6 Things that Make Intelligence a Noble Profession

When Edward Snowden went public last year, revealing that the National Security Agency (NSA) had access to virtually every phone call made by almost anyone in the world, including the leaders of some of America’s closest allies, the role of intelligence again became the focus of intense debate. Earlier, the “wiki leaks” operation revealed reams of classified intelligence information, and most recently the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Station Chief in Berlin was ordered to leave Germany. This is a highly unusual move, especially among allies, and signals deep anger on the part of the German government about U.S. intelligence activities.  

But this is not new. Controversy has been part of intelligence since it was dubbed the “world’s second oldest profession” eons ago. The Bible recounts at least two spying episodes: Moses sent 12 spies to explore Canaan, and Joshua dispatched two spies to gather intelligence on Jericho. In the American context, intelligence has played a critical role in every important event from the Revolutionary War to the war on terrorism. Certainly, because of hubris, obsessiveness, complacency, unnecessary secrecy and a lack of accountability, intelligence organizations have run afoul of the law and sound ethical standards through the course of our history. The American intelligence community went through a wrenching realignment in the 1970s, after the scandals of the Iran-Contra scandals of the 1980s, and now, charged with rendition, torture and gross invasion of privacy it is again under pressure to justify its policies and practices. 

And, yet, there is no doubt that information, sometimes collected clandestinely, is indispensable for the conduct of statecraft and international intercourse. When done correctly, intelligence serves necessary and legitimate political, economic, and military purposes. The continuing issue is how this is to be done in an imperfect world. Intelligence gathering and interpretation at times is the stuff of “hard science”—counting missiles, tracking electronic signals, reading radar images. At other times it is very “soft”—trying to read intention, understand personality, predict future events. In any case, intelligence professionals can misunderstand data and can be misled. At other times, they are not only accurate, but brilliant. 

Moreover, there is no one-to-one relationship between intelligence and policy making. Policy makers are free to accept, ignore or reject intelligence assessments, and often do exactly that. Intelligence can also be politicized, used to justify one political policy position over another. For example, although complacent intelligence analysts relied on outdated, faulty information in the run up to the 2003 attack on Iraq, the Bush administration politicized the information, choosing to rely only on that intelligence which supported a decision that had already been made. Contradictory information was dismissed out of hand. It was the perfect storm of intelligence incompetence and politicization, and the results have been disastrous.  

As with any profession, sound trade craft is the key to good, healthy intelligence gathering and analysis. In the intelligence arena, arguably there are six elements for good trade craft. First, intelligence gathering and analysis must be exercised fully within the context of the law and Congressional oversight. At times, intelligence agencies have played fast and loose with the plethora of laws governing intelligence. Although considerable progress has been made in abiding by the law during the past decade, there still are examples where intelligence organizations have assumed they are a law unto themselves. Second, there must be a strict separation between intelligence gathering and analysis and policy making. This does not mean that intelligence professionals and policy makers should not talk to each other; they absolutely must. But it does mean that intelligence professionals do not make policy, and policy makers do not engage in intelligence collection and analysis. 

Third, intelligence professionals should not engage in non-intelligence functions. During the past decade there has been a tendency for administrations of both parties to broaden the role of intelligence organizations to include military responsibilities, such as drone warfare and prisoner retention and exploitation, including rendition and “enhanced interrogation techniques” (or torture). Fourth, intelligence professionals must exhibit a high degree of honesty and integrity. This requires full, open reporting and analysis of what they actually see, as well as interpretation without bias, prejudice or reinterpretation to the extent possible. Fifth, these professionals must be individuals of intellectual rigor. They must be able to understand the issues they are working on, must have a working knowledge of other languages, and must be able to distinguish between fact and fiction. These gifts have not always been hallmarks of intelligence professionals, but it is getting better. Finally, it is necessary to protect—at times by keeping them secret—the ways information is gathered so that lives are protected and those sources and methods will be useful in the future.

If these standards are observed, not only is intelligence a fitting profession for Christians, it is absolutely necessary that we be involved.

- Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice.