Intelligence Needs a New Language
The discussion about a “revolution in intelligence affairs”, a term introduced nearly two decades ago, is recently gaining prominence. Many intelligence scholars and former practitioners highlight the need for adaptation to the “age of information” and emerging technologies. They also stress there is a “declining market for secrets”, and therefore intelligence agencies must change their “secret-inclined culture” and embrace open-source intelligence. But for great power competition, this is not enough. Like national security, more broadly, intelligence needs a new language. The current one fails in describing, let alone guiding, the evolving practice.
This should not come as a surprise. Some of the terminology used in the intelligence community (IC) still reflects the mindset of Sherman Kent – who created the foundations for American intelligence after World War II. Kent’s theory was created for a different context than today’s, but his legacy seems to still be present. The current intelligence language is therefore over-stretched to correspond with emerging challenges and practices.
The basic theory guiding the American IC and many other intelligence communities over the world rely on the "intelligence cycle" model – which differentiates between direction, collection, analysis, and dissemination in the intelligence process. This differentiation also effectively exists in intelligence products and organizations. However, scholars and practitioners acknowledge that intelligence is rarely practiced and produced in linear, sequential and siloed ways. The lines between collection and analysis are blurred, for instance, when intelligence officers use the internet to access information and research and analysis and conduct crowdsourcing for new insights. Moreover, machines that use artificial intelligence (AI) collect and analyze data at the same time.
Many also acknowledge that the differentiation between collection disciplines – such as signals intelligence (SIGINT), human intelligence (HUMINT), geospatial intelligence (GEOINT), or open-source intelligence (OSINT) – is also partially obsolete as an overarching concept. A visual image and geolocation of a terrorist published on social media make it hard to determine whether this is SIGINT, OSINT, or GEOINT. When using commercial satellites, OSINT overlaps with GEOINT. Moreover, machines do not differentiate between sources of collection when exploiting, sorting, and analyzing data.
Traditional terminology differentiates between intelligence and counterintelligence or between foreign and domestic intelligence. But detecting and thwarting a Russian or a Chinese intervention in U.S. elections is foreign intelligence, domestic intelligence and counterintelligence at the same time. When considering the last crisis in Afghanistan, it is hard to differentiate between current, strategic, or anticipatory intelligence – another accepted terminology in American IC doctrine. Moreover, traditional methods for collection and analysis, created for engaging political and military challenges, do not suffice for non-military challenges – for instance, when the IC is tasked with determining the origin of COVID-19 or anticipating the implications of climate change.
A discussion about technological, cultural and organizational reforms is already taking place and is undoubtfully important. However, this must be complemented by a discussion of concepts. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) established the Office of Net Assessment a few years ago, which aims at adapting the IC to its future environment. Together with the National Intelligence University and broader academia, this can be a relevant platform for such a conceptual effort. Moreover, on top of conceptual ideation, an "innovation through adaptation" approach should be manifested, where new concepts are tested in real-life challenges. Indeed, this bears some risks. But so does inertia, or an attempt to fully understand future challenges as a prerequisite for reforming the current practice.