Intelligence and Public Perceptions of It

Paul R. Pillar

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by The National Interest.

A common current piece of advice to U.S. intelligence agencies, coming from many places including reportedly from official advisory panels, is that those agencies ought to de-emphasize whacking terrorists and redirect some of that effort to traditional functions of collecting and analyzing intelligence, lest the United States be blind-sided by something in China or the Middle East or elsewhere. Just about everyone who comments on what U.S. intelligence agencies ought to be doing seems to be saying something along that line; we don’t need to turn to any official panels with privileged access to hear that. The message has an appealing, back-to-basics ring to it, as well as having the appeal of sounding forward-looking. And the message is substantively sound; intelligence agencies ought indeed to focus on the core missions of collecting and analyzing information about the world outside the United States.

Sound though this particular message is, it is another illustration of publicly expressed conventional wisdom about intelligence that exists as a sort of parallel universe, separate from what the intelligence agencies are actually doing—of which, given the classified nature of that activity, the public commentators know little. Without access to the real thing, purveyors of conventional wisdom feed on each other’s output until the conventional wisdom gets treated as if it were hard fact. When the conventional wisdom says something about how the intelligence community has been devoting too much attention to one topic and ought to shift attention to something else, this is really much more a reflection of where the public commentary itself has been devoting attention. The same is true of what counts as a “surprise”; this often has less to do with what intelligence agencies were or were not telling their official customers behind closed doors than with what the public had or had not been conditioned to expect, based on public statements and discussion.

Amid pronouncements coming from the parallel universe, several realities about the actual world of intelligence ought to be noted.

One is that disproportionate public attention to certain subjects or activities does not reflect the actual allocation within the agencies of resources and priorities. What is controversial or receives much public attention does necessarily seize the attention of senior managers who have to deal with Congress. But that is not true of the large majority of the work force, most of which has always been focused on the core missions of collecting and analyzing intelligence, or directly supporting those who do.

Another reality is that the swing of the pendulum of attention from one topic to another in the actual world of intelligence is not nearly as exaggerated as swings in the parallel universe. This gives rise to myths, such as that during the Cold War the intelligence community devoted nearly all of its attention to matters involving the Soviet Union.

Yet another reality is that the intelligence community devotes much effort on its own to keeping its priorities well-grounded and up-to-date, applying the dual criteria of what is of long-term importance to the country and what the policy-makers of the day most want to hear about. Here the mistaken myth is that it takes kicks in the pants from outsiders such as advisory panels to make priorities up to date.

It is true—and here is where the two otherwise parallel universes intersect—that some of what the intelligence agencies do in reallocating resources is in response to shifting public demands. The agencies certainly expanded work on terrorism greatly after 9/11. This was not because the nature of the terrorist threat had suddenly changed (it didn’t) or because before 9/11 the intelligence community did not understand that threat (it did). It was because with the sudden and enormous change in the public mood and public concerns, intelligence managers had to show Congress and others on the outside that they were beefing up work in this area.

What does not get nearly as much public attention in such circumstances is what trade-offs are involved in any such reallocation. With resources always limited, responding to public demands on one thing may increase the chance of genuine surprise in the future on something else—something that inhabitants of the parallel universe probably are paying scant attention to today.