then should the public react to an open spat between security chiefs and their head of state? The Media Line spoke to several former intelligence officers and academics in security studies to assess the implications for the intelligence community’s relationship with the public, those who it is mandated to serve.
Today the word intelligence, in the context of information, is a common part of our vocabulary, but the public still don’t fully appreciate its meaning. At least, this is what James Breckenridge, the Dean of Ridge College of Intelligence Studies at Mercyhurst University, believes. “I think there’s a lack of understanding […] [because] most of what people read has to do with the sensational rather than the instructive,” Breckenridge, a former US army officer, told The Media Line.
Depictions of James Bond and implausible fictional hacking scenarios are more likely to be in the public consciousness than any accurate understanding of what ‘intelligence’ means. To his students, Breckenridge defines intelligence as “a process which is focused externally, at an adversary or competitor, using all sources available to reduce uncertainty for the decision maker.”
At its heart, what makes intelligence different to information is its emphasis on forecast, on its purpose as a tool of prediction for those making decisions, and the cyclical mechanisms of evaluation that it goes through. Information is just data, plain facts. Intelligence, on the other hand, is a process that collects, evaluates and makes actionable recommendations based upon information.
By way of example, a hypothetical scenario. An intelligence agency receives information relating to a possible attack on a train station being planned by extremists. The information might have been collected from an informant in the group, a human intelligence (HUMINT) source, or from an intercepted phone call, a signals intelligence (SIGINT) source.
The information is then processed, sifted to establish its credibility and value. Analysts will ask how reliable is the source? How plausible is it that the extremists would attack the train station? How does the report compare to other information known about the extremist group?
As it goes through this process the information becomes intelligence, worth more than the raw data that it started as. It’s not a perfect system, however, and mistakes can inevitably creep in, leading to some cynicism among those that the process is supposed to protect.
A lot of the public do not trust intelligence agencies because so much of what they do is, by necessity, conducted behind closed doors, Kristian Gustafson, a former Canadian army officer, told The Media Line. “If you don’t know what a thing is or how it works it’s hard to hold it close to your heart,” Gustafson, who now teaches intelligence studies at Brunel University London, said.
This mistrust is perpetuated because intelligence agencies are thrown into the spotlight only when they err – either due to a scandal, like the Snowden leeks, or to a failure to prevent an attack, as was the case after 9/11. Successful intelligence operations often don’t become common knowledge until years after their execution.
No intelligence failure in recent years generated more mistrust than the inaccurate assessments by British and American intelligence officials that Saddam Hussein possessed ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ As well as being blamed for causing much of the current instability in the Middle East, the US-led invasion, and the WMD claim which supported it, are often seen as a warning of the danger involved in intelligence chiefs telling their masters what they want to hear rather than what they need to know.
“The UK intelligence services have as their unofficial motto, ‘Speak Truth to Power,’ and that’s a nice thing to say, but in practice it can be a little harder [to do],” Gustafson suggested.
But then world leaders are not the only ones who could be accused of cocooning themselves into an echo-chamber. In an age where ‘facts’ are apparently a matter of opinion and many of us get our information about the world from social media tailored to show us things we’ll click on, a bit of critical thinking could go a long way. And for anybody trying to make sense of the ‘post-truth’ world, an understanding of the intelligence process might be a good place to start.
Good intelligence analysis is no different from solid academic research or thorough journalistic enquiry, Anthony Glees, the director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, told The Media Line.
“It’s vital that the public should understand not just what intel agencies do, but why they do it and why countering subversive activities which rely on fake news should be fully understood by the public,” Glees argued.
This is something that, unfortunately, will ask a lot of the public in terms of patience and persistence, James Breckenridge suggested. He concluded, “If the effect of fake news is to be offset […] then the reading public must be comfortable with using multiple sources and corroboration devices, as the intel community typically employs.” If Breckenridge is right, then perhaps we, the public, need to step up our game if we do not wish to be buried under the waves of ‘bad intelligence’ that are quickly becoming the signature of our times.