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03 December 2007

Intelligence in the (proto) UN system

Much as we previously remarked upon the true but too oft forgotten origins of commercial intelligence, we have also recently had occasion to be reminded of the obscure history of another overlooked facet of comparative intelligence traditions.

Throughout the confusion of the 1990’s in the emergence of the new world disorder, the requirements of intelligence in the international system were fiercely debated. Along the way, the naive ideals of too many abstract theorists came to dominate, insisting that organizations such as the United Nations did not need, and should not employ, the activities of intelligence – even when forward deployed in support of contingency and peacekeeping operations. This overly idealistic thinking met bruising reality in the conflicts of the Balkans, and the legacies such as Srebrenica live with us still to this day. The Netherlands Institute of War Documentation’s landmark study was only completed in 2002 – including an examination of intelligence operations and liaison relationships notable for its astounding access to primary Dutch sources (if not perhaps its accuracy in other more speculative areas involving the services and activities of other nations.)

But despite the protests of the modern theorists who would fashion the international community in a softer image, there is indeed nothing alien regarding the idea of intelligence in transnational bodies. The use of intelligence for negotiations between alliances of like-minded states, dealing with countries outside of the normalized system, dates back at least to the diplomacy of the Elizabethan age. The collection and analysis of information in support of a variety of intergovernmental purposes continued unabated, even to inclusion under its overt nomenclature in one of the first transnational deliberative bodies.

Once again, via the newly liberated electronic ghosts of tomes from the deep archives, we note a small but overlooked piece of that historical puzzle. It takes the form of a 1934 volume published by the Economic Intelligence Service of the League of Nations. It is the surviving (and now digitally enduring) member of a publication series begun in 1931, providing basic intelligence on international banking systems worldwide dating back 1913. As typical of economic intelligence reporting of the day, the volume is largely a dry compilation of reference level materials, though its analytical framing is rather sophisticated for its day. Unsurprisingly, source material from the Economist is cited frequently – which will no doubt please those at the Economist Intelligence Service who can now lay claim with stronger evidence to a far older intelligence tradition than is commonly recorded.

A subsequent volume was published in 1935, but the next digitally available volume dates from 1942, for which the Economic Intelligence Service’s Financial Section then director, a monsieur A. Loveday, again penned the introduction - noting the publication changes wrought in post-War volumes. From this we might surmise an interruption in publication – or at the very least, distribution - during the turmoil of the intervening years.

This history casts the debates over the role of intelligence in the UN system during 1990’s in a most unfavorable light. If intelligence was suitable for the rather more mundane applications of economic and commercial consumers during the earliest days of what was arguably an even more idealistic international organization, then the application of the same tradecraft to the preservation of effective peacekeeping options – and the lives of those allegedly under the protection of a UN deployment – should have been far more readily acceptable.

Selective memory and forgotten history can have terrible consequences. We doubt there was ever a more compelling case demonstrating the need for rigorous intelligence scholarship, supported by a robust literature.

This incident also reminds us that it is not enough for academics to claim the distinctions of scholarship – they must also write, in a manner that does not merely rehash old arguments and recycle the same primary source set. New research and the rediscovery of older sources are needed, and the writings which result from these studies must have relevance and reach to influence the world of the practitioner. The field cannot afford disconnected abstractions of no applied merit, nor can it endure to see its history and lessons learned to be lost in the dusty stacks for another generation.

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