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The very notion of intelligence is nuanced and broad. An entire branch of intelligence studies is devolved to exploring what intelligence is. This is what Mark Phythian and Peter Gill called “definitional project” in their taxonomy. Several scholars tackled the definition of intelligence, starting with Michael Warner’s pioneering paper Wanted: A definition of intelligence published in 2002 (almost achieving the twenty years anniversary). After him, many more tackled it (be kind if I advertise that I also proposed a philosophical definition of intelligence in 2019). But another crucial topic is the exploration of intelligence analysis functions such as strategic intelligence and tactical intelligence. Interestingly, strategic intelligence is still a difficult nut to be cracked. Probably because of its dependency on theory. Basically, strategic intelligence allows the identification of the enemy’s intentions to avoid surprises at the strategic level. Easy to say, but very difficult to achieve. Indeed, at least in the public debate, there is a sense that the Cold War was a predictable confrontation from a strategic perspective. Unfortunately, strategic intelligence was pursued with risk and uncertainty as everything else in intelligence. Although it is so important, it is still an underexplored topic. When I first read Itai Shapira’s paper, published by Intelligence and National Security (2019, Strategic Intelligence as an Art and a Science), I hoped we could have covered this topic, and now I am even more persuaded of this choice. Sure, the fact that he tackles the issue from theoretical and philosophical perspectives allured me even more. But, as you will see, there is a good reason for tackling strategic intelligence from this angle. Itai helps us understand the nature of strategic intelligence and tactical intelligence with a very innovative (fresh, I would venture to say) approach. It is then with my distinct pleasure to publish the interview on Scuola Filosofica – for those who don’t know it yet; it is one of the leading cultural blogs in Italy. In the name of Scuola Filosofica Team, our readers, and myself, Giangiuseppe Pili, Itai: thank you!
1# Itai Shapira, let’s start from the basics. How would you like to present yourself to the International readers and Philosophical School (Scuola Filosofica)?
I am currently a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester, studying Israeli national intelligence culture. I am a retired Colonel from the Israeli Defense Intelligence (IDI), where I have served for more than 25 years in various intelligence analysis and management roles – on the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. As a great believer in the dialectic of practice and theory, and after such a long period in the practice of intelligence, I am devoting the current period to a more theoretical perspective, trying to develop some theoretical concepts which in turn could influence practice.
2# How would you define strategic intelligence, and what is the main difference with tactical intelligence?
Providing a clear definition for such an abstract concept is rather hard. I therefore adopt a Wittgensteinian and a Pragmatist approach and think that the definition of a concept is its actual use in practice. So, instead of providing a definition I will attempt to describe strategic intelligence’s and tactical intelligence’s roles and functions – discussing epistemology and ontology.
Tactical intelligence supports the tactical levels of statecraft and warfare, on all domains (including space and cyber), and deals with the tactical level of the adversary. Its sole purpose is enabling and enhancing operation and action, in the military or in other (diplomatic, information or economic) realms; it does not produce knowledge per se, and it is created in a robust and well-defined context. It is intended to reveal secrets which the adversary tries to hide, or simply to produce knowledge about the adversary’s tactical capabilities. It is usually directed towards objects that are material and not mental, and hence – from an ontological perspective – exist in the present or existed in the past, while abiding by laws of nature. Its epistemology, therefore, is like that of empiricist science. It is aimed at finding or revealing the truth, based on empirical findings collected through different sensors, and hence is mainly aimed at uncovering secrets.
Before we move to strategic intelligence, it is important to mention operational-level intelligence – a rather under-researched subject in intelligence studies, and in my experience a very difficult discipline to practice. This is a very vague and elusive level of intelligence, embedded in the operational art of warfare. It usually enables the creation of operational or force design concepts, based on an analysis of the adversary’s concepts. As I mentioned earlier, this issue requires a dedicated setting for research and discussion.
Now we move to strategic intelligence. Its ontology, epistemology and functions are different from those of tactical intelligence, and the lines between its own traits are blurred. Strategic intelligence’s main function is to support the decision-making and actions of the national and strategic echelon, whether these are about strategy or about tactics. It does not only deal with adversaries, but with the strategic environment from a broad perspective – including non-military issues, and friendly entities. Regarding its ontology – in some cases, it is about revealing strategic secrets, mostly material, and hence it is aimed at finding out the truth. But in most cases, it is about mysteries and puzzles, i.e questions than do not or even cannot have a definitive and deterministic answer. It is more about concepts and perceptions, and about human matters which do not abide by universal or natural laws, than about material matters.
Strategic intelligence must enable decision regarding future events, and therefore it needs to assess and evaluate future issues on top of past and present ones. Its epistemology, therefore, is complex. In some cases, it is based on empirical findings, trying to inductively create a theory about concepts and perceptions in the strategic environment. But in other cases, it creates a conceptual framework which is used deductively used by other levels of intelligence and by decision-makers. This conceptual work is more a product of creativity than of a scientific method, and it allows understanding and sense-making of reality. And finally, strategic intelligence does not operate in a well-defined context, and some of the knowledge it produces practically creates this context. It does not create knowledge per se, but sometimes it needs to create the knowledge foundation which would enable to decide about the context of the discussion and decisions.
3# In your paper “Strategic Intelligence as an Art and a Science” published for Intelligence and National Security, quoting Lanir, you wrote that “strategic intelligence – is not just the “linear continuation” of tactical intelligence” (p.284). What is the relationship between the two, and what are their main distinctive features?
This is a very tough question, and one I have been struggling with both in theory and in practice. In this context I must mention that Lanir’s book (published in 1984), which is explicitly about the intelligence failure in the Yom Kippur War (1973) but effectively about the philosophy and methodology of intelligence and cognition, was groundbreaking for me as far as intelligence theory is concerned.
I have described my perspective about their strategic and tactical intelligence distinct features earlier in the interview but let me but now elaborate on this. Strategic intelligence is indeed not the “linear continuation” of tactical intelligence.
Firstly, this is so since strategy is not just the sum of tactics and operations. History is full of examples where tactical and operational achievements have led to a strategic failure. Moreover, a good strategy – intended to change the environment – which cannot be or is not actually implemented on the tactical and operational levels is no more a mere cognitive exercise.
Secondly, this is so since the epistemology of strategic intelligence and the ontology of its objects are different from those of tactical intelligence. Excellent tactical intelligence about an adversary’s military facilities and arsenal of arms does not sum up necessarily to good strategic intelligence about the adversary’s intentions after such facilities are attacked. Excellent tactical intelligence providing targets for airstrikes does not necessarily guarantee strategic intelligence providing early warning about an adversary’s willingness to risk escalation.
However, I wish to emphasize the required dialectic and interaction between strategic and tactical intelligence. Sometimes these fields, and especially the personnel assigned to execute them, are not only perceived as different but also detached. My view is different.
Writ large, I believe that strategic intelligence which is not grounded in facts and in tactical intelligence cannot truly support strategy, cannot truly provide relevant sense-making of the strategic environment, is not satisfactory for relevant decision-making, and cannot implement one its major goals – properly directing the efforts of operational- and tactical-level intelligence.
One cannot conduct a strategic analysis of an adversary’s nuclear ambitions and vision without understanding the technical aspects of the operations taking place in the nuclear facilities. One cannot determine whether a competitor has intervened in foreign democratic elections without understating its capabilities to act in the cyber domain and in social media. One cannot depict scenarios for great-power competition without proper knowledge of economic and military capabilities regarding the different competitors. One cannot identify weak signals for an emergence of a global terrorist organization without detailed knowledge about the relevant individuals. One cannot point at an erosion of a country’s regime stability without tactical intelligence about economic issues. One cannot even provide a strategic analysis of the emergence of a global pandemic without tactical intelligence about the specific origin of that pandemic. And I could go on…
4# You argued that strategic intelligence is not so much about forecasting the future as much as reducing uncertainty, which is a topic considered in these conversations. But how can strategic intelligence decrease uncertainty without at least attempting to forecast the future?
This is also a very tough question. During my military service I have seen many decision makers who expected strategic intelligence to provide forecasts – aimed at formulating a policy, executing a strategy, calculating risks of a military operation, or planning a multi-year military force design. Naturally, strategic intelligence should engage future development – since decision-makers make decisions which should shape reality. However, I prefer to quote Joseph Nye – who claimed, in his famous article “Peering into the future”, that intelligence should help policymakers think about the future. One of my commanding officers used this quote frequently when we tried to find relevant methods for coping with the turbulence and upheaval in the Middle East (sometimes called the “Arab Spring”) since 2010.
This role of intelligence, and specifically of strategic intelligence, is not the same as forecast. It is more about assessment and estimation – not necessarily based on induction of experience, since the strategic context is always unique. Reducing uncertainty is achieved not by assessing what would happen, but by better preparation for what might happen. Strategic intelligence should assess the likelihood of potential future scenarios. But not less importantly, it should assess which factors might contribute to several such scenarios.
Therefore, I think strategic intelligence should conduct scenario analysis, wargaming, and especially back-casting. These techniques, on top of traditional inductive and deductive ones which are still relevant, can enable an early warning in its more contemporary meaning – not just alerting of a surprise military attack, but alerting about shifts as they begin to emerge. The latter, I believe, is a major role of strategic intelligence. Conducted properly, it can reduce uncertainty.
5# Interestingly, you say that philosophy matters so much so that you argued, “Conceptual frameworks in the intelligence context can be thought in terms of Kant’s notion of space and time, as “a priori concepts of consciousness” (p. 288). We arrived at similar conclusions indeed! But what is your thought here? Why is philosophy so crucial?
I studied philosophy in my B.A almost 20 years ago, but only in recent years have I truly learned to appreciate its direct and practical relevance to intelligence. Philosophy, at least for me, is so crucial – first and foremost since it creates a mindset of reflection, of “thinking about how to think”, and of questioning basic assumptions.
For intelligence scholars, I think philosophy is extremely crucial. As we all know, there is a void in a robust theory of or about intelligence. Philosophy, in my mind, should be the main enabler or driver of intelligence studies – enabling development of such theories, and of abstract concepts which can be used in practice.
For intelligence practitioners, especially ones influenced by traumatic failures (such as that in 1973 for Israelis), these are implicitly considered as basic skills. Naturally, practitioners – at least in Israel, but I believe this is also true for other countries – rarely have the time or the resources to merely reflect or to discuss theory. Intelligence, at the end of the day, is a practical discipline, conducted in a very practical national security or defense/military context. But for these practitioners, philosophy can create a “reflecting mindset” which improves the ability to cope with complex challenges. Specifically, I think that epistemology and logic are basic skills for intelligence practitioners – since intelligence is mainly about ways of inference regarding material or abstract objects. Practitioners need to change, learn, and adapt all the time – since the object of their practice is constantly changing. Philosophy, in my mind, is a major enabler for this – even if is tacit. It should be embedded as an integral part of intelligence practice, not as an external field which might then seem “too theoretical”.
6# This question is too tempting. In a forthcoming paper, I argue that the question “is intelligence an art or a science?” is a bad one because it creates confusion in conceptualizing something which has its own rules and crafts. Interestingly, more than science tout court, you argue that here with “science” is “scientific method.” In this sense, you argue that indeed is both but blurring the boundaries between the two. How would you like to frame the classic question?
I fully agree that “art or science” is not the best framing when discussing the nature of intelligence, and specifically of strategic intelligence. I therefore think that the question can better be framed as “how rigorous can methods for producing strategic intelligence be?”, or “how much does production of strategic intelligence rely on subject-matter expertise, experience based on past events, and data science”? I know these questions are not phrased in an elegant manner, but they might better articulate current dilemmas. The question of big data is a major one these days – and just as I have written in an article published by the INSS in Israel discussing challenges for strategic intelligence, I think data science is still underrated and underused when it comes to strategic intelligence. And by the way – regarding the previous questions – scholars in the field of strategic studies in national security and of corporate strategy in the business realm also ask, “is strategy an art or a science”. This has a lot to do with creativity – a topic I believe we will discuss later in this interview.
7# “As such, in the world of security, as in business, strategy requires creativity.” (p. 287). It is wonderful and beautiful conclusions which stroke me as something understated, namely the role of creativity in intelligence and war, more broadly. So, why creativity? Why is it important?
Thanks for these kind words. I indeed believe that strategy, and hence also strategic intelligence, requires a lot of creativity. Creativity is so important since a strategic context, unlike a tactical one, is always unique. Past knowledge can go just so far for assisting in making decisions, although as I mentioned it should be used. Strategy is not about understanding, it is about changing and shaping. Strategic intelligence, therefore, must assist to change reality. This requires imagination and creativity, an ability to acknowledge the unique context and its implications. This is exactly why I think strategy and strategic intelligence, both in national security and in business, have some artistic aspects – on top of scientific and rigorous ones. It is humans who make strategic decisions, hopefully aided by machines, but not machines themselves. The machines are better at rigorous analysis of large quantities of data, including identifying anomalies and even predicting future outcomes. But it is humans who provide a unique interpretation, and then make strategy work in the specific context it is relevant for.
8# How can our readers follow you?
The best way would probably be on LinkedIn
9# Five keywords that represent you?
Innovative, creative, skeptical, passionate, reflective.