Reshaping Intelligence for an Age of Information

The world of intelligence has been completely transformed by the end of the Cold War and especially by the onset of a new age of information. In Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information, a new RAND-Cambridge Press-Century Foundation book, RAND consultant and former director of NDRI’s International Security and Defense Policy Center Greg Treverton argues that this transformation requires intelligence to be reshaped from the ground up.

During the Cold War, U.S. government intelligence had one principal target: the Soviet Union; a fairly narrow set of "customers": political-military officials in the U.S. government; and a limited amount of information from sources they "owned": spy satellites and spies. The Cold War methodology of intelligence involved the gathering and keeping of "secrets" and was organized in a "stovepipe" manner according to the government source from which it originated. There were a limited number of sources, such as the National Security Agency (NSA) or the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA). Intelligence analysis was centralized, but not monopolized, by the CIA.

Treverton separates the questions that intelligence seeks to answer into "puzzles" and "mysteries." Puzzles are questions that could be answered if we had the access to more information -- for example, how many ICBMs does North Korea have? Mysteries, on the other hand, are unknowable because they require predictions, such as the question of what the future holds for the Russian economy.

The intelligence model that focused on "stovepipes," "secrets," and "puzzles" worked during the Cold War, but Treverton argues that it does not work now, for many reasons:

1) The proliferation of information on open network systems like the Internet has fostered a new openness. Torrents of new information flow out into the open by the minute, but much of it is unreliable and unownable. Given these circumstances, intelligence is no longer in the "secrets" business.

2) Increasing globalization has resulted in a dilution of power of the nation-state and an increase in the power of multinational corporations. This has resulted in a slew of new targets, consumers and sources (such as private citizens and companies) for the intelligence community. These factors have also changed the role of government from doer to convener, mediator, and coalition-builder amongst these new targets, consumers and sources.

3) Treverton sees a blurring distinction between and a growing overlap of problems, customers, and sources. The world is in constant flux, and old enemies can become new friends, providers, and even consumers of U.S. intelligence information. Intelligence organizations need to find ways to bring these groups together, although not in strict organizational structures. These structures need to be nimble and flexible to adapt to constant changes.

4) Puzzles are becoming less important than mysteries.

In his publication, Treverton provides a new roadmap for the intelligence community to deal with these changes:

1) New technology, such as distributed networks or peer-to-peer connections, can link intelligence collectors, analysts, consumers and providers around the globe to focus on particular problems.

2) Intelligence needs to be thought of as information instead of secrets. However, since puzzles and secrets will still exist, they need to be separated from other forms of intelligence and analyzed in a more "tactical" approach commonly used by the CIA. This differs from the "strategic" approach that is more suited to mysteries and open information, which should be handled by organizations such as the National Intelligence Council, that communicate and collaborate with outside entities like academic institutions and think tanks.

3) The intelligence community tends to think of itself as a breed apart from the policy-making community and the rest of government. Treverton makes what he acknowledges to be a controversial recommendation that the separation of intelligence and policy be broken.

Intelligence is currently thought of as national and unilateral; Treverton poses a challenge and an opportunity when he asks how inertia can be overcome and definitions of intelligence can be amended to fit into a more global and multilateral framework. That could be the ultimate "puzzle."

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Reshaping Intelligence for an Age of Information is available through the RAND Commercial Book Program and can be ordered through