The Intelligence Rut

The assumption stated above is misleading though many, including some ­intelligence producers and consumers, believe that is indeed the only true role of intelligence organizations. Numerous articles and books dedicated to the subject of “intelligence failures” clearly illustrate that in many cases, the needed information is collected, however, ­neither the collectors nor analysts are able to recognize the importance or meaning of much of that intel.

In order to avoid such failures, security and intelligence organizations need to place increased emphasis on the real intelligence mission of providing, and in many cases ­creating, knowledge and understanding of new challenges and threats, such as home grown terrorism. Intelligence resources must not focus solely on the increased collection of information by either overt or covert means, but must also create learning and knowledge strategies that will facilitate understanding of the security threats to Canada by both our producers and consumers of intelligence.

To manage these new risks successfully, intelligence producers and consumers must acknowledge that they cannot deduce proper intelligence merely by measuring newly ­collected information against existing knowledge templates.

The understanding necessary to produce updated, revised and appropriate templates can only result from new levels of knowledge. Intelligence organizations tend to fail when not meeting the challenge of incorporating all implications from the new levels of intel being uncovered. They often focus on quick band-aid type solutions to produce reports at short notice and of short term value, or largely based on historical information with little existing ­educational knowledge of much use to consumers.
The real key to the long term intelligence challenge is “knowledge creation.” For example, new security issues and risks demand new understanding. Home-grown terrorism is an excellent example of a requirement for this new knowledge and understanding. Intelligence and security organizations, as well as their consumers, need to address this issue if they are to avoid future failures and have any long term success in providing the required degree of understanding.

Two significant risks have, in the past, prevented such successful understanding. First, there is the difficulty of gaining the required level of knowledge to successfully interpret any and all collected information. Second is the challenge of ensuring that the consumers of any such analysis completely understand what they are receiving. While historically, intelligence organizations have tried to address the acquisition challenge regarding the issue of knowledgeable understanding, they have, for a number of reasons, tended to take the view that their mission ends once intelligence reporting and analysis has been delivered to the consumer.

When new security challenges are presented to security and intelligence organizations, they can either establish new methods of collection of information, or as more commonly happens, redirect and alter the priorities of existing methods and sources. A great deal of attention and resources are directed to this effort, normally resulting in increased funding and assignment of more collection requirements. This inclination is based on the presumption that more information was needed to meet this new challenge and avoid any surprises. Focusing solely on a potential lack of information as the main problem to managing risks posed by new threats deflects attention away from the ­possibility that faulty analysis or decision-making prevented a proper understanding of new developments. A more balanced approach is called for. Resources would often be more effective if directed instead toward concentrated analysis of the ­gathered intel, to gain a clearer picture of the situation.

While the collection of information by all means, whether covert or overt, is a vital part of knowledge building, equally important are capturing existing knowledge, even outside intelligence communities, and seeking new knowledge that enhances our understanding. It is dangerously presumptive to assign, as is the norm, a low priority to pursuing new knowledge that leads to improved understanding wherever it can be found. This often becomes the major overlooked cause of many intelligence failures.

The tendency for intelligence organizations facing new challenges is to assign responsibility for collection and analysis to those with some level of existing knowledge and experience. Additional resources may also be brought to bear over time, but the impetus is to quickly ­produce any reporting that provides clients with the minimal level of understanding needed to grasp the risk.

This reporting usually takes the form of an historical review, ­followed by lists of future probabilities and information gaps. The focus then becomes filling in the gaps, which usually takes the form of specific questions. While useful for focusing attention, this process has the unfortunate effect of creating an impression that understanding can be achieved and risk managed by filling in the gaps. It also creates an impression that the new threat to security is immediately “knowable” if only the collectors can gather all the information needed to fill the gaps. This is very rarely the case.

It is rare for collectors to gather entirely complete and precise information concerning the capabilities and intentions of any potential security threat. Instead, bits and scraps of information, sometimes connected and sometimes not, are usually assembled, and these may or may not actually assist in understanding the exact risk. Therefore, intelligence and security organizations’ biggest challenge is making sense of the information collected and then understanding the precise nature of any security threat and consequent future developments. In reality, to successfully manage this risk and avoid intelligence failure, a deliberate strategy must be developed early on – one aimed at creating processes for learning, and creating new levels of understanding through building new knowledge.

This strategy must include identifying existing sources of knowledge and methods, but more importantly, methods and tools for both identifying new sources and for growing new knowledge and understanding. Identifying new sources includes both covert and overt means. In most cases intelligence agencies focus, at least initially, on establishing new covert means and only turn to overt means as a secondary resource. This is commonly driven by the belief that the aim is to address specific gaps rather than the larger task of gaining understanding and knowledge with respect to the new security challenge.

This approach has historical roots in the past, when information and knowledge were difficult to acquire, either because they were being withheld by others or were just not widely available. This presumption is now being stood on its head, today, there is a vast amount of information readily available to those who can sift through it to find valuable items that lead to knowledge. Never has there been an era where so much information is available – but so little is actually transformed into useful knowledge. To sift effectively through the mountains of information openly available to all, intelligence agencies must reach out to knowledgeable experts who can make the best judgements as to what has value and meaning and can advance understanding. This requires going outside the intelligence community itself as new challenges arise, something that most have been reluctant to pursue. While some change has taken place, it is usually neither quick enough nor sufficiently profound to achieve the desired understanding of new security issues.

The most effective means of creating new knowledge and understanding is through the contact and interaction of knowledgeable experts. Historically, this is the case in other fields such as medicine and other sciences. Intelligence agencies need to identify knowledgeable experts and develop programs that bring them together, either for relatively short periods, such as at conferences, or by hiring more than one expert to develop such intelligence. While one part of the organization focuses on the immediate need to respond, another must focus on developing a knowledge strategy that generates a plan for longer term growth of understanding. Progress here is difficult to achieve without experience, though new security risks demand that we do.

Just as many industry leaders have recognized a shift in their core business – from a manufacturing base to a knowledge based economy – so must intelligence leaders. These intelligence professionals must realize that their business is not just about uncovering secrets but about obtaining knowledge and understanding that guides leaders to more appropriate  action. To avoid failures of the past, and to meet the new security challenges, the focus must change. The emphasis of our ­agencies must be urgently re-oriented toward ­creating wholistic intelligence knowledge strategies.  

George Kolisnek is a former Director Strategic Intelligence at NDHQ Ottawa and Senior Policy Advisor in the Security and Intelli­gence Secretariat PCO. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow at Carleton University’s Canadian Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies.
© FrontLine Security 2008