Monday, October 31, 2005

False Intelligence

For those of us who don't (knowingly) have daily contact with the security forces, the idea of military/security intelligence generally only surfaces when there is a problem with it. Tony Blair had a little difficulty with a "dodgy dossier" not long ago; and now the White House is faced with similar political problems, apparently of its own making. In a blog posting The Lies that Lead to War, Rodger produces some historical parallels from the Vietnam War, and asks
Did the administration distort the evidence? Or, were the intelligence agencies completely and horribly wrong? A third possibility also exists: did some intelligence sources knowingly distort the evidence?
These questions rely on a central premise - that the purpose of intelligence is to deliver some kind of knowledge or truth. False intelligence then represents a betrayal of this purpose - either the relevant agency is incompetent (root cause: poor management, chronic underfunding and/or excessive reliance on surveillance technology?) or someone has distorted the evidence.

But this bureaucratic account of intelligence cannot be squared with the view from popular fiction, where spies dabble in grey half-truth and deception. So which is correct - the bureaucratic view or the fictional view? Must we choose between these two?

Perhaps it is the premise that is wrong. What intelligence does (and therefore in POSIWID terms its purpose) is not to produce knowledge or truth, but to support action. Those who wish to call the administration and/or the intelligence agencies to account are attempting to separate their criticism of the intelligence from their criticism of how the intelligence was used, but arguably this separation doesn't make sense. If the intelligence doesn't stand up, then the military action doesn't stand up, and vice versa.

In an adversarial legal system (such as the one in which Tony Blair qualified as a barrister) the purpose of evidence is to stand up in court. Justice is achieved by a kind of boxing match between two bodies of evidence - the winner is the one whose evidence stands up the longest. (The writer Adam Mars-Jones wrote an excellent long story Bathpool Park, based on a legal case presided over by his father, that illustrates the failure of this adversarial system to deal with the complexities of the case.)

Thus the purpose of intelligence is not to be true (what is Truth? asked jesting Pilate) but to stand up. Not quite the same thing.

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