Since World War II, much effort has gone into defining “intelligence.” This effort has even given rise to what is sometimes called intelligence theory, which can be traced to Sherman Kent’s desire to see intelligence programmatically examined, addressed, and subsumed by the mainstream social science tradition. During World War II Kent served in the Bureau of Analysis and Estimates of the US Office of Strategic Services, and later headed the Office of National Estimates of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Virtually all intelligence theory could be considered a footnote to Kent. His conviction that intelligence should be a broad-based analytical discipline is embodied in his maxim “intelligence is knowledge,” which has set the precedent for most subsequent debate.
Since Kent’s day, many alternative approaches to intelligence have been suggested by a succession of authors. In his 1996 Intelligence Power in Peace and War, British scholar and former intelligence officer Michael Herman tried to present the range of conceptualizations of intelligence as a spectrum, ranging from the broad definitions that approach intelligence primarily as “all-source analysis” (typified by Kent’s view) to narrow interpretations that focus on intelligence collection, particularly covert collection. Herman notes in passing that the broader interpretations tend to be favored by US writers and narrow approaches by the British. What Herman does not pursue, however, is the fundamental difference this matter of definition effects in the British and US approaches to intelligence and how those conceptual differences have been reflected in their respective intelligence institutions and in legislation. It is entirely possible that by asking “what is intelligence?” we may be barking up the wrong intellectual tree. The real questions should perhaps be “How do different countries and institutions define intelligence?” and “What are the consequences of those different definitions?”