The Challenges of Teaching Intelligence Studies

28 Jun

This post is based on a short presentation I gave as part of a job interview at the International Politics department of Aberystwyth University. I didn’t get the position, but I am very grateful to Jenny Mathers and the rest of the InterPol department for the chance to visit Aberystwyth. 

In addressing the question of what are the challenges of teaching intelligence studies, I’d like to focus on four main challenges that I see as significant. These obviously are not the be all and end all, but are succinct summaries of key issues that I see as affecting how and why we teach.

spooksI’d argue that one of the main challenges is addressing student expectations of what intelligence is. These expectations are at least in part formed by a lifetime of exposure to popular cultural interpretations of intelligence, such as television programmes like Alias, Spooks, 24, and The Night Manager, the Bourne films, video games like the Metal Gear Solid series, and so on and so forth. As much as we in academia would like to think otherwise, films like Bridge of Spies, the Mission Impossible series, and Burn After Reading seem to have a much greater impact on the way people think about intelligence in the wider world than our publications in scholarly journals, conference papers, or blog posts. Oh how I wish it were otherwise!

So, it’s vital to demonstrate that the realities of intelligence are at the same time more pedestrian and more exciting than any film, television programme, video game, or book. For example, while intelligence analysis is a vital component of what intelligence is, it’s dull, painstaking, and often long-winded. I’m not sure a real time programme that involves watching analysts pour over decrypted emails would get quite the same viewing figures as Jack Bauer torturing and killing his way around the world. On the other hand, the career of Oleg Penkovsky or the story of Able Archer ’83 is far more thrilling than any fictional accounts. Able Archer ’83 in particularly informative. The way in which Soviet intelligence gathering that was at its heart based on faulty and often false assumptions about NATO intentions towards the USSR led us closer to nuclear war than any time since the Cuban crisis is a fascinating story. Tales of KGB and GRU officers wandering the streets of London and Brussels at 2 in the morning looking for excessive numbers of lights on in government offices never fails to catch the interest of students.

hun_bookFiction also serves a useful teaching purpose when it intersects with the real world or when it can be used to illustrate changes in public perceptions of intelligence. For example, the CIA’s commission of future Watergate conspirator E Howard Hunt to write a series of novels to challenge the dominance of a certain British fictional spy. Worried that fictional accounts of British intelligence activities were serving a propagandistic purpose that made US intelligence agencies look bad, Hunt (writing as David St John) was tasked with writing a new series of spy thrillers. Featuring dashing American agent Peter Ward – ladies man, killer, ace of spies – they manifestly failed to make much of an impact on the public consciousness. So, they didn’t succeed, but it’s a fascinating insight into the ways in which popular culture and real intelligence can overlap. So popular culture should not be dismissed as a source. Three Days of the Condor, for example, can usefully indicate changes in attitude towards intelligence in 1970s America.

We can meet the challenge of popular culture by comparing and contrasting it with real intelligence work, showing where the differences and similarities lie.

My second challenge is definitional. What do we mean when we talk about intelligence? Over the years, academics and practitioners have struggled to come up with a comprehensive, coherent definition of intelligence.

In 2002, Michael Warner, one of the CIAs in-house historians, suggested that intelligence was “secret, state activity to understand or influence foreign entities.” But does that work for our purposes? The emphasis on “foreign” seems to exclude counterintelligence and domestic security. Now, you could argue that counterintelligence and domestic security are separate issues, but I don’t think that’s a useful position to hold. I’ve recently been researching the Thatcher government’s attitude towards BBC reporting on foreign intelligence and domestic surveillance in the early 1980s. To take a strict, foreign only definition of intelligence would exclude very important domestic activities.

I’m not going to pretend that I can articulate some all encompassing definition of intelligence myself, but I do see it as involving state-led clandestine activities of many kinds, bringing in foreign espionage and covert operations, as well as counterintelligence and domestic counter-subversion.

The question of what it is that we are studying is a fruitful way to bring students into a conversation about the subject. I’ve certainly found this to be a useful way of opening up debate and discussion. Whether it’s defining the US-UK ‘special relationship’, the temporal parameters of the Cold War, or the meaning of secret intelligence, it can draw classes into the subject and into the scholarship.

And that’s exactly what I’d like to put forward as my third challenge, the nature and diversity of the literature on intelligence. Diversity in the literature is the hallmark of any field of study. Intelligence has, however, particular issues. Because what we study and teach is bound up in secrecy, there are often more gaps and absences than in other areas.

There are also matters of interpretation. Intelligence has been the subject of memoirs, academic scholarship, and popular works. Some – indeed many of these ­– can be dangerously partisan. The popularity and attractiveness of secret intelligence as a subject can lead to stark differences between academic and popular appreciations of the subject.

legecyofashesTake the example of journalist Tim Weiner’s 2007 history of the CIA Legacy of Ashes. A popular success and lauded by reviewers upon its release, the book has been said to be “comprehensive”, “magisterial”, and “credible”. Yet when intelligence scholars and practitioners reviewed the book, significant criticisms emerged. This provoked Weiner to comment that his critics were all pro-CIA partisans themselves. This is manifestly untrue. Rhodri Jeffries-Jones and Loch Johnson – hardly flag-waving, pro-agency partisans – found the volume lacking in balance, methodologically unsound, and poorly researched.

Why do I belabour this point? Because works like Legacy of Ashes are actually a good thing. They are a useful pedagogical tool, in that we can use them in a comparative context t understand how intelligence is studied, written about, and where the flaws and issues lie. And this is a vital point. As Christopher Moran and Christopher Murphy point out in their excellent edited collection Intelligence Studies in Britain and the US, it is critical that as scholars and teachers we reflect – and encourage students to reflect – on how the scholarship of intelligence is written.

cia_docAnd this leads me on to my final challenge, that of sources. As the late Keith Jeffery noted, studying intelligence is as much the study of gaps and absences as it is the study of what is actually there. Many of us have been faced with documents like the one to the right. Or sometimes no documents at all.

In teaching intelligence, this encourages us to explore different ways of assessing and addressing the issues. In my own work on US and UK policy towards Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme in the 1970s, I lacked UK intelligence reporting. I know the JIC were discussing the subject in detail, but because of classification, I had no access to the materials. It was therefore a matter of scouring other sources – the Foreign Office, Cabinet Office, prime Minister’s Office, CIA reports, and so on – to triangulate around the void and to try to interpret what the intelligence reporting was saying.

The latest work by historian Douglas Charles is also informative in this regard. In investigating the FBI’s 40-year sex deviates programme, he had to contend with the fact that the main files on the programme were destroyed in 1978. Yet through diligent, painstaking research, he has produced impressive and important work that effectively reconstructs those missing files.

This all helps to illustrate to students the necessity of lateral thinking and methodological innovation. It’s where official sources, the media, and secondary materials all come together. Student’s must be inculcated with a thirst for knowledge that transcends notions of privileging one form of source – particularly the official – above all others. Secrecy and sources should not be approached as hindrances, but as challenges that force us and our students to be better scholars.


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