Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:28 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:28 | SYDNEY

More on the role of intelligence agencies


Sam Roggeveen


13 December 2007 08:18

Reader Peter Hodge responds to my post of yesterday on the proper role of intelligence agencies:

Good post, and I agree that the aim of intelligence analysis is to help political leaders cope with uncertainty. Having worked in an intelligence assessments agency, I’m not convinced that many analysts, managers and agencies grasp this. In my experience, the emphasis was on providing political leaders with the context of events. For example, 'General A has staged a coup; at present, troops loyal to him command the streets; he’s taken this step because…; he may shoot the president next.'

This will help leaders understand what’s going on in the present, and what may happen in the uncertainty of the immediate future. But it cannot help us if we want to get some idea about what we may face in the medium to long-term – 10, 20, 50 years out. This requires hard, deep, imaginative and speculative thinking, the development of a range of scenarios, and a recognition that we are more likely than not to get things wrong. The kinds of challenges we face, such security issues associated with climate change, shifting power relationships in the Asia-Pacific, and energy and resource constraints, require this kind of analysis.

In my experience, there is also a culture in intelligence agencies that encourages analysts to 'make a call'. That is, chance their arm on a speculative prediction about the future, on the premise that this is the kind of intellectual courage analysts are ultimately being paid for. It is precisely the wrong emphasis.