Knowing Yourself

Intelligence is meant to provide information about another. Gathering intelligence, one compiles data about an enemy (or a friend) seeking to establish behavioral patterns. These patterns, once established, should help explain and, at times, reveal the enemy’s propensity for decision and action or aims to provide insights into how the other will respond in a given set of circumstances. If we know what the enemy has done, we hope to deduce what the other might do. Ideally, we will not simply be able to trace technical patterns. If we refine our process constantly and continuously, we will become privy not just to what the object of our gathering does but to what the object thinks. This is an inductive process, beginning with details and culminating hopefully or ideally with an understanding both deep and broad of our object’s means and ends, goals and motivations.

And yet, every intelligence professional knows the great risk of this very rational process, one based on conscientious and meticulous engagement with the object of intelligence gathering. When you have become intimately acquainted with your enemy’s motivation and goals, when you learn enough about your object to “see through his eyes”, you will be surprised by the first thing you see: yourself.

Your enemy did not rest while you were gathering intelligence about him. He has expanded real effort to know everything he can about you. You are the focus of his attention. When you know him as well as you can, one of the first things you learn will be his understanding of you.

This state of affairs can create real, significant confusion. Your enemy’s negative understanding of your cause will not bring you to abandon this cause. It can, however, make your life difficult. Attempting to permeate your enemy’s inner defenses requires that you expose your own defenses as well. Intelligence gathering initially seems like a classic scientific endeavor. One begins in a state of ignorance and then utilizes resources and time in order to gradually increase knowledge and, with it, the enemy’s predictability. But such proximity inherently limits “unbiased” analysis regarding a correlation between (for example) political circumstances and a decision to declare war. The closer you get, the greater the intimacy between you and your enemy. After all, a decision to go to war does not depend exclusively on the technical capability of a military force or on clearly defined and attainable interests. Values are at stake alongside personal sensibilities and incentives, political complications and one’s interpretation of circumstance and context. To acknowledge them, one must acknowledge that the enemy’s arguments hold, at the very least, some measure of merit. Intimacy undermines certainty; certainty constrains intimacy.

This challenge does not hold exclusively for one’s relationship with one’s enemies. Consider a regional power enjoying a lengthy, close relationship with a superpower. Both countries serve each other’s interests effectively and develop stable protocols supporting intelligence work. What happens when the superpower’s agenda stands in conflict with that of its smaller partner?

Australia can provide an interesting case study. Australia’s strategic relationship with the United States has always been of paramount importance to both countries. However, due to the US preoccupation with the “Communist Threat” during the decades of the Cold War, the Australian intelligence service devoted tremendous resources towards actively persecuting the country’s Soviet-inspired Communist circles while ignoring other, more pressing national security threats like radical Islam. Legislation and executive orders regulating intelligence gathering focused on the challenges of political parties and institutions, for example. This was not just due to American requests for assistance, but also a result of the intimate cooperation between the two services. American protocols became Australian protocols even when factors from timing to enforcement diverged widely. In the Australian case, the intimacy created between Australians and Americans constrained the Australians’ ability to clearly define both means and ends required for efficient intelligence gathering. American norms regarding the importance of privacy or the primacy of an individual over society were not, for example, similar to Australian social and cultural norms. Rules regulating intelligence practices – wiretapping, break-ins, preventive custody and many others – were shaped by American lessons and American needs even when those were less applicable to the threats and capabilities of Australian citizens and intelligence professionals.

How can intelligence professionals navigate the tension between the desire for certainty and the inevitability of intimacy? The answer is complicated; to know your enemy (and your friend) you must know yourself. Why complicated? In addition to the tension described above, those who gather intelligence never enjoy the warmth and clarity of mainstream society. They live in the shadows, granted immunity for regularly committing what ordinary citizens would define as crimes. In their quest for certainty they blur and obfuscate norms and conventions. It can be easy to forget oneself, to be swallowed by cover or by the secret fraternity. When your peer group consists of others who are “neither here nor there” it is difficult to remain focused and centered.

If, in contrast, an intelligence professional pursues his enemy exclusively with zeal and tenacity, that professional may fail to provide the nuanced information required. True for friends as well as enemies, it can be easy to seek the validation of the powerful as the ultimate form of legitimacy for one’s actions. This can deny legitimacy from the citizens of one’s own country as well as endanger field operatives and other unforeseen consequences.

Knowing yourself is, indeed, a formidable challenge for intelligence professionals. It demands that they possess and constantly refine a heightened awareness of the patterns and contexts evolving in their own countries and establishments. In a way, to know themselves they are required to become their own objects. They must apply their craft to themselves, finding a path towards knowledge that does not ignore or shy away from less tangible dimensions of life. Intelligence professionals must know their own society for better and worse. They should know what they can and can’t do not just on the basis of the law but also within common sense and conventional wisdom. They need to possess enough confidence to hold their own even when assisted and advised by powerful friends. The challenge never ceases, just like the work itself.

Self-knowledge is a beacon that focuses, a filter that sharpens or blurs the human dimension necessary for approaching and engaging with another human even when carried out with the utmost discretion. Knowing oneself is the axiomatic prerequisite of a tactical operation as well as of a national security policy.