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Intelligence and Policy-making in Foreign Affairs

  • Roger Hilsman (a1)


When he set out to form a secret intelligence agency for President Roosevelt in 1941, “Wild Bill” Donovan made little effort to curb his own characteristic receptivity to the new, the different, and even the unorthodox. Completely in character, he took up with quick enthusiasm the novel idea that scholars—those dreamy inhabitants of ivory towers—would be ideal for the job. He believed that by searching through the Library of Congress and through the files of the many government agencies these men could uncover much of the information for which secret agents risked their lives. In a sense, he dedicated the Research and Analysis Branch of the wartime Office of Strategic Services to the task of making the romantic secret agent obsolete. Since then, more and more people have come to believe that research—and the social sciences—have at last found a home within the formal structure of government.



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1 See Kent, Sherman, Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy, Princeton, N.J., 1949; and Pettee, George S., The Future of American Secret Intelligence, Washington, D.C., 1946.

2 See Pettee, , op.cit., p. 7; Seth W. Richardson, General Counsel for the Joint Investigating Committee on Pearl Harbor, “Why Were We Caught Napping at Pearl Harbor?Saturday Evening Post, May 24, 1947; Kent, , op.cit., p. 160; and Donovan, William J., “A Central Intelligence Agency: Foreign Policy Must Be Based on Facts,” Vital Speeches, May 1, 1946.

3 Ibid., p. 446.

4 Testimony of General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, Hearings Before the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate, Eightieth Congress, First Session on S. 758, Part 3 (U.S. Govt. Printing Office), p. 491.

5 Ibid., p. 499.

6 Rear Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter, H., “Using the World's Information Sources,” Army Information Digest, III, No. 11 (November 1948).

7 Ibid., p. 4.

8 Testimony of General Vandenberg, , Hearings on S. 758, p. 498.

9 Donovan, , op.cit., p. 446.

10 It is, in fact, difficult to overemphasize the insistence on this idea. For example, Allen W. Dulles, now serving as a special advisor to the Director of CIA, says: “But for the proper judging of the situation in any foreign country it is important that information should be processed by an agency whose duty it is to weigh facts, and to draw conclusions from those facts, without having either the facts or the conclusions warped by the inevitable and even proper prejudices of the men whose duty it is to determine policy and who, having once determined a policy, are too likely to be blind to any facts which might tend to prove the policy to be faulty. The Central Intelligence Agency should have nothing to do with policy. … All we can do is to see that we have created the best possible mechanism to get the unvarnished facts before the policy makers, and to get it there in time.” (Allen W. Dulles, Memo Re-specting Section 202 [CIA] of the Bill to Provide for a National Defense Establishment, dated April 25, 1947, as published in Hearings on 758, p. 525.)

11 The concept that individuals of the same cultural group share a way of looking at things by means of which they interpret events and in terms of which they choose courses of action is, of course, well established in the field of cultural anthropology. See, for example, Benedict, Ruth, Patterns of Culture, Penguin Books, 1949, and The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Boston, 1946; Kardiner, Abram, Linton, Ralph, Bois, Cora Du, and West, James, The Psychological Frontiers of Society, New York, 1945; Kluckhohn, Clyde, Mirror for Man, New York, 1949; Linton, Ralph, The Cultural Background of Personality, New York, 1945. The literature on peculiarly American attitudes includes: Mead, Margaret, And Keep Your Powder Dry, New York, 1942; Gorer, Geoffrey, The American People: A Study in National Character, New York, 1948; Perry, Ralph Barton, Characteristically American, New York, 1949; and Almond, Gabriel A., The American People and Foreign Policy, New York, 1950. Professor Almond systematizes observations made about the American character since the time of De Tocqueville in 1834 and uses these and a number of his own observations in analyzing American opinion on foreign affairs.

12 This is a continuously revised report containing “background” information on each country in the world. See Harbor, PearlHearings (U.S. Govt. Printing Office), p. 783.

13 The common set of basic assumptions explains, of course, the narrowness of the range of opinion.

14 Another official, for example, said that since intelligence people had not had the right kind of experience, it would be a mistake if intelligence started to make policy. But the official thought that intelligence should make a few policy suggestions even though some people might say it was completely out of bounds. When playing around with the data, an intelligence man might sense something. An experienced policeman walking down the street might not see a thing, but he would sense a riot in the offing. The official said that he, himself, often had these feelings. Maybe while he was reading a telegram from some embassy overseas he would get a hunch. Of course, it was just a hunch, but it was a very, very useful thing to have. The major role of intelligence should be to get the facts, but if the intelligence man got an inference from the facts, it should be all right for him to pass it along.

15 See also Leighton, Alexander H., Human Relations in a Changing World, New York, 1949. PP. 152–54.

16 See also Almond, , op.cit., p. 51. There is probably some relation between distrust of complex and subtle reasoning on social problems on the one hand, and the tendency to look down on the research man and university professor-expert on the other. The relation between this latter form of anti-intellectualism and the attitude toward experience, however, is probably much closer. See the section on experience below.

17 And, more often than not, it was a conceptual tool that pointed out the need for a mechanical one such as the microscope.

18 it is difficult to reconcile the inconsistency between the assumption that facts contain self-evident answers and the assumption that only the man with “practical” experience can choose an effective course of action. However, since attitudes and assumptions of this kind are partly subconscious, there is no necessity that they be consistent. Indeed, it would be cause for suspicion if they were.

19 See also Almond, , op.cit., p. 51.

20 Although they were in the minority, some officials had a markedly different set of attitudes. One of these said that he was against the emphasis on “current” intelligence. The whole State Department was organized for quick news; what was lacking was an outfit to think and look deep. Intelligence was always being called on for the answers to spot questions, and was never given time for research. The official said that one of their best men had just resigned—simply because the atmosphere was getting to be such that a person with that kind of academic background and intellectual ability couldn't work. The real scholars were being driven out. This “current” intelligence was a curse. Take a country like Indonesia. Who was going to do the basic studies about its economics, politics, and commerce? Even if everyone worked on these studies, it would still not be enough—and the big contribution lay here. The U.P. and A.P. could do the “current” stuff; the big job should be done by intelligence. The official said that he wanted to underline again and again the problem of personnel. They must set the organization up in such a way that the right kind of people would find it a favorable environment. They had already lost too many of their good people. The vehement, emotionally charged reaction of this man to the pressure for “current” intelligence seems, at least in part, to be a personal withdrawal from the competitive, high-pressure environment of daily operations and decisions. He is obviously not anti-intellectual nor does he seem to feel any compulsion to come to a conclusion or make a decision. He seems more than willing to let any number of immediate problems lapse in order to delve into the particular kind of basic problem he thinks most important. There is little doubt that this official not only reaches different conclusions from most of his colleagues, but begins the mental journey from a different starting place.

21 There are undoubtedly other assumptions and attitudes which have also influenced thinking on the intelligence problem. However, since the human mind does not seem to be capable of using more than a limited number of thought-tools during a specific and relatively short space of time, it is not likely that the final number will be large.

22 See Dunn, Frederick S., “Education and Foreign Affairs: A Challenge for the Universities,” The Public Service and University Education, ed. by cLean, Joseph E. M., Princeton, N.J., 1949.

23 On the group-mind fallacy, see Allport, Floyd Henry, Social Psychology, New York, 1924, pp. 410.

24 See Wolters, Arnold, “Statesmanship and Moral Choice,” World Politics, 1 (January 1949). P. 175.

25 These criteria are those laid down by Max Weber. See Weber, Max, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, trans, by Henderson, A. M. and Parsons, Talcott, New York, 1947, pp. 115–18; and Methodology of the Social Sciences, trans, by Shils, E. A. and Finch, H., Glencoe, 111., 1949, pp. 5253.

26 By “working model” is understood not a description of reality, but a logically consistent and pure (no extraneous or non-essential elements or influences) system which is made up of only certain elements of reality and which is used only to evolve hypotheses or criteria. Similarly, by “ideal” is understood a logically consistent and pure construction which is made up of only certain elements of reality and which is used only to give a more logically precise and less ambiguous conception. Thus, in using the word “ideal,” no valuation of any kind is intended.

27 Insofar as the complaints of intelligence people that no one ever pays attention to their “warnings” are correct, this—the ease with which the operating divisions can make another preliminary analysis in passing—may be an explanation. Another may be that the operating divisions, having better information sooner, may have made their preliminary analysis first. Still another may be that although the operating divisions have not made their analysis first, they will have to do it eventually, and are too busy to bother with the intelligence version.

28 The only hope in circumstances such as these is that the kind of people who forge new and world-shaking conceptual tools are alive at the time, that those minds are focused on the area of the unrecognized problem before the catastrophe and not after, that the groundwork for an advance in that field is already laid, and that people with the power to take action to meet the problem will listen to the man with the new idea.

29 See Kent, , op.cit., pp. 8182; and Pettee, , op.cit., p. 104.

30 Kent, , op.cit., p. 114.

31 If, in the process of analysis, the decision-maker uncovers facts which in the framework of his thought seem to indicate that existing theory is inadequate or fallacious, he may have to modify it or develop new theory as he goes along. The course of action under consideration is also an hypothesis; it may be modified to fit facts which are uncovered during investigation, or a course of action previously unrecognized may be evolved.

32 Probably the tendency also is to continue to do the job of inferring, correctly or incorrectly, the “facts” which are needed from facts which are available. Since it is the policy man who is analyzing the alternative courses of action, it is he and only he who can know what data are needed. If the policy man is actually going through a disciplined analysis, he will sometimes be grateful to have an intelligence unit dig up a particular bit of information for him, but there will be many times when he will not have the time to stop his work while the “liaison” machinery grinds away. If, as many do, the operator works partly according to intuition, even he will not know which facts are needed. The intelligence man, however, is lost in either case. If he is not asked a specific question, he will not know which facts are needed, and he will find himself doing nothing at all, amassing material of doubtful relevance, or spending a lot of time and energy in a mild form of interorganizational espionage, trying to find out what is going on so he can “anticipate” the needs of the policy people.

33 It is frequently argued by supporters of “current” intelligence that the role of a newspaper is to furnish information without knowing the specific purpose for which it is to be used, and that intelligence is a kind of governmental newspaper, specializing in secret information, for the private use of policy people. It seems obvious, however, that even the best of newspapers could not furnish all the information wanted by a number of people who have different “theories.” Even the most “objective” of newspapers, furthermore, must select the information it presents in terms of the expectations and assumptions of its reporters and editors. If it did not, and merely furnished information in the abstract, its stories would be a jumble of incoherency. An “objective” newspaper is not one which attempts the impossible task of giving all the facts, but one which gives all the facts, both for and against its own stand, that its editors and reporters think are important. And the facts its editors and reporters think are important are determined by their “theories.” Presumably the editors of a conscientious newspaper would also try to add whatever information they think is relevant to the “theories” they suppose their readers hold. But more than this they cannot hope to do.

34 From all accounts, neither the operator nor the intelligence analyst can now direct the secret agent to get specific data. See Kendall, Willmoore, “The Function of Intelligence,” World Politics, i (July 1949), p. 545; and Kent, , op.cit., pp. 167–68.

35 Presumably the present division of labor between the Policy Planning Staff' and the operating divisions is basically different from this, since the Staff is supposed to be a kind of committee concerned with long-range planning and not with analyzing and recommending policy on current problems. In practice, however, and in spite of periodic attempts to extricate itself, the Staff seems to have entered more deeply into current problems than was ever intended (see the New York Times, April 14, 1950, pp. 1 and 3; and the Hoover Commission's Report on Foreign Affairs, U.S. Govt. Printing Office). Perhaps it could therefore be argued that the Policy Planning Staff is in fact already performing the role contemplated here, even if it is not explicitly charged with it.

36 Emphasizing history to the point of neglecting the other disciplines is probably due to the influence of the doctrines. The result is primarily to make a break with those doctrines even more difficult, but there are also other undesirable effects. See Kendall, , op.cit., pp. 550–51.

37 See, for example, Dunn, op.cit.; Leighton, op.cit.; Almond, op.cit.; and Bailey, Stephen Kemp, Congress Makes a Law: The Story Behind the Employment Act of 1946, New York, 1950.

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World Politics
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