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date: 17 January 2018

Diplomacy and Intelligence

Summary and Keywords

There is a potentially serious difference between diplomacy and intelligence. Creative tension between diplomacy and intelligence stems from the involvement of both with questions of strategy and statecraft. Indeed, the source of this conflict is often clandestine or covert activities that become public and adversely affect both relations between states and diplomats’ ongoing work. Early works in the intelligence scholarship focuses basically at the descriptive level and centers on acquiring information. In 1922, studies began considering the political aspects of the intelligence–diplomacy connection, zeroing in on the defects of US intelligence and the adequacy of policies, including those related to intelligence gathering and its impact on diplomacy. Studies about the details of the intelligence–diplomacy connection also began to appear. These studies look at the interplay between intelligence and policy making as well as the morality of clandestine operations. In order to link intelligence goals to policy needs, future studies on the intelligence–diplomacy connection should further assess the impact of culture on intelligence gathering and perception, provide better insight into the characteristics of good versus bad intelligence officers and diplomats, include qualitative estimates of the effectiveness and efficacy of techniques and strategies as well as legal and ethical discussions of control and policy, and explore the strategic interactions between intelligence officers and diplomats and how these are managed in various governing systems.

Keywords: diplomacy, intelligence, covert activities, intelligence–diplomacy connection, intelligence gathering, strategy, statecraft, US intelligence, policy making


Diplomacy and intelligence have been intertwined since the beginning of recorded history and organized government. In the earliest periods, these two functions were not really differentiated because they were done by the same people (Bozeman 1992; Hamilton and Langhorne 1995; Berridge 2005), but as governments began to become more complex, beginning with the Chinese and the Achaemenid Persians in about the sixth century bc, separate intelligence organizations began to appear. Over time, the Arabs, Turks, Mongols, and Hindus also copied these activities.

While “reason of state” and “realpolitik” were not developed as concepts until the seventeenth century, the belief that diplomacy and intelligence for the survival of the unit were not subject to ethical codes dominated behavior until the organization of Westphalian diplomacy after the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648. The distinction between “intelligence” as information seeking and “covert action” as clandestine behavior to affect policy did not evolve until the twentieth century, and then in response to democratic notions of statecraft (Olson 2006:1–15, 33–45; Stempel 2007) during the further evolution of public, or “new,” diplomacy in the post-World War I period.

From the diplomatic perspective, the mission of intelligence was to provide information about the activities, intentions, and behavior of other entities, groups and individuals so that governments could estimate the strength and intentions of allies and possible adversaries (Howard 2002: chs. i–iii, vi–vii). Largely as a result of the December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, the focus of organized American intelligence has centered upon warning of impending danger or attack. This became a principal Cold War task of all major powers from the 1950s to the mid-1990s (Betts 2007: chs. 1 and 3), as powerful nuclear weapons and instantaneous delivery times became the norm.

Creative tension between diplomacy and intelligence stems from the involvement of both diplomacy and intelligence with questions of strategy and statecraft. Strategists want information to plan broad policy. Intelligence officers seek signs of danger and opportunity, but some analysts pursue intelligence for its own sake, slighting the connection with policy.

Diplomats focus on policy questions, and the impact that intelligence activities will have on relations with other states (Codevilla 1992; Hamilton and Langhorne 1995; Berridge 2005). Conflict occasionally occurs between diplomats and intelligence folk. The source is often clandestine or covert activities that become public and adversely affect both relations between states and diplomats’ ongoing work (Iran Contra, spies). Such incidents also create extra and unpleasant work for the diplomats, who are often left to clean up the mess as best they can (Daugherty 2004; Wirtz 2007). Hence there is a potentially serious professional difference between diplomats, who are inclined to see secret intelligence as “bad form” and potentially crippling to effective relations, and intelligence officers who fear that diplomats may be less than fully enthusiastic supporters of intelligence and covert activities.

The bureaucratization of intelligence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries multiplied the potential areas of conflict between foreign ministries and intelligence services, especially when views and priorities differed between organizations (Stempel 1981: ch. 14; Bamford 2004). On the professional side, for both diplomats and intelligence officials, the issue of “cooking” intelligence to support a policy is both a professional and a political trap which can cripple national policy and ruin careers (Ricks 2006; Risen 2006).

Most countries do not discuss intelligence matters publicly. Thus while diplomacy has long been the subject of academic discussion, sustained scholarship on intelligence really only began in the late 1950s and got under way seriously in the aftermath of the Watergate Commission in 1975. Much earlier work was biographical, and much focused on a single country. Only since the mid-1980s have a few books dealt directly and substantially with the diplomacy–intelligence link (Breckinridge 1986; Codevilla 1992; Bozeman 1992; Howard 2002). Most recently, heavy criticism leveled at US intelligence performance in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War (Bamford 2004; Risen 2006) has raised both old and new questions about the relationship of intelligence to policy and downgraded diplomacy.

The United States lagged behind both European and Asian countries in professional development of both diplomacy and intelligence. After a bout of serious diplomacy when America became independent, the country focused inward for about a century. Still, most American intelligence gathering and diplomatic efforts were patched together for each event, even after the USA began to reenter the diplomatic area at the end of the nineteenth century with the 1898 Spanish-American War. Serious sustained involvement in diplomacy began after World War I and the creation of a professional Foreign Service in 1924 (Ameringer 1990). On the intelligence side, however, the United States lagged until the eve of World War II, when President Roosevelt created the Office of Strategic Services. A full-fledged career intelligence service came only with the creation of the CIA by the National Security Act of 1947 (Breckinridge 1986; Richelson 1995).

Intelligence Scholarship Begins

In the beginning, work was basically at the descriptive level and centered on acquiring information. Mention of the intelligence–diplomacy connection and interactions was more peripheral than central. Sherman Kent, a former intelligence officer, and Harry Howe Ransom, a Vanderbilt professor, focused on the gathering and analysis of intelligence (Kent 1946; Ransom 1958) to establish an intellectual base for the profession. This changed with the 1974 publication of The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, which directly criticized the Agency for errors, most of which affected foreign policy. More a public affairs book than a work of extensive scholarship, it lit the way for more informed and critical analysis (Marchetti and Marks 1974).

Partly as a result of the controversy which had begun over CIA activities during the Vietnam period and revelations of clandestine Agency support for scholars in international organizations (Breckinridge 1986), and pushed also by publicly alleged CIA misdoings in Chile, Senator Frank Church and his Senate committee carried out a two-year investigation in 1974–5 that focused attention on covert action and the question of its adherence to or deviation from government policies (Johnson 1989; 1999).

The aftermath of the Church Committee and its lesser-known House counterpart, the Pike Committee, saw the beginning of a more serious effort to study the function of intelligence. This emerged in the 1980s to explore the issues in conducting intelligence and relating it to diplomacy. In addition to a growing number of memoirs and biographic studies (Colby 1978; Kim Roosevelt 1979; Phillips 1982; Helms 2003; Tenet 2007), materials were developed (Breckinridge 1986; Lowenthal 2006) to teach intelligence – both to professionals and to lay people who wished to learn about the process.

While the bulk of this work was American and British, most other nations maintained the traditional reluctance to discuss intelligence matters, especially those related to policy issues. However, books and articles began to appear on other intelligence services as well (Andrews and Mitrokhin 2005), and after the end of the Cold War, a number of books on Soviet and Russian intelligence became available (Pringle 2006), including some memoirs, the most notable of which was that of East German Intelligence Chief Markus Wolf (Wolf 1997). The International Journal of Intelligence and Counter Intelligence began publication, with the bulk of its articles in the early years by professionals, and later a greater balance between professional and academic authors, with several in both categories. A decade and a half later, another journal, Intelligence and National Security, entered the market, signifying an increasing level of scholarly as well as professional interest.

Along with this came more in-depth efforts – Jeffrey Richelson’s extensive look at the US intelligence community (Richelson 1995); and examinations of the relationship between the CIA and American society (Jeffreys-Jones 1989). These and other books focused primarily on intelligence activities – collection, analysis, covert action, and counterintelligence – rather than the relationship between intelligence, policy, and diplomacy. For example, in Richelson’s excellent descriptive work (Richelson 1995), while there is much tangentially relevant material, there is only one direct reference to foreign policy in 477 pages.

Connecting Intelligence to Diplomacy and Policy

That began to change in 1992 with Angelo Codevilla’s Informing Statecraft and Adda Bozeman’s Strategic Intelligence and Statecraft (Codevilla 1992; Bozeman 1992). Codevilla focused on the political aspects of the intelligence–statecraft connection and zeroed in on the defects of US intelligence and the adequacy of policies, including those related to intelligence gathering and its impact on diplomacy. He made a good case for the need for improvement, but with less focus on what actions to actually take.

Bozeman, on the other hand, begins with cultural issues in intelligence gathering and strategic policy – the major cultural difference in even such simple concepts of “war” and “peace” – noting that Western cultures see them as opposites while Eastern cultures view them as a continuum from lesser violence to greater. She raises questions as to the suitability of democratic governments for maintaining consistent policies and intelligence activities to match. In Bozeman’s final essay, “Strategic Intelligence in Cold Wars of Ideas,” she dissects the difficulties the West encounters in understanding Islam, and previews the issues in the contemporary dialog on dealing with Islam and terrorism (Bozeman 1992: ch. 8).

The other offering which deals directly with the intelligence crossover between diplomacy and statecraft is Michael Herman’s Intelligence Power in Peace and War. This blends theory with practice in a deeper organizational discussion of how to evade pitfalls and produce a better intelligence product. He says a little (and one wishes for more) about what diplomacy requires from intelligence, but handles the transition from peace to war in the spirit of Bozeman’s continuity rather than the war–peace dichotomy. For Herman, as for Bozeman, the continuity, not the dichotomy, is the important point that Westerners often miss (Herman 1996).

Contemporary Intelligence–Diplomacy Connection

Studies also began to appear about details of the intelligence–diplomacy connection. One of the more profound was Ofira Sellitktar’s assessment of the interplay between intelligence and policy making leading up to and including the Shah’s 1979 demise in Iran (Seliktar 2000). Her effort capped a long string of literature that grew up around the fall of the Shah. Much of this centered on how the covert overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadeq and the restoration of the Shah in 1953 laid the groundwork for events 25 years later (Stempel 1981; Sick 1985).

Similar work was done with respect to various US Latin and Central American efforts featuring covert action. These centered on US actions in Chile in the 1970s and Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala in the 1980s. Connecting these events was the Iran Contra issue, where covert weapons sales to Iran produced funds that were then illegally used to fund operations against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua in direct contravention of congressional legislation (Daugherty 2004).

Interestingly enough, the Iran Contra affair was truly a covert action: no presidential approval was ever sought for the activities involved, and a number of people lost their jobs – the ultimate negative consequence of bad policy choice. William Daugherty’s landmark study of executive approval of covert activities (Daugherty 2004) gets right to the heart of the covert action conundrum: what is considered appropriate international behavior, and who approves deviations from it (Johnson and Wirtz 2004: ch. 22)?

No other country has so thoroughly and publicly discussed the morality of clandestine operations as the United States. Subsequent probing of intelligence competence and capability stemming from the World Trade Center bombing and the events surrounding the US decision to invade Iraq have multiplied efforts in this area. Others watch with intense interest, since the dialog will further affect how the American intelligence services operate, and how effective they are. Covert action has always been considered moral under realpolitik doctrine, but it has been gradually separated from diplomacy since the end of the Napoleonic War in Europe. The 1815 Treaty of Vienna included the principle of noninterference by diplomats in the internal affairs of states and an outright condemnation of espionage (Berridge 2005). This did not stop spying, but hastened the creation of separate intelligence services and loosened diplomatic control over such activities in many democratic states.

An excellent contemporary study of morality in espionage and how it affects diplomacy, by former CIA officer and now professor James Olson, updates the triangular discussion of diplomacy–morality–espionage (Olson 2006). Given the rest of the world’s reticence to discuss this kind of subject, it will be interesting to see how much further it will develop. With terrorism taking center stage, it is difficult to see how some hard rethinking can be avoided about the global linkage between intelligence and diplomacy.

Even before the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, terrorism had provided new challenges for both diplomacy and intelligence. For diplomats, it was a threat to the diplomatic system as well as to their persons, raising the strategic question of how one organizes to deal with terrorism. Retired CIA officer Paul Pillar framed the discussion of the terrorism–intelligence–diplomacy problem in his Terrorism and US Foreign Policy (Pillar 2001). A broader-ranging discussion can be found in Weiner (2007).

The 9/11 bombing raised two strategic questions: Why did this happen and how can we prevent it from occurring again (Strasser 2004)? How should one meet and destroy the terrorist threat? Resulting books by analysts (Baer 2002; Clarke 2004) and intelligence managers (Odom 2006; Tenet 2007) as well as journalists (Bamford 2004; Ricks 2006; Risen 2006) cover the ground thoroughly. Beyond the intelligence questions, the issue of accuracy and integrity has come up in the intelligence–diplomacy nexus. This stems from charges that intelligence on Iraq was misread and fabricated outright to produce the results that policy makers wanted (Bamford 2004; Risen 2006). Former Secretary of State Colin Powell added fuel to the fire (if not yet a book to the library), claiming that he would not have asked the United Nations to sanction Iraq and approve war if he had known the intelligence was false.

At least one result of this is the 2005 American Intelligence Reform Act, which places all intelligence organizations under a new Director of National Intelligence (DNI). Argument about the effectiveness of such reform has been controversial for years, and it will undoubtedly and deservedly be the subject of much future scholarship by practitioners as well as scholars over the next decade (Strasser 2004). Thoughtful commentary on this has already begun to appear (Turner 2006:175–88).

Context of Current Scholarship

Two major contemporary compendiums on intelligence, including the relationship between intelligence, policy, and diplomacy, sum up the state of the field. The first, a one-volume anthology, Strategic Intelligence: Windows into a Secret World, has two sections which deal directly with intelligence and policy selections and with intelligence politicization, relations between consumers and producers, accountability and ethics, and covert action (Johnson and Wirtz 2004).

The second is a monumental, exhaustive, five-volume work, Strategic Intelligence, edited by Loch K. Johnson (Johnson 2007). This will be the starting point for future intelligence scholars, and an excellent place for diplomatic scholars to begin work, especially volume 1, Understanding the Hidden Side of Government. (Additional volume titles are The Intelligence Cycle, Covert Action, Counterintelligence-Counterterrorism, and Intelligence Accountability).

Three other works commend themselves both as statements about intelligence and diplomacy, and as suggested guides to future points of study. The first, by former general and National Security Agency Director William Odom, is Fixing Intelligence: For a More Secure America (Odom 2006). A former practitioner who is extremely knowledgeable academically, he is also very candid about policy-maker problems with using intelligence. The book has superb linkages between intelligence, diplomacy, and military operations, including extremely helpful material on Afghanistan. He concludes with an astute observation, probably shared by most professional diplomats and strategists: “Intelligence performance simply can not be separated from foreign policy making and military operations” (Odom 2006:186).

The second, a collection of essays by former intelligence personnel, including those who have held more recent policy positions and experienced academics, is Transforming US Intelligence (Sims and Gerber 2006). It is the most focused on the subject of this essay – the ties between intelligence and diplomacy. It also includes two excellent chapters by Jennifer E. Sims on cross-cultural understanding of both the USA and other countries in the Bozeman tradition (Sims and Gerber 2006: chs. 2 and 3).

The third, and most recent, is by long-time scholar and sometime bureaucrat Richard K. Betts and deals primarily with the problems of perfectibility of intelligence, Enemies of Intelligence: Knowledge and Power in American National Security (Betts 2007). Betts suggests wisely that expecting perfectibility is to move from one set of errors to another. If one seeks speed, one may overlook important factors. If one wishes to get the best and most sensitive information, this may mean working with morally challenged sources (thugs, butchers).

All three of these efforts focus, as do most of the books mentioned in this essay, on mixing the professional and practical side of intelligence with politics and diplomacy. These more complex and sensitive issues of contemporary interaction between diplomacy and intelligence do not lend themselves to the quantitative techniques favored by many contemporary social scientists. However, they are more critical for both understanding and making better policy in the diplomatic and intelligence realms.

The least researched of these areas is the impact of culture on intelligence gathering and perception, where qualitative understanding of individual and group interpretations is essential to expanding upon the work of Bozeman and others. Secrecy varies by society and is particularly important in comparative intelligence studies of both open and closed societies. The demands of secrecy practically mandate that the most thorough and perceptive work will have to be done, or at least substantially aided by, professional intelligence and diplomatic officers (most likely after retirement) or scholars who have had some intelligence experience and are willing to work under less than ideal conditions of academic freedom.

On the personnel side, better insight into the characteristics of good versus bad intelligence officers and diplomats would help us understand more about the process, personnel selection, and training. With respect to intelligence process, studies might include qualitative estimates of the effectiveness and efficacy of techniques and strategies, legal and ethical discussions of control and policy, and an exploration of the strategic interactions between intelligence officers and diplomats and how these are managed in various governing systems. Alexander George suggests some ways of dealing with these issues of academic versus policy cultures that are worth exploring (George 1998).

The principal task of such research will be to link intelligence goals to policy needs. The initial efforts should be to increase diplomats’ understanding of the issues and imperatives of intelligence gathering, and on the intelligence officers’ side, the benefits and dangers to diplomacy inherent in their craft. A more distant but equally vital goal is to help our political leaders understand how to lead in such complex and delicate situations.


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I am grateful to Paul Sharp for solid editorial thoughts; Robert W. Pringle, Jr. for insights and helpful suggestions; and John Crawford for assistance on citations.