book review

Routledge Companion to Intelligence Studies

reviewed by T. J. Nelson

book review / commentary

Routledge Companion to Intelligence Studies
R. Dover, M.S. Goodman, C. Hillebrand, eds.
Routledge, 2014, 363 pages
Reviewed by T.J. Nelson

I t will probably surprise no one that ‘Intelligence Studies’ is now an academic discipline. Some universities give degrees in it. You can now go to college to learn how to be a spy!

But how do these people think? What do analysts do all day? I wasn't sure what to expect with this book. I hoped it would be policy discussions or maybe some George Friedman / Stratfor-type geopolitics. There's some of that, but mainly this is a book-length collection of management-level introductions that never fully reaches the level of depth the subject deserves.

Part I and II (The Evolution of Intelligence Studies and Abstract Approaches to Intelligence) are 30,000-foot overviews that an aspiring intelligence wonk might expect to see in a powerpoint on the first day of work. The authors glowingly cite Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and Liddell Hart. Two things that shaped the intelligence industry the most were 9/11 and the Iraqi WMDs, and of course (for the USA) Pearl Harbor. The chapters are well written, but they give the impression the authors are mainly selling themselves.

One article, for instance compares the different types of circle diagrams that manager types like so much. For instance, in one diagram ‘Direction’, ‘Collection’, ‘Processing’, and ‘Dissemination’ are arranged around the outside of a circle with ‘Continuous Communication and Review’ in the middle. The chapter after that says the craft of intelligence should seamlessly integrate education, intelligence and research on a foundation of ‘open everything.’ He says that because peak oil, peak water, chlorine and other toxins are externalized costs that cause illness, the intelligence community should focus on environmental causes.

I'm not sure, but I suspect this is probably a minority view within the intelligence community.

Part III (Historical Approaches to Intelligence) gives a 30,000-foot view of things like signals intelligence, economic intelligence, and what one author calls ‘open source intelligence.’ The history is extraordinarily brief, but it did have some stuff I didn't know, like the story of the CIA's train shipment of nuclear monitoring equipment that was intercepted on the Trans-Siberian Railway after Aldrich Ames tipped off the KGB.

In the chapter about open source intelligence, the author quotes George Kennan as saying that 95% of what the government needs to know is available in the public literature. Discussing this, he points out that 90% of everything is crap, and he writes: “nowhere is that more true than in the Twitterverse!” The implication, which makes sense, is that intelligence gained from human sources is of higher quality or of greater relevance than that obtained from the Internet.

Part IV (Systems of Intelligence) talks about organizational structure, one chapter per country along with a brief description of their standing in their country and future trends. The countries are UK, USA, Canada, Australia, France, India, China, Japan, Israel, Germany, Russia, and Spain.

Part V (Contemporary Challenges): Counterterrorism, crime, WMDs, etc.

As I said the articles are well written, though in the early chapters with a certain amount of management speak, but there is little depth. That may be attributable to the forced brevity of each chapter or the immaturity of intelligence studies as an academic field: the field is still struggling to develop any theories or shared ideology. It might also be that anyone with any real knowledge is sworn to secrecy and everything of consequence is a tightly held secret.

How to characterize this book? It's not like any of the other books I've read on similar subjects. There's no policy or political philosophy. It's not an insider's revelation like Vil Mirzayanov's book on Soviet chemical weapons, Christopher Andrew's book on the KGB, or James Bamford's books on the NSA. It's certainly not technical like all those those books on cryptography, radar, and electronic warfare that I have. The Index needs a lot of work.

I guess the best way to describe it is to imagine you're a first year college student or a dictator in some small obscure country who knows nothing about Western intelligence agencies or what they do. What would you want to know? You might want to know what's the difference between MI6 and MI5. You might want to know that the USA has a constitution that it follows and its intelligence agencies send a report to the president with their assessments, and their dissenting opinions are handled in footnotes. The government uses the information to ... well... let's just say “prevent negative outcomes from occurring” as one author puts it. That sort of thing.

Books discussed

Routledge Companion to Intelligence Studies
R. Dover, M.S. Goodman, C. Hillebrand, eds.

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