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Kira Vrist Rønn | Epistemology & Intelligence Ethics | Intelligence & Interview N.20 | Dr Giangiuseppe Pili

Approved by the Author

I’m tremendously excited to publish this wonderful interview with Kira Vrist Rønn, senior lecturer at University College Copenhagen. Professor Vrist Rønn published extensively about the philosophy of intelligence. Specifically, she worked on the epistemology of intelligence and intelligence ethics. These two topics are indeed the core of “Intelligence & Interview N.20”. Though practically oriented, the intelligence studies include an important and – I would add – fundamental theoretical component. Intelligence theory is indeed crucial to understand the practical aspects of the intelligence profession. Is objectivity possible in intelligence analysis? What is intelligence? Is intelligence ethics possible, or is it an unbearable oxymoron? Is intelligence an art or a science? To reply to all these questions, we need to bring philosophical concepts to clarify what intelligence is. Professor Vrist Rønn was a pioneer in this research, and she authored and edited several works (see below). Given my long-lasting research interest in both epistemology and ethics of intelligence, I can only be thrilled by publishing this thought-provoking interview. Recently, Intelligence & Interview N.19 already touched on the epistemology of intelligence. But that was a starter, also considering the different main topics of that issue. This interview goes deeper on the epistemology and ethics of intelligence. Then, it is 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, Kira: thank you!

1. Professor Kira Vrist Rønn, let’s start with the basics. How would you like to present yourself to the national and international readers and Philosophical School (Scuola Filosofica)?

I am trained as a philosopher from Roskilde University (MA) and University of Copenhagen (PhD) in Denmark. During the last 10 years my main interest has been Intelligence Studies from a philosophical perspective. I have a leg in both theory and practice, since I have worked both as an analyst in the Danish National Police. Also, I have conducted comprehensive scholarly research within this field. I did my PhD on the Epistemology of Intelligence (2012) and since then I have worked my way into intelligence ethics. For instance, I have co-edited the books “Moral Issues in Intelligence-Led Policing” (2017) and “Intelligence on the Frontier Between State and Civil Society (2019) both at Routledge, and I have recently worked on the use and perception of OSINT / SOCMINT amongst intelligence and police practitioners. Currently, I am affiliated as senior lecturer at University College Copenhagen.

2. Let’s start with a very general but crucial question. Is objectivity possible in intelligence analysis?

I think intelligence objectivity is a fascinating topic. To answer the question about whether objectivity in intelligence analysis is possible, we must start by specifying what we mean when we talk about objectivity in this context. There are at least three central notions of objectivity in play in intelligence literature and practices, which are not reducible to one another: 1) In the intelligence collection phase there is a common perception that the gathered information is raw data, which is objective, because is interpretation-free. 2) In the analytical phase intelligence objectivity denotes virtues of the analysts such as being value-free or value-neutral when conducting the analytical products. 3) Finally, intelligence objectivity is elsewhere articulated as a matter of procedural justice, where citizens, who have attracted attention and suspicion from intelligence services, should be treated equally and fairly in a way which avoids generating unreasonable suspicions against citizens. This last version is common within police / criminal intelligence and it mirrors an understanding of intelligence objectivity which means free from cognitive biases and prejudices. I believe that this latter version is least controversial in terms of desirability. Though it is a form of objectivity which is hard to achieve, the two previous forms of objectivity are even harder to realize. In terms of the first notion of intelligence objectivity as interpretation-free, I would say that it is very difficult to obtain. Räsänen and Nyce have written interestingly on the common perception and use of the concept “raw data / raw intelligence”. Their point is that it is an illusion to view collected information as raw and objective since bits and pieces of collected information have already been processed and interpreted by others. The risks of using this articulation is that the contextual meaning of the pieces of information is glossed over and that inherently subjective / interpreted information is turned into objective context-independent facts.  In terms of the second version of intelligence objectivity as value-free or value-neutral, I agree with Stephen Marrin in his recent article in Intelligence and National Security, where he argues that some intelligence concepts and ideals, such as objectivity, seem to be derived from an idealized and outdated understanding of science reflecting what he calls “epistemic naivety”. In all versions, objectivity reflects an aspiration to minimize epistemic risks, and thus objectivity in this sense is not a binary concept, where intelligence is either objective or its relevant opposite. Rather, objectivity is a continuum where a high level of objectivity is aspired. Thus, the short version is that we should not talk about intelligence objectivity simpliciter, but rather as different conceptualizations of important ethical and epistemological virtues of intelligence practices. I will unfold these preliminary thoughts on intelligence objectivity in an article for the special issue of Intelligence and National Security on The Philosophy of Intelligence, edited by G. Pili and J. Gaspard.

3. It is often said that a neo-classic vision of science shapes intelligence collection and analysis, namely intelligence employing scientific methods though it cannot be considered a science. Sherman Kent definitely shaped the discipline of intelligence studies also in this respect. Is this paradigm appropriate to conceptualize intelligence analysis?

The criticism that, in its initial stages, the professionalization of intelligence practices has resulted in a scientification of intelligence, where science and intelligence are understood as two sides of the same coin, is warranted, since it does not always fit the actual practices of intelligence. This scientification potentially leads to flawed and unachievable ideals (like in the case of objectivity understood as interpretation-free) and runs the risk of giving intelligence unwarranted authority. However, this is a quite common dynamic when traditional and hands-on professions turn towards increasing professionalization and academization. Intelligence studies are more and more beginning to develop intelligence-specific conceptualizations, which are better suited for the intelligence context, and I believe this is a more constructive path for the future of intelligence studies.

4. Philosophy of intelligence is slowly but relentlessly turning to be an emergent topic of intelligence studies. Other scholars argued for the necessity of an epistemology of intelligence. The scientific intelligence community recognized this need. However, the epistemology of intelligence is very underexplored philosophically. According to you, why did philosophers lack interest in this crucial topic?

My impression is that epistemology has slowly gained ground within intelligence practices along the increased focus on “politization of intelligence”, “cognitive biases” and “intelligence failures”. The increased focus on the virtues, roles, and mandates of especially intelligence analysts have paved the way for scholarly discussion on e.g. epistemic standards and epistemic risks by drawing on e.g. philosophical epistemology and similar areas such as the psychology of intelligence and cognitive biases, with R. Heuer as the leading figure. Intelligence is basically knowledge-work, and that is why epistemology is highly relevant for intelligence studies and intelligence practices.

To answer the question why there is a lack of attention on intelligence from the perspectives of professional philosophers, P. Gill and M. Phythian identify two relevant explanations of this. First, intelligence studies as a scholarly discipline is not regarded as a high-esteemed and carrier-promoting path for researcher at e.g. universities. Second, previously academic attention has often resulted in negative and even hostile reactions from the intelligence services, leaving the researchers alone with their views about how there could be helpfully reformed and their ambitions to contribute with scholarly qualifications to the intelligence practices. Both of Gill’s and Pythian’s explanations capture important parts of the full picture, and both are tendencies I have experienced myself during my carrier in intelligence studies. Hopefully, the dispositions these explanations reflect will be reduced as the intelligence community’s awareness of the benefits of interaction between theory and practices, as it were, and as the dichotomy between intelligence “do’ers” and “knowers” is increasingly broken down.

5. How do you evaluate the current epistemology of intelligence?

I did my PhD on this topic almost 10 year ago, and back then the literature was very limited. Now the interest in the epistemology of intelligence seems to be improving in quality and expanding in terms of quantity, which is indeed praiseworthy. One common deficiency, which I am guilty of myself, is the lack of a sufficient awareness amongst epistemologists of intelligence is that non-epistemologists often find it difficult to access epistemological theories. Moreover, these might even be stilted and pretentious to non-theorists. Since intelligence studies is inherently cross-disciplinary and very practice-oriented, there is a huge task for epistemologists in translating and making the points accessible and understandable for outsiders. With that said, collaboration between intelligence studies/practices and philosophical epistemology can be both fruitful and mutually enriching.

6. Let’s talk about ethics now. When there is a general sense that intelligence should be framed inside sound moral values, however, given the intelligence functions, which historically included covert actions, is this entirely possible?

´Many intelligence observers have conceptualized intelligence ethics as an oxymoron, because in their view intelligence is inherently unethical due to it clandestine and deceiving nature.  This way of approaching the field is too simplistic, and ethics can and should regulate or guide intelligence practices on various levels. This is indeed relevant since the intelligence laws in many countries are very general (due to a concern for safeguarding the effectiveness and secret methods of the services). This means that the intelligence professionals a faced with a much room for discretion and interpretation, which could be qualified and guided via ethical awareness or ethical principles.

Previously, intelligence ethics has predominantly been understood as the ethics of collecting information. However, intelligence analysis and the dissemination of intelligence likewise pose relevant and interesting ethical questions. Naturally, the core activity of collecting information differs in terms of scope and, most importantly, in terms of the individuals affected by intelligence collection. In addition, intelligence collection is apparently surrounded by many more and very different types of ethical dilemmas than the analysis of these pieces of intelligence. The collection of intelligence will often turn out to either wrong and/or to harm the person, who is a target of a specific intelligence collection activity. This is not necessarily true of intelligence analysis to the same extent. Typically ethical considerations pertaining to the analysis of intelligence concern the way in which the analyst treats the collected intelligence: the way she concludes and infers on the basis of the collected intelligence (and other types of information) and subsequently interacts with decision-makers when providing them with intelligence in order to help construct an informed decision-making framework.

7. Taking the fascinating and fundamental question from a paragraph in “Moral Issues in Intelligence-led Policing,” why is intelligence ethics important?

Intelligence ethics is important for two reasons at least. First, from a macro-perspective and from the perspective of moral philosophy intelligence ethics poses similar questions as e.g. surveillance ethics. This discipline asks how the state should use various surveillance technologies vis-à-vis the public in the name of national security while running the risk of infringing the privacy rights of citizens. The balance between freedom and (national) security has been discussed within political philosophy for many years, and there is no quick-fix answer to the question of what the right balance is. Hence, there are many lessons to be learned from moral philosophy, when attempting to clarify the arguments and when identifying what is at stake on both side of the balance when initiating e.g. new surveillance measures. Second, in “Moral Issues in Intelligence-led Policing” we use of a much broader concept of ethics than the question of balancing between rights on one side and security on the other side. On our understanding ‘moral issues’ include also various types of societal dilemmas and challenges that arise in the wake of the increased proliferation of intelligence and intelligence logics to the wider society. Such questions are particularly pertinent outside the traditional intelligence domain, e.g., when it comes to the use of “high-policing” measures in “low policing” contexts.

8. How can our readers follow you?

LinkedIn, Research Gate,

9. Five keywords that represent you?

Action-oriented philosopher with an inherent interest in exploring new cross-disciplined research paths.

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