Modern intel can take many shapes and forms, conjuring up images of James Bond and his trusty aide Q, with all the latest gadgets; or any array of Hollywood spy movies with all their out-of-this-world technology.
But perhaps it’s worth taking a step back to understand the real meaning and origin of intelligence, and how to harness it.
‘Find out what you don’t know’
Although there is indeed no ‘father of intelligence’ to Freud’s role in psychology or Socrates’ in philosophy, we could argue that for modern intelligence the title could be given to the hugely celebrated military leader, the Duke of Wellington.
Wellington’s use of intelligence led him to his hallowed victory over Napoleon at Waterloo; so much so that his strategies are still studied in military academies, over 200 years later.
But how does this relate to 21st century intel?
Wellington famously explained that war amounted to an ‘endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do’, which in a nutshell encompasses all modern intel.
Before any battle, Wellington would spend most of his time surveying his surroundings and ‘guessing what was at the other side of the hill.’
‘All the business of war, and indeed of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I called ‘guess what was at the other side of the hill.’
Intel is war
To continue the metaphor, we could consider all intelligence gathering as a war against an enemy: perhaps that enemy is unknown or one too familiar; perhaps a foreign army or an approaching hurricane; perhaps an external terrorist organisation or an inside swindler.
But let’s remember: intelligence is not just information. Intel is the process of gathering information, analysing it and passing it on to the relevant department or authority to act accordingly: installing CCTV, erecting barricades, preparing for an imminent terrorist attack, making arrests, etc.
When Intel fails
So, what happens when intel fails? How many times have we heard that the suspect or culprit of the latest crime or terrorist attack was ‘known to the authorities’?
Many complaints about the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic could be linked to failures in intel; not passing on the information gathered to the right people, who therefore failed to act accordingly. After all, what good are your latest blood test results if the doctor hasn’t seen them? Intel is getting the right information to the right people in time.
Or take the Capitol riots of 6th January, where various intel failures led to such horrifying, shameful images for the world’s self-proclaimed bastion of democracy.
We now know that the authorities knew of the mob (at that point still merely ‘protesters’), and their intentions, days before their march on the Capitol, yet still failed to deploy sufficient security forces, leaving only a handful of Capitol police officers to face thousands of insurgents (many heavily-armed and equipped with tactical gear), intent on entering the building by force.
There is no doubt that the US state possesses more than enough resources to snuff out such an attack, yet this unnecessary stain on their history will remain simply because intel was not acted upon. In the face of such blatant intent, plastered all over social networks and shoved in their faces – literally, with ‘Stop the steal’ and ‘Civil War’ flags and signs being used as weapons to attack and force entry – intel and security forces were left so evidently embarrassed and overwhelmed, having failed to act upon what was coming over the Capitol Hill.
Everything is of course easier through the perspective of hindsight. Indeed, many pundits, journalists and ordinary members of the public have said that the Capitol attack was inevitable and had been entirely predictable ever since Trump launched the 6th January ‘Stop the Steal’ event into his twitter-sphere in December.
Most people with a social media account in the US could easily find a growing number of calls for ‘patriots’ to ‘March on the Capitol’, start ‘The Revolution’ or ‘Civil War’, ‘Stop the Steal’, ‘Occupy Congress’ or ‘Take Down the Government’.
This is because nowadays, thanks to the omnipresence of the internet and social networks, for almost any intelligence mission, open-source intelligence (OSINT) comprises 99.9% of the relevant information.
So, once again we see that intel failures are not normally about a lack of information: it’s usually all out there. These failures often come from a flaw in communication or the chain of command, where the information is not analysed by the right people, or passed on in time to the right people, or where protocols are not properly developed or followed.
When Intel works
But, what about when intel works? Put simply: tragedies and crimes are averted.
We can look at the twenty-five plus foiled terror attempts in the UK since the 2017 Westminster attacks. Or the thousands of covert spy operations during World War II to intercept and act upon enemy communications, feed false intel to the Nazis or coordinate operations with Allied Forces and the French Resistance.
Or the mostly successful crackdown on hooligans and the violent behaviour at football matches that had plagued much of the ’80s and ’90s. Hooligan groups were detected through undercover operations and surveillance, the information was then analysed and passed on to the relevant authorities who acted accordingly.
Today, details of known hooligans are shared in a database across local and international police authorities, in a timely manner. Known targets are prohibited entry to local stadiums (detected with the help of CCTV) and must surrender their passports ahead of international away games.
In such cases, no doubt the famous General would be proud of how we are guessing at what is ‘on the other side of the hill’ to win the war.