Intelligence Failings?

Two of the key things required for decision making are good information and the ability to act on it. Organisational issues also make a significant contribution, but I do not propose to discuss these in this article. This article is very much an overview around a multi-layered sensitive subject, so it is a personal view and in no way claims to be an accurate or comprehensive treatise.

I believe there is often an intelligence gap. We think we know something when in reality what we think we know may merely be an assumption. There may be no data to back up what we believe to be the truth. A second point is that we often seem so surprised by what would appear to be blindingly obvious. Climate change is a classic example. We were talking about this in the 1960s and various solutions were under discussion a few years later so why are we in the situation we are currently in when we have had 50 years or more to prepare?

This brings me to my third point. There is little use in having good, reliable and relevant information if we do nothing with it. A fourth point is that often there is simply too much data. It is clear that the systems we have at present have difficulty in identifying those major issues that either present real threats or real opportunities.

As an example of how intelligence may not always be providing the information we really need to effectively carry out the job in hand, I look very briefly at the national intelligence services here in the UK. The roles of government might be defined simply as being to protect the country and the people and to provide for and invest in the people.

We have an intelligence community that is primarily focused on national security, but is it? The UK intelligence organisation is made up of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6); the Security Service (MI5); GCHQ; the National Crime Agency; Defence Intelligence and the Joint Intelligence Committee. The work of these organisations is overseen by the National Security Council which is a Cabinet Committee chaired by the Prime Minister.

Most UK intelligence organisations seem to be focused on conventional intelligence threats such as foreign and domestic actors including foreign agents, terrorists, criminals and others posing risks to life and property in the UK and to UK interests abroad. There are also other less conventional capabilities such as dealing with risks from things such as medical and scientific issues, including cyber security. The Joint Intelligence Committee supported by the Joint Intelligence Organisation lists as part of its remit: “to assess events and situations relating to external affairs, defence, terrorism, major international criminal activity, scientific, technical and other transnational issues, drawing on secret intelligence, diplomatic reporting and open source material”. So, at least there is some claim to review scientific and technical matters but seemingly only on a very high level basis drawing on open source material and reports and information referred to the committee. MI5 is responsible for domestic national security but produces little information on how it conducts its affairs.

There does not appear to be any significant information on the form of risk assessments undertaken by the UK national security services which is probably indicative of some considerable weakness as most of the perceived threats should probably be in the public domain. There also appears to be little, if any, information on the planning horizons used by the intelligence services. Certainly, a strategic planning horizon must be essential for planning effective national security as would tactical and operational horizons, but published information is scarce. There is a National Intelligence Model but that refers to policing. National security should mean what it says. The intelligence services should cover all perceived threats, especially those which are existential. This may mean that some elements of the overall organisation have to become more open and accessible and assume new roles and responsibilities. I am thinking here of the Joint Intelligence Committee and Joint Intelligence Organisation. This can only be a good thing if more timely, accurate and relevant information enables the government to make better and more relevant decisions in a more timely manner which, in turn, leads to a more effective use of resources.

Of course, the government can always ignore its intelligence services but better this than the information not being there at all. At present, it appears that some strategic risks are simply not addressed.

Good intelligence applies just as much to non-state organisations and individuals as it does to the state. It is a huge advantage to organisations to have timely, accurate and relevant information on which to base their decisions. It is also important to ensure that adequate research is done to arrive at the required data. Whilst the UK has a sound reputation for research in many areas, there is a danger that we will fall behind our peers is several key technical and scientific areas unless we up our game considerably. I believe that we need to encourage more research and where we have gaps, we should invite institutions to fill these or establish new ones to act as centres of excellence in their fields.

Good intelligence should enable the UK to establish a sound position for itself on the world stage. It will allow our regions to thrive and enhance prospects for productivity and employment whilst ensuring that our economic progress is sustainable. Good intelligence costs money. It is not sexy, and it requires intelligent people to realise its full value and to understand how this can be achieved. The dividends can be truly significant and game changing. On the other hand, ignorance is bliss.

One thought on “Intelligence Failings?

  1. There is a National Risk Register which is compiled by the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, part of the Cabinet Office. It deals with current risks and, whilst it is not fully comprehensive, many risks are at least covered off. There is, however, a significant caveat: “The National Risk Register does not assess the likelihood of these trends occurring. Instead, the following section aims to provide broad context for what some of these long-term trends are and some of the changes they might bring about in the risks facing the UK.”

    The document is focused on the near term. In other words, whilst there is some evidence of risks assessments being carried out by the UK government, the basic conclusion of the article still stands.

    https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-risk-register-2020

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