Understanding the Intelligence Cycle
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Understanding the Intelligence Cycle

Mark Phythian, Mark Phythian

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Understanding the Intelligence Cycle

Mark Phythian, Mark Phythian

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About This Book

This book critically analyses the concept of the intelligence cycle, highlighting the nature and extent of its limitations and proposing alternative ways of conceptualising the intelligence process.

The concept of the intelligence cycle has been central to the study of intelligence. As Intelligence Studies has established itself as a distinctive branch of Political Science, it has generated its own foundational literature, within which the intelligence cycle has constituted a vital thread - one running through all social-science approaches to the study of intelligence and constituting a staple of professional training courses. However, there is a growing acceptance that the concept neither accurately reflects the intelligence process nor accommodates important elements of it, such as covert action, counter-intelligence and oversight.

Bringing together key authors in the field, the book considers these questions across a number of contexts: in relation to intelligence as a general concept, military intelligence, corporate/private sector intelligence and policing and criminal intelligence. A number of the contributions also go beyond discussion of the limitations of the cycle concept to propose alternative conceptualisations of the intelligence process. What emerges is a plurality of approaches that seek to advance the debate and, as a consequence, Intelligence Studies itself.

This book will be of great interest to students of intelligence studies, strategic studies, criminology and policing, security studies and IR in general, as well as to practitioners in the field.

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1 The past and future of the Intelligence Cycle
Michael Warner1
The Intelligence Cycle needs no introduction to intelligence professionals or scholars. Its circle of links representing a set of sequential and repeated operations – educing decisionmakers’ requirements for information; collecting relevant data; evaluating the data for reliability; analyzing their significance; disseminating the resulting intelligence product to decisionmakers; and then starting the process all over again by passing the decisionmakers’ updated requirements to the collectors – sounds familiar to anyone who has sat through a college or staff-school course on intelligence. The Cycle per se now seems less interesting than its significance. To wit, we have grounds to suspect that the Cycle, even as a teaching device, has passed its point of maximum utility. Indeed, the usefulness of any classroom tool, analogy, or thought experiment must lie in increasing the mental agility and acuity of the student, analyst, or decisionmaker employing it. A good teaching device should not require more explanation to clarify it than it returns in increased understanding, and it should not predispose analysts toward inaccurate judgments (or decisionmakers toward courses of action that are likely to fail). Based on that criterion, growing evidence suggests that the Intelligence Cycle – even as a heuristic device, not to mention as a doctrine for real-world intelligence operations – could be doing more harm than good.
This examination of the Intelligence Cycle comprises discussions centered around three questions. First, where did we get the Cycle in the first place? Second, how is it working now, and how do we understand it? Finally, where is it going; i.e. how are intelligence scholars and practitioners of the future likely to view it? Considering the possible answers to these three questions might induce greater caution among teachers who employ the Intelligence Cycle as a learning tool.
Whence came the Intelligence Cycle?
Around the time of the French Revolution the world witnessed an astounding technological upheaval, and a military revolution to accompany it. During the Napoleonic wars, military staff work developed in scale and sophistication to assist generals in commanding the huge patriotic armies of France and the masses that France’s opponents mobilized in response. Such forces required specialized staffs to plan and prepare commanders to make decisions – and then to ensure the decisions were properly implemented. These staffs consumed information voraciously, and they initiated a rationalization of warfare that continues today.
A Prussian general named Carl von Clausewitz spent much of his life fighting the armies of the French Revolution and of Napoleon, and in reflecting upon his experience he became a ready guide to legions of staff officers to come. In his age he pondered what made for victory and defeat for all generals, leaving a manuscript that his widow soon published as On War (1832). Clausewitz regarded information as vital for commanders, but he also viewed it as inherently suspect and thus counted it as only one factor for a general to consider. In the heat of the fight a general should be a wise and imperturbable rock against the shifting emotions and alarms of all engagements:
Many intelligence reports in war are contradictory; even more are false, and most are uncertain. What one can reasonably ask of an officer is that he should possess a standard of judgment, which he can gain only from knowledge of men and affairs and from common sense. He should be guided by the laws of probability.2
On War nonetheless implicitly raised the expectation for military intelligence by defining it as “every sort of information about the enemy and his country – the basis, in short, of our own plans and operations.”3 If steady generals were rare in any army, however, Clausewitz thus hinted that another answer to the problem of generalship was to improve the information that reached them, thus reducing the uncertainties of command.
The Prussian army subsequently applied the new rationality to war first and most thoroughly, and as a result beat the Austrians in 1866 and the French in 1870 with stunning efficiency and dispatch. The Prussians became famous for their diligent preparation and meticulous attention to the details of modern war, all of which came under the all-knowing General Staff. Someone had to take notes on the methods and means of real and potential enemies, moreover, and this chore fell to the new army intelligence bureaus created for the purpose from the 1860s on. Indeed, armies planning to fight on foreign soil also needed maps of where they might have to march, and those maps had to be kept up to date as new roads, rail lines, and industries re-shaped the landscape. It was no accident that the first military information bureaus were usually in charge of map-making offices as well, or at least were quartered near the cartographers.
While Clausewitz and contemporary military theorists covered lightly the types of information needed by commanders and the ways of attaining it, later authors would fill in these details. The provision and quality of that information, as opposed to its use, became a primary topic of consideration. In 1895 a British colonel named George Furse contributed to a growing literature in his book Information in War. From the outset he used information and intelligence as synonyms and explained, in Clausewitzian terms, why his topic was so important:
No military operations can be carried out without having first acquired such intelligence as will assist in making the most suitable dispositions. A commander must not only see that he gets information, but also that what he obtains is the best and most reliable. The greatest talent will be of little avail to him if he cannot devise means for acquiring a knowledge of his adversary’s strength, positions, and movements. All great captains have attached very considerable importance to this matter.4
Within a generation of Furse’s Information in War, the First World War added signals intelligence and imagery intelligence to the sources of information for commanders. A generation after that, the Second World War refined these disciplines and arguably added another (scientific intelligence) as well. These new technological means amply served commanders, but they were themselves hard taskmasters, demanding of their armies thousands of men (and women as well) who could be trained in the analytical and technical tasks necessary for their functioning.
So who first conceived of this provision of information for commanders as an Intelligence Cycle? Kristan Wheaton of Mercyhurst College has helpfully researched what must be some of the earliest uses of the phrase “intelligence cycle.”5 He employed Google’s Ngrams program to date it to a 1948 book, Intelligence is for Commanders, authored by a pair of lieutenant colonels, Robert R. Glass and Philip B. Davidson, then teaching at the US Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. Their Intelligence Cycle comprised four phases: direction of the collection effort, collection of information, processing of information, and use of intelligence.6 Wheaton inferred from their explanation of the Intelligence Cycle (which even includes a diagram) that the phrase was not original with these authors, who thus presumably drew from some earlier source. His conclusion seems eminently sensible. Indeed, one speculates with him that the Cycle was a teaching device used in training officers at Fort Leavenworth during the Second World War.
Wheaton also suggests that the Intelligence Cycle might have been used synonymously with other phrases to describe the intelligence process. Following this suggestion one finds (as Wheaton seemed to do as well) that that very phrase, “intelligence process,” was used to mean roughly the same thing as the Intelligence Cycle in the 1940s and 1950s. One also finds something interesting from another angle.
The notion of an Intelligence Cycle seems related to concepts emerging in the academic discipline of psychology (i.e. scientific descriptions of the workings of the human mind) before the Second World War. Indeed, the original occurrences of the phrase “intelligence process” in Google Ngrams appear in medical writings early in the twentieth century. Harvard psychologist Hugo Münsterberg’s Psychology, General and Applied (1914) makes a good example. The textbook discussed education and “the problem of grading the general intelligence” possessed by students. Münsterberg defined that intelligence as the “ability to adjust one’s mind to a task.” For each student, the “intelligence process” involved in such adjustment included “his ability to perceive, to learn, to retain, to discriminate, and so on.” That was “the one mental factor which is most significant for the later practical life.”7
Münsterberg’s definition of the intelligence process resembles the later Intelligence Cycle in incorporating a set – if not yet a sequence – of discrete operations for gathering and processing inputs. Just a few years later another discussion of mental acuity showed that psychologists were moving even closer to something recognizable as the Intelligence Cycle. Dr. J. Victor Haberman’s article in the weekly Medical Record on measuring intelligence explained how the mind understands the world: first it notices things and events; then it registers or remembers how present impressions associate with those that the mind already recalls; then it analyzes and comprehends similarities and differences; and finally it combines the resulting knowledge elements to complete a train of thought or to span gaps in available evidence. Dr. Haberman called that latter step “combination” and classed it as “the highest of all mental functions.” This whole sequence of these four elements constituted the “intelligence process.” “When we speak of intelligence,” Haberman insisted, “we should imply all functions mentioned: attention, memory, comprehension, and combination.”8
One suspects that some intelligence officer in Britain or the United States, sometime around the Second World War, remembered a college course in psychology and lifted the “intelligence process” from his notes or his textbook in crafting a lesson on military intelligence practice. Indeed, the US Army’s 1940 Basic Field Manual for military intelligence (FM 30–5) already had chapters [III through VII] titled “Collection of information”; “Collation of information”; “Evaluation and interpretation of information”; “G-2 estimate of the enemy situation”; and “Dissemination of intelligence.” All an instructor had to do was to note that this “intelligence process” is iterative, and hence cyclical, and the term “Intelligence Cycle” was born. Scholars may never know just who made this mental leap, but by 1948 it was an accomplished fact well understood and ready for diagramming by the authors of Intelligence is for Commanders.
The historical link between the origins of the Intelligence Cycle and the early literature on measuring human intelligence should give the reader pause. Not necessarily because “intelligence” seems shadowed by a cloud of disagreement wherever it travels, as it perhaps inevitably became associated with ideologies of group or even racial differences. Discussions of human intelligence often allude to a vague but nonetheless important mental capacity that makes a person more readily able than her peers to draw and apply useful lessons from patterns, cases, and life events. What is that capacity, which has proven time and again to be both experimentally present and yet profoundly elusive? Around the time of the First World War researchers sought to avoid subjective associations by giving the relative acuity of mental processes the tactfully neutral label of “intelligence quotient,” or IQ. Since that time, the acronym “IQ” itself has become controversial, and psychologists by the 1970s referred to that not-quite-definable but still roughly quantifiable something in an actor’s mental processes as the “general intelligence factor” or “g.” It appears to be something unique but intangible about each person – a private capacity that helps one to know and respond to one’s environment.9
This is not to suggest there has been no progress in our understanding of how the mind works; indeed, it is just that progress that makes the Intelligence Cycle problematic. The inventors of the phrase implicitly drew an analogy between the behavior of organizations and nations and an early twentieth century notion of a linear, step-by-step sequence of mental operations. By doing so, they tied themselves to hypotheses that decades of findings by psychologists would challenge. Indeed, the last 15 years have seen major books by psychologists trying to explain why intuitive or “snap” judgments can frequently be more correct or reliable than decisions made after long reflection.10 Insight can be as important as information. Historian Walter Laqueur hinted at this in A World of Secrets: The Uses and Limits of Intelligence (1985), noting a similarity between the demands on doctors and intelligence analysts. Both disciplines rely on sustained data gathering and dispassionate calculation, but success in both also stems from intuition. Indeed, “it is precisely in critical situations in which there are elements of ambiguity that the dramatic insight comes back into its own, and this applies to both clinical medicine and intelligence.”11 Perhaps that was what Napoleon famously meant with his “coup d’œil militaire,” that indefinable eye of command, and why he allegedly preferred his generals to be lucky rather than brilliant. One is tempted to say we have come full Cycle, as it seems we have arrived back with Clausewitz and his model general as an imperturbable rock:
When all is said and done, it really is the commander’s coup d’œil, his ability to see things simply, to identify the whole business of war completely with himself, that is the essence of good generalship. Only if the mind works in this comprehensive fashion can it achieve the freedom it needs to dominate events and not be dominated by them.12
Where has the Intelligence Cycle been?
This chapter makes no pretense of judging the merits of competing lines of inquiry in a field (psychology) well removed from this author’s expertise. It does suggest, however, that intelligence scholars should recognize at least two ways in which conceiving of intelligence as a process of linear and iterative operations – i.e. as the Intelligence Cycle – has caused and is causing problems for students and practitioners. This irony might best be illustrated with a look at one of the clearest applications of the Intelligence Cycle to intelligence practice: the issue of warning.
Recall that the Intelligence Cycle is like an endless chain of a few processes. Any number of authors have studied the links in that chain, particularly as they show signs of stress in warning situations. Indeed, the literature on warning is voluminous, from intelligence community post-mortems to blue-ribbon commission reports to academic tomes. The writings in that veritable library tend to concentrate on improving the functioning of the collection component of the Cycle, or its analysis phase, or its dissemination to decisionmakers. Two famous examples help to illustrate this point. Roberta Wohlstetter’s Pearl Harbor: ...

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