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Interview: The Role of Intelligence Services as Part of Foreign Policy

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The importance of intelligence services in the area of foreign policy comprises the central topic of this work, most notably relations between intelligence analysts and policymakers. To this end, issues are addressed regarding  professional ethics and politicization of intelligence services. This piece results from an exclusive interview with Eric Denécé, Director of the French Centre for Intelligence Studies (CF2R).

By Dr. Jorge Marinho, Júlio Ventura, and Lourenço Ribeiro.

Considering the entire intelligence cycle, to what extent is the analysis stage important?

Eric Denécé (ED): All phases of the intelligence cycle are important, analysis as much as any other, and no more than any other. Indeed, if a problem is poorly posed and the lines of research poorly defined, information gathering cannot be effective. Sometimes, even though the objectives are clearly defined, the process fails to produce results (inaccessible secrets or operational failure). Analysis can only be carried out if the information gathered by human or technical means is available.

It's true that Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) has changed the situation, as an analysis service can now produce a result from open resources. But that's not what we're asking of an intelligence service, otherwise academics with a mastery of intelligence techniques would suffice!

In reality, there are two complementary but very different approaches in the intelligence field: research (using human or technical resources), i.e. the ability to access information protected by an adversary or competitor; and analysis, which is the ability to make sense of a set of data, secret or not, in the context of answering a question posed by the authorities, political or military.

In your view, what features should be present in a good intelligence analyst in order to support a certain country's foreign policy?

ED: The qualities required of a good analyst, whatever the subject (foreign policy is far from being the only one) are, in my opinion, the following:

- culture, both general and specialized, as he or she must be both an expert in his or her field, but also capable of widening his or her field of reflection to other areas

- a good knowledge of what fieldwork is (which is not his or her own), but which enables him or her to understand the possibilities and limits of human and technical research.

- intuition, deductive and inductive skills, the ability to make inferences,

- doubt, because he must assume that facts are often manipulated or distorted, or that his adversary is trying to intoxicate him. He must constantly look beyond appearances.

- stubbornness, because you must never be satisfied with the facts at hand; you must constantly re-investigate to get an accurate picture of the situation (while respecting the deadlines set for your mission).

- analytical and synthesizing skills, writing skills and the ability to clearly express what they know, what they don't know and what they should continue to investigate.

How relevant is the professional ethics of someone working in intelligence services, especially regarding analysts?

ED: To understand how ethics work in the world of intelligence, it is essential to differentiate between two things:

On the one hand, the ethics of intelligence, i.e. the very vocation of the discipline, whose purpose may be more or less easily accepted by a society, depending on its history, values and situation. The process of gathering information is in no way open to criticism. On the other hand, it can become so if the means used to achieve it are concealed, questionable or illegal. 

On the other hand, the ethics of intelligence, which concern professional practices and the spirit in which the men and women who have chosen this path carry them out. But it is difficult to talk about ethics without considering each of the intelligence professions separately. Indeed, the question arises in very different ways, depending on the function under consideration:

- the ethics of the client and the purpose of the mission,

- research ethics,

- ethics in the analysis and presentation of facts to policy-makers,

- ethics in action,

- but also the ethics of the individual.

Reflection on the ethics of intelligence, initiated by the Anglo-Saxon world, is still in its infancy. It is therefore difficult to provide definitive answers to this emerging debate. Indeed, it would be a grave error to apply the ethical rules in force in other areas of social or administrative life to the intelligence services. Of course, rules are essential, but they must take into account the specific vocation of the intelligence services, because in this field even less than in any other, a code of conduct cannot be defined from the outside.

This ethical requirement is an important issue for the services themselves. Such a demanding and special profession cannot be carried out without the operators themselves having a solid moral framework and a code of conduct that provides them with the essential reference points to avoid lapsing into schizophrenia, paranoia or uncontrolled delinquency.

From your standpoint, what preparation do intelligence analysts need to collaborate with policymakers, as part of a given Government's foreign policy?

ED: In my opinion, it is not up to analysts to present their conclusions to politicians. Any intelligence service must have its own specialists who can pass on important information, and how it reacts to them, and who also know how to gather and make them specify their requests before entrusting them to those who will plan the operational research. These men or women may be former analysts or operational people who have reached management level and are therefore in a position to dialogue with the principals. In fact, this is often a task reserved for the director or senior managers of a department. This is so the case in the United States with the President Daily Briefing.

The way you see it, would it be useful for policymakers to get some sort of training that enables them to get to know the inner workings and actual capabilities of intelligence services?

ED: I think it's vital that politicians with major responsibilities for national security receive at least a minimum of intelligence training. In other words, they need to know what the various agencies in the national community do, what they can and cannot do depending on their status and speciality, how they work and what they can realistically ask of them. Politicians often have two extreme attitudes when it comes to intelligence: either they despise the services and distrust the "agents", whose ill-considered actions they fear; or they totally fantasize about what a service can do, and ask them for anything that is often unachievable... and so end up despising them in return. 

It is therefore essential to explain to them clearly (and within the limits of confidentiality) what they can ask and expect from the intelligence and security services.

In your opinion, as part of foreign policy, what advantages do policymakers have when they make their decisions based on intelligence analysis?

ED: A political leader makes policy. His decision-making system is based on his vision, his experience, the information the service can provide him with, and the information he receives from other sources (other government services, personal networks)... and his own interests. This means that he can sometimes disregard the secret information provided to him if, at the same time, he has to respond to political or electoral issues that are essential to him. But of course, it's rare for leaders to neglect national security. But intelligence officers often fail to understand this. Their activity is really just a “service”, comparable to a consulting business, and the client decides whether or not to act after receiving their reports. 

What do you feel the negative consequences of politicizing intelligence services can entail for the services in question and, as such, also for the Government itself?

ED: The politicization of intelligence is partly necessary and partly harmful.

It's necessary in the sense that it's good for the head of an intelligence service to be close to and trusted by a president or prime minister. It will be easier for him to explain what his agency can do... and to pass on bad news, without hiding anything.

When this is not the case (cf. the poor relations between the White House and the CIA under Bill Clinton), the service is not taken into consideration, sidelined from the centers of power, or even worse, the authorities may resort to parallel networks, with the negative effects we know about (cf. Watergate).

But politicization must be limited to this. Under no circumstances must it "descend" into the department's operational or analytical activities, which must remain completely politically neutral, i.e. strictly professional and focused on preserving internal and external security.

*This interview was conducted, via email, on February 19, 2024

Photo by: Jorge Marinho

First published by Marinho Media Analysis / March 5, 2024

(http://www.marinho-mediaanalysis.org/articles/the-role-of-intelligence-services-as-part-of-foreign-policy)

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