A Definition of “Intelligence”
…all attempts to develop ambitious theories of intelligence have failed. –Walter Laqueur1
In a business as old as recorded history, one would expect to find a sophisticated understanding of just what that business is, what it does, and how it works. If the business is “intelligence,” however, we search in vain. As historian Walter Laqueur warned us, so far no one has succeeded in crafting a theory of intelligence.
I have to wonder if the difficulty in doing so resides more in the slipperiness of the tools than in the poor skills of the craftsmen or the complexity of the topic. Indeed, even today, we have no accepted definition of intelligence. The term is defined anew by each author who addresses it, and these definitions rarely refer to one another or build off what has been written before. Without a clear idea of what intelligence is, how can we develop a theory to explain how it works?
If you cannot define a term of art, then you need to rethink something. In some way you are not getting to the heart of the matter. Here is an opportunity: a compelling definition of intelligence might help us to devise a theory of intelligence and increase our understanding. In the hope of advancing discussions of this topic, I have collected some of the concise definitions of intelligence that I deem to be distinguished either by their source or by their clarity.2 After explaining what they do and do not tell us, I shall offer up my own sacrificial definition to the tender mercies of future critics.
The people who write the laws that govern intelligence, and administer the budgets and resources of intelligence agencies, deserve the first word. The basic charter of America’s intelligence services—the National Security Act of 1947 with its many amendments—defines the kind of intelligence that we are seeking in this manner:
The term ‘foreign intelligence’ means information relating to the capabilities, intentions, or activities of foreign governments or elements thereof, foreign organizations, or foreign persons.3
Study commissions appointed to survey the Intelligence Community have long used similar language. The Clark Task Force of the Hoover Commission in 1955 decided that:
Intelligence deals with all the things which should be known in advance of initiating a course of action.4
An influential report from the mid-1990s (produced by the Brown-Aspin Commission) provides this definition:
The Commission believes it preferable to define ‘intelligence’ simply and broadly as information about ‘things foreign’—people, places, things, and events—needed by the Government for the conduct of its functions.5
The Joint Chiefs of Staff qualify as both employers and consumers of intelligence, so they deserve a say as well. Their latest Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms defines intelligence as:
1. The product resulting from the collection, processing, integration, analysis, evaluation and interpretation of available information concerning foreign countries or areas.
2. Information and knowledge about an adversary obtained through observation, investigation, analysis, or understanding.6
And finally, the Central Intelligence Agency has weighed in with the following sentence:
Reduced to its simplest terms, intelligence is knowledge and foreknowledge of the world around us—the prelude to decision and action by US policymakers.7
All of these definitions stress the “informational” aspects of intelligence more than its “organizational” facets—an ironic twist given that all of them come from organizations that produce and use intelligence, and which thereby might be expected to wax poetic on the procedural aspects of the term as well.