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Intelligence and the Review: Intelligence Power in Future Peace and War

This essay was first published in October 2021, in the second volume of the Centre for Defence Studies series on The Integrated Review in Context: Defence and Security in Focus.

A state can develop and wield power in a variety of ways, militarily, economically, culturally. Less immediately apparent for many is the idea of intelligence power, the notion that your state’s intelligence capabilities are as much a component of your national power as your cultural capital or your economy. But for the United Kingdom retaining and maintaining effective, advanced, and globally networked intelligence agencies, that often operate at the cutting edge of technology, has been a core component of national power for decades. So central was the idea to the late Michael Herman, former Secretary to the Joint Intelligence Committee, Britain’s senior intelligence assessment group, that it became the title of his ground-breaking study of the topic, Intelligence Power in Peace and War.

Even as the relative power of the UK’s economy and military has declined, the intelligence agencies have striven to retain the capability to remain among the global first rank. – Dr Huw Dylan

And despite scandals, public failures and controversies, they have continued to maintain the confidence of successive governments who must navigate and manage a turbulent international and domestic security environment. The Integrated Review suggests that this will remain the case for the foreseeable future.

There is always a danger of over-playing the significance of secret intelligence. The secrecy, the mystery, is attractive, and it is all too tempting to pad-out the relatively limited amount of information in the public domain with hearsay or fantasy. The agencies, of course, have not been unwilling to lean into this when it suits them. An aura of omnipotence can play well; few covert sources want to take the risk of working for a second-rate intelligence service. The former ‘C’, Chief of SIS, Colin McColl once quipped that James Bond was the best ‘recruiting sergeant in the world’. But there is no need to tread the boundary between fact and fiction to understand why intelligence has been prioritised and prized by governments of all stripes, and why the integrated review underlines in several areas the need not only to retain but also to develop British intelligence power. A short survey through recent history offers ample perspective on the significance of intelligence. The Soviet strategic threat, the Soviet subversive threat, the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the Abu Nidal organisation, al Qaeda, Daesh: all posed a threat, presented a risk, and required careful management. The work of intelligence, in close coordination with international partners, was and remains crucial to that task, by providing warning, through crafting informed assessments, and, where necessary, by influencing others through secret means and covert action.

This work remains equally important now and for the future. The threat from terrorists continues to evolve, but remains high; the rise of the extreme right is an extremely concerning issue, adding to the threat from Daesh and its ilk. As the Review notes, 28 planned attacks have been prevented since 2017. But, despite the prominence of the counter-terrorism mission, intelligence is about more. The integrated review, including the Prime Minister’s Foreword, leaves little doubt that Herman’s idea, that of intelligence as a core component of national power, has become common currency (if there was ever any doubt, of course). Indeed, intelligence is the first point mentioned in the ‘UK Strength’ section. It features prominently in the section on being ‘A Responsible Cyber Power’, with reference not only to defence, but also to offensive capabilities. Clearly, the Services are seen as part and parcel of the ‘integrated approach’ to tackling global challenge, alongside the armed forces, and the diplomatic service, with a mission to protect British citizens and interests, but also to influence friends and rivals, to project power, particularly in the digital realm.

Students of British intelligence in the Cold War would find these objectives familiar, although not previously expressed as explicitly or as publicly. Past as prologue, some might say, but this time with even more computers.– Dr Huw Dylan

In the context of one of the review’s core points, the ebbing of the rules-based world order, the upholding of which was the cornerstone of British strategy for the past generation, the emphasis on the potential for intelligence agencies to play a role is telling. As the UK is forced to adapt to and survive in what the Review describes as ‘a more competitive and fluid international environment’, the capacity to move quickly, when necessary, and respond flexibly becomes more significant. Several events over the past decade have illustrated the potential for malign actors to achieve their objective through disruption, subterfuge, and through acting in the grey zone. Russia, along with several other powers, have learned how to integrate their intelligence capabilities with other levers of national power in pursuit of their objectives, notably in annexing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Britain must also operate in this space if it is to defend its interests. Sometimes it will need to respond; at other times it will need to deter. And to do so intelligence agencies will play a crucial role: in providing warning of emerging threats, both strategic and tactical, online and physically; in attributing responsibility for hostile actions, be they cyber-attacks or some future iteration of ‘the little green men’; in providing an overview of the motivations for particular actions; and for the task of formulating an appropriate response, whether a pre-emptive action, political or economic sanctions, a military strike, or a digital operation, perhaps led by the National Cyber Force. To do so effectively,

intelligence must be integrated with the broader machinery of government, be well resourced, and must be able to operate closely with allies, old and new.– Dr Huw Dylan

The importance of maintaining and developing alliances and partnerships cannot be overstated. Intelligence is a global business. This was true in the past when the priority was discerning the capabilities and intentions of the Soviet Union. US technology was often based on British territory. It remains true in counter-terrorism, which is often a transnational endeavour. British intelligence works with sister services in a host of countries, many of which might not be considered natural allies or partners. No one service has a monopoly on solutions – and international cooperation is crucial. Indeed, this is the basis of the extremely successful and productive Five Eyes arrangement, which has been one of the cornerstones of British intelligence capabilities since the Second World War. Its longevity is a testament to its utility. The Review’s emphasis on maintaining and bolstering such historic arrangements, with Five Eyes as well as traditional NATO partners, is right. Britain gains both intelligence and influence through being a significant contributor to this larger intelligence pool. They have weathered several storms in the past, partly owing to the legacy of the relationship, partly owing to a common understanding of the threats. But there are challenges ahead. As has been illustrated by spats over the use of Huawei technology in national digital infrastructure, or in May 2021 when New Zealand did not join its other Five Eyes partners in condemning China over its treatment of the Uyghur population. Adapting intelligence structures for an evolving geo-political context, particularly the ‘tilt’ to Asia and the rise of China will require care and creativity. Closer cooperation with Japan, for instance, must be considered carefully. Ensuring that intelligence does not become a casualty of broader political disagreements should be a priority; autocratic states work hard to insert and exploit any wedges between traditional allies. Intelligence links must be developed pragmatically, of course, sometimes you must cooperate with states or entities with whom you profoundly disagree in pursuit of a common goal. But pragmatism can also be strategic.

Using intelligence to strengthen the binds between democracies with shared values, just as was done in the Cold War, seems a worthy goal. – Dr Huw Dylan

Intelligence power must be carefully nurtured and used judiciously. The focus on technology throughout the Integrated Review is striking, and unsurprising. As anyone who has perused the material leaked by Edward Snowden, or considered the Stuxnet operation, or any number of other cyber-attacks and hacks can attest, the power of modern digital intelligence agencies, like GHCQ, to gather data and implement operations is extremely significant. Using these capabilities, whether retaliating or striking pre-emptively against a target’s computer networks may prove tempting, and in certain situations it will be proportionate and appropriate. But, if the past is any guide, launching covert actions or disrupting a target’s digital systems with computer network exploitation or attacks should be done with a high degree of consideration, in accordance with strict legal and ethical frameworks, and not as a substitute for a considered policy, however tempting. From the legacy of the 1953 coup in Iran, to the consequences of the GRU’s attempted murder of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018, the history of covert operations is littered with examples of blowback and unintended consequences – even measuring the success or failure of covert action is a contested issue (see here and here). Operating in the digital space presents added complications. Computer code is lost to the wild once deployed in an operation, and can be retrofitted and repurposed. And perhaps the best way to guard against this risk is to be found in the low- rather than hi-tech.

Despite the focus on the opportunities of technology, offensive and defensive, it would be wise not to forget that the intelligence community’s strength is based in a diverse cadre of people. – Dr Huw Dylan

As well as investing in the next generation of cyber-warriors and AI specialists, the government would do well to invest in the next generation of analysts, area studies specialists, and linguists. The government should resource the Professional Head of Intelligence Analysis, established to address the shortcomings identified by the Butler Review in the wake of the Iraq War, and the new Intelligence Academy. British intelligence analysts should be trained well, empowered to be intellectually rigorous and independent, to challenge, and to push-back where necessary, with the goal of supplementing British intelligence power with wisdom, as well as data.


Dr Huw Dylan is Senior Lecturer in Intelligence and International Security in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He is a historian of British and American intelligence and security, specialising in the work of British intelligence, and their allies, during the Cold War.


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