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To the men and women of the intelligence services of the Western democracies, who perform extraordinary and crucial service within the law and under difficult conditions.

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In Greek mythology, the ability to see the future came at a high price. Prometheus, whose name means “foresight,” gave fire to man and was condemned to eternal painful punishment by Zeus. Teiresias, the seer in the Oedipus cycle, received foresight from Zeus to compensate for being blinded by Hera. Cassandra, a princess of Troy, may be most pertinent for an intelligence officer. Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy but, when she spurned him, he condemned Cassandra never to be believed.

I trust that writing a book on the future of intelligence is less fraught with danger. But it is, nonetheless, difficult. Intelligence is, at once, easy to define but amorphous. There are three essential activities in intelligence: collecting intelligence; analyzing intelligence; and conducting certain operations. Within each category are a variety of types of collection, analysis, and operations. Everything else is supportive of these three core functions. Each of these activities has a long past and both good and not-so-good traditions. In addition, each of them is conducted differently in every country, even among nations whose intelligence services are closely allied, such as the United States and Britain.

Why write this book now? The answer is that intelligence has gone through and will continue to go through a series of changes brought about by both technology and events, all done in the midst of increased scrutiny and public knowledge. Intelligence professionals may see this as a potentially dangerous combination, and that may be so, but they are also manageable if handled properly in the early phases. That said, this book is not intended to be prescriptive. It is more like reconnaissance, surveying the surrounding terrain to ascertain its features and to determine where the opposition may lie. In this case, the terrain is intelligence itself as well as the factors, issues, and trends that will both challenge intelligence and require it to change.

Throughout the long history of the Cold War there was something remote about intelligence. Even though the ultimate threat was a strategic nuclear exchange between the West and the Soviet Union this seemed, except for a few very specific crises, a far-off possibility. The Soviet menace was real enough but it did not seem overly proximate to the average citizen, unless you were close to the edge of the Iron Curtain itself. The terrorist war that is usually dated from September 11, 2001 – although al Qaeda attacks date back to at least 1992 – has been marked by attacks on the homeland in the United States, London, Madrid, and later, Paris and Nice. This was more troubling and created immediate and understandable political demands for intelligence “to do something” about it. This sort of shortsighted sentiment is always dangerous for intelligence officers, because policy makers and the public want action, and most do not care about the specifics, until they learn about them later or have time to reflect. This certainly has been the case for US intelligence, which found itself deserted by many of those same Members of Congress who had urged it to any and all action in the days immediately after 9/11.

As noted, this intelligence activity also took place within a greatly changed information milieu: the twenty-four-hour news cycle, which is often a beast that must be fed, especially when there is not much news; and the rise of social media of all sorts, which requires no authentication, and tends to be dominated by people seeking reinforcement of their views rather than probing them for veracity. To this we must add the effect of intelligence leaks, especially that perpetrated by Edward Snowden, a contract employee of the National Security Agency, which not only exposed the details of legally enacted collection programs but much else besides that had nothing to do with the programs that Snowden said had prompted his actions. But the public discourse following these leaks was dominated by those expressing outrage. Little time or space was given to those who understood the legality and the necessity of the programs.

I have framed the discussion in this book as a series of vectors or choices that offer both opportunities and potential obstacles or threats to intelligence, depending on how they are addressed. As I said, I have tried to be a scout, not a seer. I see this book as part of an important ongoing conversation about how and where intelligence could be headed in the years ahead.

Several words of thanks are in order. First, to the staff of Polity Press, especially Louise Knight, who invited me to undertake this task, and Nekane Tanaka Galdos, who oversaw the process. Several individuals were very generous with their time and expertise, offering important insights from which I have greatly profited: first and foremost, my wife Cynthia; also Jamie Baker, Christopher Bidwell, Robert Clark, Dewey Houck, Letitia Long, Carmen Medina, William Nolte, Harvey Rishikof, Lewis Shepherd, Douglas Thomas, and Alan Wade. Cynthia also read and edited the entire manuscript, greatly improving both the argumentation and the flow. I must also mention our children, Sarah and Adam, for their constant support and encouragement.

I also had the opportunity to speak with US and foreign intelligence officials who were very generous with their time but will remain anonymous.

None of the above-named individuals is responsible for the views or opinions expressed in this book.