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21 December 2007

Explaining the limited impact of university level intelligence scholarship

Among the more damning aspects of the current state of intelligence studies academia is the near irrelevance of what few contributions to the literature that it does produce – at least in its incarnations at civilian universities. Our continued search for interdisciplinary contributions in no small part stems from the need to fill this void – and especially to find something other than the tired rehashing of reform discussions and notional sketches of some ideal fantasy of a unified new organization chart.

The khaki tower – the military service institutions and war colleges – has done more than its fair share to advance the field in new directions. In fact, without this literature we might be looking at a far sparser landscape of research and writing on those subjects most critical to our field. Unfortunately, for reasons which at this point are beyond irrational, we continue to observe that the civilian academia largely ignores these works no matter how key their contributions. The standards of scholarship and academic rigour at many of the khaki institutions are by any objective measure equal to the best universities in the world – and far exceed that which frequently serves to pass muster at the middle tier civilian schools. Yet the civilian university has offered little in its own right as an alternative.

We do not seek here to re-fight the debate over the relative levels of theorization in intelligence, and the relative importance of such theory. (Dr. Andrew and Dr. Davies carry that banner far more persuasively, whichever side one might choose to believe.) Instead, we question why what few contributions to the literature that have emerged from the civilian university have had such limited impact within the intelligence community as a whole?

We freely admit the question far exceeds the capacity of a humble blog to answer. We may point towards a few elements which we think contribute to the problem, but the issue will by no means be an easy one to fully trace – let alone resolve.

The first underlying factor we might identify stems simply from the limited circulation most civilian academic work receives within the intelligence community. At most, only a few copies of any given paper or journal might be found in the stacks of the major agencies’ own libraries. And these are institutions rich in resources indeed when compared to their counterparts in more isolated locations, or at less rarified levels. While electronic databases may solve this problem for some of the major publications, the range of access to these is also limited (though, to be fair, improving.)

But these databases do not encompass a wide range of publications which float in the gray literature – review drafts, conference notes, or other items which might never see the light of day. Many are held onto jealously by their authors with the intent of commercialization in some unspecified future manner. And while we are the first to wish them the best in those endeavors so that their future contributions might be encouraged through good incentives, we have seen too many promising works fail to materialize entirely when a publishing deal fell through or the realities of the industry’s profit and loss calculus became clear.

In comparison, the works from the khaki tower – and in particular those institutions which will make up the National Intelligence University system – are typically far more readily accessible. One has to look only to the spread of such pieces as Heuer and Davis in comparison. (And while we have often criticized the fifth generation photocopy style samizdat model which served as the primary dissemination mechanism for much of the literature in years past, we must admit that electronic publishing is now doing much to remedy this. And even so, the older models of informal networking seem to have been reasonably effective – if not terribly efficient.)

This dynamic is further aggravated but the limited attention that the serving community has to devote to academic matters. Practitioners might typically only have time to peruse a few articles over the course of each month. As much as we would prefer otherwise, the demands of staying current on one’s own accounts – to say nothing of overarching issues and potential upcoming assignments – leaves little time for casual reading for all but the most dedicated of self-reflective practitioners. Thus there is a distinct bias towards a power law distribution of readers’ time and attention to the more general works in the field – despite what should be a significant long tail demand given the numbers and diversity of those within the field.

Given these factors, we might therefore endeavour here to surface from time to time a few of the overlooked works of scholarship emerging out of the civilian university, in attempt to at least increase what attention might be paid to otherwise undeservedly ignored pieces by playing the role of guides in dark territories.

More systematic efforts however are surely needed, starting with the university presses themselves – and indeed, the very cultures which dominate the major civilian intelligence studies programs.

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