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05 November 2007

Lost intelligence history

We have recently had reason to ponder the side effects of the generation shift currently underway within the intelligence profession. The course of that discussion focused on capturing the tactic knowledge and life experiences of the intelligence professionals about to retire. There is a great need to transfer that accumulated body of wisdom as best as possible to the next generation, given the lack of continuity created by the short sighted and disastrous hiring gaps of the 1990’s.

But the discussion also raised another thought – what about the intelligence history that is now occurring, often in the hands of an entirely new generation, in those places distant from the traditional core of the community?

There are ever larger numbers of small units, task forces, and cells operating out in the hinterlands in the forward expeditionary environments. They are staffed with only a few billets, and their lack of formal training and connectivity has long been a subject of debate. But there is a flipside to that disconnect, not merely in its effects on the performance of their positions, but also on the propagation of their innovations and experiences to the wider community. While many of these places may simply be re-inventing the wheel, it is equally as likely that new approaches and unique answers may emerge from the diversity of talent, backgrounds, and targets that is out there in the world beyond the traditional major agencies.

Likewise, the privatization of intelligence continues to demonstrate its impact – but rarely are these issues examined in the light of history’s perspectives. Reorganizations far less significant feature prominently in the history of many agencies, but a change in contractors that may result in an order of magnitude larger shift in assignments goes without mention. We might uncharitably believe that this lack of attention arises because many in government wish the complex issue would simple go away and not trouble their thoughts, as they ponder the uncomfortable potential of a future driven by real competition. However, it is equally as likely that these are issues that simply have not been fully considered by those engaged in the study of intelligence history. What few efforts we are aware of to contemplate the dimensions of the privatized efforts are typically done as part of internal capital building within the better contractor shops themselves – frequently on overhead internal billing or as volunteer efforts.

The lessons learned from the far flung places in which the intelligence enterprise now finds itself cannot be allowed to slip away without notice. The solutions to current problems – successful or otherwise – are equally if not more important than the oral history of the profession’s previous generation. It takes a different sort of mind, and a different style of historian, to approach the young 20-somethings out there in the disconnected wilds, but what one might find there is no doubt surprising and intriguing well in its own right. After all, many of these young professionals may have two or three tours under their belt already, and are the embodiment of the Long War. Their deeds deserve a record, and that record may hopefully inspire the kind of self-reflective examination that is critical to advancing the study of the intelligence.

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