Intelligence is often viewed as a profession that steals secrets and then knits those secrets together for policymakers in order to inform their judgments.
That’s certainly true, but it might be a better (or at least more complete) description of the profession’s past than of its future. It’s not that secrets don’t or won’t matter, but in an information age, a larger percentage of the knowledge required for wise policymaking will not have to be stolen. It will be generally available.
Nearly two years ago, the Intelligence and National Security Alliance published a white paper (I was one of a team of authors) that declared: “To fully serve policymakers, the [intelligence community] will need to continue to expand — to a much greater degree than has been assumed or accomplished to date — its reliance on open sources of information that contain or reflect the sentiments, intentions, and actions of non-governmental actors; what might be called ‘social intelligence.’”
We were then, of course, reflecting on the Arab Awakening, an understanding of which may not have been particularly advanced by purloining a document from the safe of, say, Omar Suleiman, then head of the Egyptian intelligence service. As good a traditional intelligence officer as Omar was, during Tahrir Square he seemed to know less about the Egyptian street than we did.
The DNI’s Open Source Center has always been challenged to find its footing in a world in which stolen secrets were prized, but in this instance it was tracking the Egyptian Twitterverse, following (even if not quite predicting) fast-moving events.
Since leaving government, I’ve learned that the private sector does this quite well. One excellent example is the Middle East Media Research Institute (where I am among nearly three dozen members of an unpaid board of advisers), an independent nonprofit that has built quite a reputation tracking traditional and nontraditional media in the Middle East and South Asia. MEMRI counts the federal government as a customer for its analysis, and the MEMRI logo is often visible on the B-roll video of major news networks.
Other private firms create their own information rather than tracking that of others. In my own private-sector work I have become intrigued with RIWI, a Canadian based company that surveys random respondents on the Web to measure attitudes in otherwise hard-to-reach places.
RIWI recently provided me the results of a survey of nearly 3,000 Iraqis that covered popular attitudes toward the current crisis there. Respondents were evenly divided between men and women, and the religious-ethnic breakdown (60 percent Shiite, 20 percent Arab Sunni, 17 percent Kurd) closely reflected the overall Iraqi population.
That said, respondents were overweighted toward the more stable Kurdish north, reflecting Web disruptions caused by fighting and instability elsewhere — an interesting piece of intelligence in itself.
When asked whether they supported the government in Baghdad, some 70 percent of Shiites said they did — not surprising because this is the first Shiite-dominated government in Iraq in the modern era. Equally unsurprising, less than a third of Sunnis and Kurds backed what they have largely labeled a predatory regime.
Three-fourths of Shiites, two-thirds of Sunnis and half of all Kurds cared enough, however, to say that both Sunnis and Shiites should be in the government.
When asked about the wisdom of foreign intervention, no group reflected an absolute majority supporting American involvement and Sunnis (the likely targets of such an intervention) were firmly opposed (44 percent, with only 30 percent supporting). Surprisingly, a solid quarter of each group responded that they simply “didn’t know” when it came to whether or not they supported American action, perhaps a reflection of the level of crisis and of uncertainty in the country.
The prospect of Iranian action was even less popular. Even among Shiites, those supporting intervention by their co-religionists was no higher than those backing an American response and Sunnis and Kurds were opposed by a wide margin (about 20 percent supporting, 55 percent opposed). Perhaps we are just the “devil” that they know or at least the one they fear less, being a distant global power rather than a proximate regional one.
No one can question that politics in Baghdad’s Green Zone still matter and American intelligence will surely continue to work feverishly to ferret out questions like the intentions of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Does he intend to stay? At what cost? In the face of what opposition?
But in this crisis, the attitudes of average Iraqis — the “social intelligence” referenced in the INSA report — matter as well. Even a powerful country like our own cannot keep a state together if its inhabitants have already given up on it.
Whether or not Iraqis are committed to a unitary Iraqi state will likely be more decisive than any course of action Mr. al-Maliki might set, and American intelligence would be well advised to include this in its list of priority requirements.
• Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency. He can be reached at email@example.com.