The Ignorance of Intelligence Agencies


Editor’s Note: This piece on the War on the Rocks Hasty Ambush blog is published in partnership with the Hoover Institution’s Military History in the News.

At the start of the Second World War, Great Britain’s intelligence agencies were anything but impressive. Their analytic capabilities overestimated the Third Reich’s military potential through 1938. And then in 1939, they changed views and failed to see that the Germans were actually making effective preparations to that would enable them to wreck the European balance of power. This would bring the world close to what Churchill characterized so aptly as “a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”

Confronting this great danger, Britain possessed minuscule intelligence agencies, underfunded throughout the interwar period and with only small cadres of agents and analysts. Yet over the next five years, the British assembled impressive intelligence capabilities that broke the Wehrmacht’s supposedly unbreakable enigma codes, deceived German intelligence as to Allied intentions throughout the war, and alerted Allied commanders as to emerging German technological threats such as the V-1 and V-2 weapons. It was indeed an impressive achievement that substantially shortened the war and saved innumerable Allied lives. Much of the credit rests on the fact that the British reached out to experts outside the government: mathematicians, German linguists, historians, and scientists. Age and profession represented no barrier. One of the foremost analysts of the Kriegsmarine was a twenty year-old Cambridge undergraduate history major; one of the foremost scientific analysts was a zoologist. The foremost analyst of the Battle of the Atlantic was a barrister, crippled by polio who could barely stand.

It is worth contrasting the culture and make up of Britain’s intelligence organizations with what passes for intelligence agencies in the United States today. The Washington Post recorded several years ago that less than 20 percent of the CIA’s analysts speak a foreign language. A general ignorance of history and culture characterizes much of the personnel who make up the American intelligence effort. The inane system of recruitment seems to aim at numbers rather than quality. And perhaps most significantly. the security barriers that are presently in place prevent most of those with the language skills and cultural knowledge to understand our potential enemies from being recruited, as many such individuals possess relatives in the targeted countries. Finally, in the depressing litany of how not to build effective intelligence agencies, my view is that these agencies rarely reach out to the extensive numbers of foreign area experts scattered throughout American academia, not because the intelligence agencies possess such brilliant insights into the external world, but most probably because they are afraid that the U.S. public might discover that the intelligence emperor has no clothes.


Williamson Murray serves as a Minerva Fellow at the Naval War College. A widely published historian and former Air Force officer, Murray was educated at Yale and taught there before moving on to Ohio State University as a military and diplomatic historian. In 1987, he received the Alumni Distinguished Teaching Award. He retired from Ohio State in 1995 as a professor emeritus of history.

Image: Danielstirland, Creative Commons