Intelligence Theory: Key Questions And Debates – Book Review

Intelligence Theory: Key Questions And Debates provides a unique examination of the many significant questions surrounding intelligence theory today.  It delivers not only a historical outlook of the fruition of intelligence and what its role in politics has been, but also provides an illuminating position on what the current intelligence world looks like as a result of the changes concurrent to the end of the Cold War and the later September 11th 2001 attacks.   This volume was developed out of three conferences on the subject of intelligence theory that were held by Stephen Marrin, Peter Gill and Mark Phythian between 2006 and 2007. As a result of the debates and discussions held throughout these conferences, Marrin, Gill and Phythian compiled and edited twelve essays, which represent a wide range of thoughts meant to establish and inspire further discussions related to the topic of intelligence.

Intelligence Theory: Key Questions And Debates begins by providing insight into the foundational elements of the intelligence world.  It opens with pieces by David Kahn, a published author and journalist within the intelligence realm, and Chief Historian for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Michael Warner. These two contributors illustrate a broad representation of how intelligence has been used throughout the ages.  Kahn and Warner’s historical pieces present anecdotes meant to provide allure and draw in a certain humanity to the study of intelligence by quoting authors such as Sun Tzu, songs from Rod Stewart and even the metaphysical ponderings of Aristotle. Yet by juxtaposing these historical figures’ thoughts with that of current political thought, these discussions also set the stage for questions regarding whether intelligence does in fact provide decision makers with an effective and efficient tool to executive real and true policy.

Under the essay entitled Shared World or Separate Worlds?, Phythian argues that the structural realists perspective, which he notes as being the best way to describe how “both intelligence customers and practitioners tend to view the world”, has “clear limits”.  In other words, the limitations behind a perspective which seeks out security as the ‘be all and end all’, as a realist would have one believe, is counterintuitive; especially with the growing presence of international non-governmental entities which are not entirely bound by any particular states’ power.  Phythian presents the notion that if in fact there are clear limitations to the realist perspective, which he has exposed as being a popular perspective taken on by the intelligence community, then it is possible that “there is no need for such a large, expensive, unwieldy community as that which exists in the contemporary US”.

As the book progresses, J.J. Wirtz, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, presents an examination of the successes and failures of surprise attacks.  What is interesting to note about this argument is that he sheds further light on the uncertainty and the unpredictable nature that goes along with predicting events.  At one point in Wirtz’s essay, he points out how in some ways, surprise attacks allow for the “weaker side in the conflict to reach for goals that are truly beyond their grasp”, hence providing the opponent with somewhat of a military advantage.  Yet, a contradiction to this premise which arises earlier in the essay argues that “[s]urprise is attractive to the weaker party in a conflict because it allows it to contemplate decisive actions against a stronger adversary”.  Wirtz concludes that the paradox of surprise is a ‘Lose-Lose’ for all that initiate. It is in fact this conclusion that once again draws attention to the uncertain advantages that intelligence may provide.  If in fact one of the purposes of intelligence is as a tool or weapon between states in the international arena and to provide decision makers with the ability to surprise and therefore have the upper hand in political action. Moreover, it follows that if the paradox of surprise is potentially a ‘Lose-Lose’ for all that initiate as posed by Wirtz, then it is possible that intelligence can put the stronger party at a disadvantage.

It is with this in mind that chapters 8 and 9 entitled Intelligence In A Turbulent World and Intelligence Analysis And Decision-Making, both discuss this concern surrounding the relationship between intelligence providers and decision makers.  It discusses both the problems associated with efficiency and also with the fundamental problems surrounding the nature of the relationship between these two parties.  Marrin, a former analyst with the CIA and the Congressional Government Accountability Office, provides the idea that while intelligence analysts are meant to provide objective sources of information, the decision makers or politicians that later disseminate the information easily pick and choose what context they want to present such information therefore potentially providing unreliable information to the public in the end.

Once again, a recurring theme surrounding the unreliability and uncertainty which intelligence provides the current mechanisms that are in place to disseminate information makes its way into the debate.

Intelligence Theory: Key Questions And Debates does a wonderful job of shedding light on the notion that there is a profound need for development in the field of intelligence.  Gill, Marrin and Phythian have done an excellent job of weaving a united theme into 12 different essays with unique perspectives on the many key issues surrounding intelligence theory.  These essays have pointed out the clear disconnect between the intelligence community and the decision makers that use intelligence for their own ends.  This work provides a brief glimpse into the limitations and the complexities behind intelligence theory and shows how important it is that a stronger field of study related to intelligence theory be implemented.


Ricardo Khayatte

Ricardo Khayatte