Included here:

1. Introductory Comments

2. Dictionary Definitions

a. American Heritage Dictionary

b. International Dictionary of Intelligence

3. John Macartney

4. Charles Gillen

5. Alfred Cumming and Todd Masse

6. Canadian Forces Intelligence Branch Association

7. A Note on Terminology: "Agent"


1. Introductory Comments

The materials included here under the rubric of "What Is Intelligence?" deal with defining and explaining the basic subject matter of "intelligence" as a field of government activity and, increasingly, as a field of academic study either separately or as part of exploring the broader areas of national security issues and policy.

If you can only read one book to try to understand what intelligence is all about, my recommendation is Abram N. Shulsky, Silent Warfare: Understanding the World of Intelligence, 3d ed. (New York: Brassey's, 2001).

Three briefer and more focused presentations that are well worth reading are: Michael Warner, "Wanted: A Definition of 'Intelligence,'" Studies in Intelligence 46, no. 3 (2002): 15-22; Thomas F. Troy, "The 'Correct' Definition of Intelligence," International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 5, no. 4 (Winter 1991-1992): 433-454; and Winn L. Taplin, "Six General Principles of Intelligence," International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 3, no. 4 (Winter 1989): 475-491.

Below are definitions of intelligence from a general dictionary and a specialized dictionary, some thoughts on the subject by John Macartney and Charles Gillen (both comments are taken from posts made to the alt.politics.org.cia newsgroup several years ago), and other attempts to define intelligence.

2. Dictionary Definitions

a. American Heritage Dictionary

The American Heritage Dictionary, Standard Edition, offers the following definitions of "intelligence," the last two of which are directly relevant to this discussion:

1. a. The capacity to acquire and apply knowledge. b. The faculty of thought and reason. c. Superior powers of mind.

2. a. Theology. An intelligent, incorporeal being, especially an angel. b. Intelligence. Christian Science. The primal, eternal quality of God.

3. Information; news.

4. a. Secret information, especially about an actual or potential enemy. b. An agency, a staff, or an office employed in gathering such information. c. Espionage agents, organizations, and activities considered as a group.

b. International Dictionary of Intelligence

The International Dictionary of Intelligence defines intelligence as "the product resulting from the collecting and processing of information concerning actual and potential situations and conditions relating to domestic and foreign activities and to domestic and foreign or US and enemy-held areas." Leo D. Carl, International Dictionary of Intelligence (McLean, VA: Maven Books, 1990).

3. John Macartney, "How Do You Define Intelligence?"

"[T]here is no agreed upon definition of intelligence. Both scholars and practitioners continue to debate this issue.

"The textbook in widest use in college courses (and the one I myself use at American University) is Abe Shulsky's, Silent Warfare: Understanding Intelligence, 2nd ed., Brassey's, 1993. Although an otherwise excellent book, it defines intelligence very differently than either I or the U.S. Intelligence Community do.

"Shulsky postulates 'two views' of intelligence. There is, he writes, the 'traditional view,' stemming from the 6th century BC writings of Sun Tzu, that Shulsky (and others including Roy Godson and Angelo Codevilla) advocate. Intelligence is seen primarily in military or national security terms, as part of the 'silent warfare' between nations and consisting of four basic elements: collection, analysis, covert action and counterintelligence. The emphasis is on espionage, covert action, counterintelligence and deception as well as 'opportunity analysis.' From that definition comes the belief that the U.S. Intelligence Community should stick to collecting and analyzing the secrets of adversaries. It should not concern itself much with open source information, nor with 'nontraditional' subjects such as, for example, international trade, organized crime, global pollution, or the AIDS epidemic.

"Note that Shulsky's definition is prescriptive rather descriptive. That is, it advocates the way he believes U.S. intelligence OUGHT to operate. But it differs from the way intelligence actually functions today within the U.S. Government. That confuses my students, especially since I part company with the Shulsky prescription, and therefore his definition.

"The competing viewpoint and definition stems from what Shulsky describes as the 'American view' of intelligence, which has its origins in the 1949 academic writings of Yale historian Sherman Kent, of OSS and CIA fame. In that view, which is essentially the one to which the U.S. Intelligence Community subscribes, intelligence is basically information about the world collected and supplied to U.S. policymakers. Because intelligence comes from both open and clandestine sources, in this 'American view,' and because it covers all foreign policy relevant subjects, trade agreements and global pollution, for example, along with traditional national security threats, U.S. intelligence is a much bigger enterprise than Shulsky would have it. Also, in this 'American view,' analysis is the core of the intelligence business rather than espionage, counterintelligence, covert action and deception.

"This 'American view' and definition is captured very well in the paragraph below, which begins the CIA's recent consumer's guide to intelligence (CIA, Washington, DC, Sep. 1993, updated Feb. 1994):

Reduced to its simplest terms, intelligence is knowledge and foreknowledge of the world around us. The prelude to decision and action by U.S. policymakers. Intelligence organizations provide this information in a fashion that helps consumers, either civilian leaders or military commanders, to consider alternative options and outcomes. The intelligence process involves the painstaking and generally tedious collection of facts, their analysis, quick and clear evaluations, production of intelligence assessments, and their timely dissemination to consumers. Above all, the analytical process must be rigorous, timely, and relevant to policy needs and concerns.

"Although I agree fully with CIA's definition, above, the one I use in class is a bit shorter. As I define it for my students, intelligence is a dedicated and usually tailored foreign information support service for government policymakers, planners and implementors. I consider, as Congress does, counterintelligence and covert action to be Intelligence Related Activities. They are very important, in my view, but they are not intelligence per se. I also make very clear to my students what U.S. intelligence is not. Forget Hollywood caricatures, I tell them, intelligence is not policy or policymaking, police or law enforcement, special operations, or green berets. Nor is it James Bond or Jack Ryan."

[A version of this article appears in Intelligencer 6, no. 1 (Jan. 1995): 3-4.]

4. Charles Gillen

"'Intelligence' is merely knowledge. As with beauty, its worth lies in the eye of the beholder. The value of a particular bit of information depends on who knows it, who knows which others also know it, when it was learned, what other bits of related info are also known, and what the knowers can do with it. All these points are beautifully illustrated in a common case of insider stock-trading.

"Please note that in many instances, even 'overt' bits of information known to many may easily become useful 'intelligence' if some of the factors noted above come into play, where added value may lead to unobvious conclusions and significant counter-actions.

"On this basis, it is easy to argue that 'open source' collection should not be neglected, and perhaps should be a branch of the 'covert' collecting organization, as centralized processing of the two info streams is bound to convert more of such free 'information' into 'intelligence.'"

5. Alfred Cumming and Todd Masse

From Alfred Cumming and Todd Masse, FBI Intelligence Reform Since September 11, 2001: Issues and Options for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, 6 Apr. 2004):

"Appendix 1: Definitions of Intelligence

"Three formal categories of intelligence are defined under statute or regulation:

"* Foreign Intelligence. Information relating to the capabilities, intentions, or activities of foreign governments or elements thereof, foreign organizations, or foreign persons. (185) [See National Security Act of 1947, as amended (50 U.S. Code, Chapter 15, 401(a) and Executive Order 12333, 3.4]

"* Counterintelligence. Information gathered, and activities conducted, to protect against espionage, other intelligence activities, sabotage, or assassinations conducted by or on behalf of foreign governments or elements thereof, foreign organizations, or foreign persons, or international terrorist activities. (186) [Ibid.]

"* Criminal Intelligence. Data which has been evaluated to determine that it is relevant to the identification of and the criminal activity engaged in by an individual who or organization which is reasonably suspected of involvement in criminal activity.... (187) [See Code of Federal Regulations, Part 23]"

6. Canadian Forces Intelligence Branch Association

"Intelligence is just the process for finding out what one needs to know. With that in mind, it is important to understand the distinction between intelligence and mere information. These definitions can be found online in the NATO glossary.

"INFORMATION is just that -- unprocessed material of every description that can be used to produce intelligence. It is, in essence, 'raw data.'

"INTELLIGENCE, on the other hand, is the product that results from processing raw information."

The above is an excerpt from the Association's on-line article, "Just What is Intelligence Anyway?"

7. A Note on Terminology: "Agent"

The following is from John Macartney, as posted on "Cloaks-and-Daggers Open Discussion of Intelligence (Academic)" <CLOAKS-AND-DAGGERS@MAELSTROM.STJOHNS.EDU>:

"To intelligence professionals, an agent is the foreign national, the informant, that is committing treason and 'spying' on his or her own country. But in the press, the term 'agent,' as in 'CIA agent' or 'M.I.6 agent,' usually means, erroneously, a CIA officer or an M.I.6 officer. That is, career employees, case officers, rather than their foreign informants."

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