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27 August 2008

Considering a research agenda for intelligence

One of the consistent problems that has bedeviled the academic exploration of the intelligence profession is the constant attempt to re-invent what has already come before, rather than refining accepted tradecraft or exploring new ground. Too many in the field seek to create their own buzzwords and diagrams, and elevate citation over substance. We have long disagreed with this approach. First, we believe that we simply do not need a second incarnation of a Sherman Kent to define the field itself for further study, this already having been accomplished over fifty years ago. Nor do we need to endlessly rehash old arguments over the definition of the fundamental activities which we pursue in the profession. There is a body of best practice out there, and while the profession may indeed be under-theorized it is not for a lack of first principles, but rather for the lack of reflective practice.

We have long argued that a wider discussion of the means to assist academia in focusing on subjects responsive to the intelligence community’s needs would go a long way to breaking the barriers between theory and application. For this we were politely taken to task in March by a learned doctor who disagreed with our insistence that practitioners remain involved in teaching intelligence. (To which we owe a long overdue reply, we should add with contrition. We have not been the best of correspondents as of late). Needless to say, we feel there is ample room for disagreement on this point, as purely academic efforts divorced from practical concerns have thus far in our opinion led the field too far astray at a time when it can ill afford the yet another endless series of definitional arguments, reform studies, or attempts to impose a single arbitrary finished intelligence product format.

We would however agree with another of the good professor’s points: “Academic teaching must be closely linked to research. The huge challenge is to develop a research agenda that is relevant to [intelligence] - this has hardly been done to date. The unique contribution of academia is the development of theories that are generalizable and teach us more than the occasional case.” It is in the hope of such contributions that Sherman Kent first declared the imperative for an intelligence literature, envisioning a robust discussion between both academics and professionals (and in many cases, with both roles embodied in the same persons, given the kind of scholar-spooks which inhabited to community of the day.)

Thus we were greatly encouraged to hear of the modest proposal put forward by another gentleman of great insight and energy at a recent conference of the International Association of Intelligence Education. This gentleman had already proven himself to be well worth listening to, given previous efforts to explore forgotten intelligence history and its implications for the emerging missions of the one of the IC’s newest members, and his proposal likewise deserves further attention. Simply put, he offered the National Intelligence Priorities Framework as a model for exactly the kind of research agenda that had been lacking. The proposal seemed to us a great step forward in satisfying both sides of this argument, and a means of integrating practical considerations in a means of directing the academics efforts in directions offering clear utility to the intelligence community, but sufficiently defined in a broad brush that would encourage the pursuit of individual academic interests and creative options.

Unfortunately, the NIPF is not readily available in a form that encourages dissemination to academics due to classification and handling restrictions. Selected programs which routinely work with government data may already have a means of reviewing these requirements, and there is quite a body of writings discussing the older requirements of Presidential Decision Directive 35, but this leaves quite a number of other educational institutions out in the cold. This is not entirely conducive to good research.

And while we firmly believe that the NIPF is a good baseline for building out a more comprehensive research agenda, it does not address a number of the pressing “meta-“ questions of the field, which naturally draw inquiry into the means and methodologies by which we conduct the practice of the profession, organize its affairs, and develop its new members. This is a key shortcoming in the theorization of the field, and a robust research agenda must also reflect these requirements.

There are institutions within the khaki tower of military academia that have sought to pursue the question of these requirements from time to time, in a manner adapted to their mission. The most notable of these is the US Army’s War College, which publishes its annual Key Strategic Issues List to direct its students, faculty, and outside researchers. A similar research theme is set each year at the National Defense Intelligence College, although these have traditionally been published only for circulation within the intelligence community. The DNI’s IC Postdoctoral Research Fellow Program has issued its own research agenda, but this covers only a small subset of substantive scientific and technical questions. Likewise, the National Geospatial Agency has issued a rather weighty volume on its own priorities for GEOINT research.

All of these ought to be incorporated into the wider IC research agenda. There is a clear gap here that could be easily filled by the National Intelligence University, or another similar effort within other academic focused organizations such as the National Defense Intelligence College Foundation, given that it is a topic that body has already taken up. There is also ample room for contributions from the private sector, including perhaps the august publishing institutions of the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence and the Small Wars Journal. (We might have also mentioned the Journal of Competitive Intelligence and Management as well, had its recent untimely demise not robbed that segment of the field of its own academic literature).

The project also seems ideal for collaboration through one of the newer technology platforms such as a wiki. Perhaps one of the newer but growing intelligence studies academic program might find themselves to be the ideal home for such an effort.

We look forward to an expanded debate of this topic, and sincerely hope that the discussion will lead to a more productive harnessing of intellectual energies for the advancement of the profession, and the growth of its literature.

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