A few weeks ago I attended an event organised by the brilliant Mile End Group to mark the 50th anniversary of the Defence Intelligence Staff. With many long-serving members of the intelligence community in the audience, discussion inevitably turned to the changing nature of intelligence work – from the post-Second World War focus on Communism to the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the future challenges of cyber-terrorism. Below I take a look at some of the different aspects of working in intelligence in the past, the present and the future.
Intelligence work by its nature is constantly evolving and so, therefore, is the remit of the various organisations involved in monitoring, analysing and combating threats to the UK’s security. Some services have changed more than others – GCHQ started life deciphering the telegrams of persons on interest and although the technology has changed SIGNIT is still very much its territory. On the other hand, Defence Intelligence, founded to provide data collection and analysis at the highest, strategic, level has found itself increasingly involved in operational work; the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts saw Defence Intelligence staff deployed more frequently than ever before (other times included to the former Yugoslavia and during the Sierra Leone civil war). More recently, there has been a proposal to move UK counter-terrorism responsibility from the Met police to the National Crime Agency (NCA) – an organisation whose focus has thus far largely been on drugs, people trafficking and child exploitation. The UK’s intelligence organisations therefore need to be flexible and adaptable to change with modern times, while also capitalising on their decades’ worth of institutional experience.
It used to be Communism and the Soviet Union, now it’s Islamic extremism and the Middle East/Asia: as threats to the UK shift from one ideology/country/region to another, so too does the focus of intelligence work and so too does the need for specialised knowledge. Russia is a perfect example of the difficulties facing the intelligence services when it comes to the issue of knowledge: during the Cold War there were Russian experts aplenty but with the fall of the Soviet Union attention turned elsewhere, and the agencies were hunting out those who spoke Arabic/Farsi/Pushtu. Now, with Putin’s actions towards Ukraine, it appears that some intelligence experts are worried about the lack of current information on Russia.
The problem of course is how to predict where the next flash points are going to be. Which leads to a catch 22 – you don’t necessarily know that Russia is still a potential threat to the UK if you are not putting the resources into monitoring that country; but you won’t put your resources there if you don’t think there is a reason to. One way to address this is to go for a strategy of broad thinking, trying to make sure you have a little knowledge on a lot rather than vice versa – jack of all trades and master of none. At the moment this appears to be the general trend, certainly in Defence Intelligence anyway. The problem is there will always be a need for more in-depth, specialised knowledge of a particular ideology/country/region. This perennial balancing act between broad versus deep knowledge will not doubt always be an issue for intelligence work. However, future technological advances that enhance our ability to amass and analyse vast amounts of data will no doubt help.
Indeed, the undisputed greatest change that has overcome intelligence work since the latter half of the twentieth century is the massive advances in technology and the sheer magnitude of the data that we are now able to collect on people. The modern intelligence worker is therefore going to have to be au fait with technology in way that goes beyond having good IT skills. These changes pose their own challenges, however. The ability to collect huge reams of information is all well and good, but data is only as useful as how you interpret and use it – and the more data you have, potentially the more man-power it takes to analyse this, the more chance you have of missing something vital. There is also the danger of worshipping too much at the altar of technology and losing focus on what some might call the fundamentals of intelligence work – HUMINT. One argument for the Met retaining jurisdiction over counter-terrorism, for example, is that the police are imbedded in the local communities, allowing them to gather information, track suspects and uncover plots in a way the NCA could not. The Afghan conflict provides a clear demonstration of the need for both the machine and the man: drones may have come into their own when used for reconnaissance of the difficult Afghan terrain, but counterinsurgency relies on HUMINT – men and women on the ground making human contact with those they are trying to influence or gather information from.
Everybody knows the old ‘tap-on-the-shoulder’ routine of intelligence recruitment: young men of a certain class and educational background, usually with the right family connections, would be individually recruited to work in the intelligence services. How much of the intelligence workforce was recruited this way is arguable, but the general point rings true: given that before 1994 nobody could officially acknowledge the existence of the UK intelligence agencies, recruitment was done more surreptitiously (perhaps adding to the allure of intelligence work for some).
Today it is not uncommon to see one or more of the intelligence services with a stand at a careers fair. MI5, MI6 and GCHQ all now advertise their vacancies on their own websites while the NCA and MoD feature on the Civil Service Job Site. In the age of the ‘competency question’ and psychometric tests, recruitment into intelligence work has also become much more standardised, and arguably more democratic: any British national with the right aptitude should (in theory) be able to work as an analyst for MI5.
However, there has been some push-back against current recruitment trends by those who argue that the application process is killing off individuality among applicants. It has been said that many of the UK’s greatest intelligence workers would not be able to pass today’s rigid application questions, difficult psychometric tests and assessment centres. In future then, we might see more of the personal touch brought into recruitment practices, and perhaps an evolution in psychometric tests to make them more nuanced in their assessment of personality. Just as recruitment practices have changed, so too has the training of intelligence workers undergone rapid development since the second half of the twentieth century. The professionalisation of staff, is in fact one of the key changes noted by many at the Defence Intelligence event.
For me it is always this great juxtaposition between the continuity and the change in intelligence work which makes it so fascinating a topic. On the one hand, Britain has a fantastically rich heritage of intelligence work: it was one of the first countries in the world to set up specific schemes to keep informed on the doings of foreign powers, with Walsingham’s network of spies, cryptographers and forgers in the sixteenth century. On the other hand, technology and globalisation are advancing so rapidly that the practice of monitoring and analysing threats to the UK’s security is in many ways unrecognisable from just a couple of decades ago. It is how organisations handle these changes while not losing connection to their institutional pasts that ensures the effectiveness of modern-day intelligence work.