What We Mean by 'Intelligence'

I really enjoyed this interview on Fresh Air. The subjects are two ex-CIA operatives who fell in love, married, and subsequently left. It's got Hollywood written all over it. But that aside, I thought this was an interesting bit:


Mr. BAER: You can't collect intelligence on ephemera of a Tunisian vendor lighting himself on fire and sparking a revote. We were vaguely aware and have been aware for a long time that if food prices continued to go up, demographic problems and the rest of it, it's eventually going to crack. But, you know, the way it did crack and how quickly, you just - it's a matter of intuition and you cannot write up into which and send it to the White House in intelligence reports. It just doesn't wash. 

GROSS: Do you think that the CIA has good intelligence on the countries that have had uprisings? I know that you say it's hard to have information on ephemera, and like one of events that you couldn't predict, but several former CIA agents have complained that we don't have enough on the ground operatives who speak the languages in these countries. 

Mr. BAER: Well, let me put it this way, Egyptian Arabic is peculiar, a peculiar accent, and it's difficult to learn especially, you know, the familiar Arabic. And it would take an officer two years of studying Arabic, three years on the ground mastering Arabic, and about 10 years to get a grasp of a society like Egypt. That's ideally what happens. You know, it's very difficult for someone to devote a career of 20 years on a single country like Egypt, especially when you've got two wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has just sucked resources and people and mainly in support of the military and these two countries. So the CIA is truly - the bench strength is very very thin. And you can see whats happened at this expertise - it's just been drawn away by these two wars and, you know, how you get it back, it'll take years.

This made me think about how I construe "intelligence." I don't think about an intuitive, inexact science based on all that is knowable. I take as my assumption that all things are knowable, and if the outcome isn't predicted with certainty, the intelligence must be bad. That's a crude rendering. But the point is that I think about intelligence almost as magic. It's a statement on how we overate the powers of technology and information. Sometimes you really don't know.

I also really appreciated this elaboration on what, specifically, goes into putting an agent on the ground. We always here this vague talk about not enough people speaking Arabic on the ground, but rarely do we get a detailed sense of why.

Good stuff.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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