Studying and Teaching About Intelligence: The Approach in the United Kingdom
“The academic study of intelligence is a new phenomenon.”
At the start of the first class of each introductory intelligence course I teach, I ask students what is the first thing that comes to mind when they think of intelligence. Invariably the answer is: “James Bond.” This is a sad state of affairs. Not only is James Bond fictional, but he is not a fair representation of intelligence. At the same time, however, the response is at least somewhat reassuring in that it shows some knowledge of intelligence work. When I then show students a picture of Sir Alec Guinness as le Carré’s George Smiley and ask if anyone knows who the figure is, I am usually greeted with a wall of silence, though occasionally someone has replied “isn’t that the person who played Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars?”
While intelligence is not a new phenomenon, the academic study of intelligence is. Intelligence as an activity has existed in one form or another for centuries: in the United Kingdom the modern intelligence establishment can trace its roots to 1909. As an academic discipline, the subject really only extends to the mid-1970s. Though there had been a plethora of books on intelligence—some good but mostly bad—it was not until the publication of J.C. Masterman’s and F.C. Winterbotham’s treatment of Ultra that intelligence as a serious subject of study began. The three-decade growth of the academic study of intelligence has been coupled in recent years with a growing public awareness of intelligence.
The events of 9/11, judgments about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and the attacks on the London underground in July 2005 have ensured that intelligence is now taken as part and parcel of government. While intelligence was always something known to be tangible, in a sense it was a non-entity, a black hole of government, which all knew existed but which no one in the know could officially acknowledge. The key events of the early 21st century have already defined intelligence as a new cornerstone of government, used equally as a tool for offensive war-making and defensive national security planning. One consequence of this has been the large-scale growth of intelligence study and teaching academically, as reflected both in the number of courses being offered and in the jump in enrollment in such courses. As such, the public’s desire to know more is reflected accurately in its academic existence.
This phenomenon has taken a relatively long time to come to fruition, for as the late Michael Handel—one of earliest pioneers of the discipline—recognized:
The extensive allocation of national resources to all types of intelligence work and the increasingly important role played by the intelligence community in shaping our national security and foreign policies point to the need for furthering our understanding of the special problems and methods of intelligence work.
The teaching of intelligence in university courses is a timely addition to those taught in mainstream programs leading to degrees in politics and history. Yet a review of teaching practices in the United Kingdom today suggests that intelligence studies is one of those odd disciplines that is comfortable in a variety of academic departments, but perhaps never truly at home in any of them.
In this article, I will consider intelligence as an academic subject in the United Kingdom. I will first look at the status of intelligence studies as a discipline and then consider how the subject is taught in institutions of higher education. In order to comprehend how intelligence is taught, therefore, it is first necessary to consider the subject, starting off with the seemingly simple question of “what is intelligence?”
It is possible, as D.C. Watt has done, to begin to define a historiography of intelligence studies. While this may be a purely academic exercise, it does reveal some interesting facts. The bulk of intelligence-related books published up until the mid-1970s was, generally speaking, composed of memoirs or accounts of different operations. The introduction of intelligence as an academic discipline resulted in the growth of more theoretical treatments. Whilst at times this may have created a far more abstract discussion than was actually necessary, it has ensured that a substantial theoretical basis now exists—something which early students of the subject called for in order to legitimize the discipline.
Producing an exact definition of intelligence is a much-debated topic. Put simply, however, intelligence is many things—it is the agencies themselves, the business they conduct, and the information they seek—thus, intelligence refers both to a process and a product. To further understand how “intelligence” works, the standard procedure is to separate its constituent parts into the so-called “intelligence cycle.” From this it is possible to start to delve deeper into the subject, and in doing so it soon becomes apparent why intelligence studies nestles uneasily between different disciplines.
In one of the first academic treatments of the subject, Stafford Thomas detailed four approaches to studying intelligence: (1) the historical/biographical approach —within this category studies look at specific historical case-studies or chart chronological periods. As part of this, the work can either be memoir-based or archive-based; (2) the functional approach—this category emphasizes activities and processes. It does not seek to explore historical examples but instead delves deeper into more abstract issues; (3) the structural approach —this considers the bigger picture, focusing on intelligence agencies and organizations; (4) the final method is the political approach—this concentrates exclusively on the political dimension of intelligence. In other words, the decisionmaking stage, policy-requirements stage, etc.
Thomas’ is a useful breakdown: through his four stages it is possible to identify the study both in its most esoteric form and its most empirical. In order to fully comprehend how these various routes into the subject affect its teaching, it is first necessary to look at how later writings have defined the subject. Wesley Wark, a Canadian intelligence scholar, went further than Thomas, breaking the subject into eight methodologies: (1) the research project—utilizing primary source archival evidence; (2) related to this is the historical project—essentially the production of case-study based accounts; (3) the definitional project—this is concerned with the foundation of intelligence studies; in other words, it attempts to define the subject; (4) related, but building on the definitional project, is the fourth perspective—that is, using case studies to test the theoretical deliberations; (5) memoirs—can be both the first treatment of a subject, or designed to offer first-hand perspectives; (6) civil liberties project—inherently these are not objective and are designed to reveal the surreptitious activities of intelligence agencies where they impinge on domestic life; (7) investigative journalism— typically these are on topics for which there are no historical archives available; finally, (8) popular culture project—this is perhaps the latest avenue of research and considers relatively obtuse topics such as the politics of James Bond.
Wark’s treatment reveals that within the broad remit of “intelligence studies,” there are a multitude of approaches that can be employed, and his approach implies that intelligence can be taught in a wide variety of ways. Accordingly, “the way intelligence is defined necessarily conditions approaches to research and writing about the subject.”
Let us ponder this for a moment. We have already considered what intelligence is, but from the above taxonomy we can begin to identify and place intelligence as an academic discipline. In doing so, it soon becomes apparent that there are differences in the way it has been approached on either side of the Atlantic.
In its purest form, the study of intelligence can either be predominantly historically case-study-based or it can be primarily abstract in nature. In the United States—which has a longer tradition than the United Kingdom for the teaching and study of intelligence—the subject has largely been located within political science departments. This has an obvious impact on the way the subject is defined— there is less emphasis on historical case-studies and a greater attention paid to theoretical deliberations; in particular, there is a desire to place intelligence within broader—often agency-based— studies. In the United Kingdom the subject has a far more historical grounding, with the major emphasis on empirical case-studies.
The problem with both approaches—and indeed with intelligence studies as a whole— is that there is still a reluctance for non-intelligence scholars to embrace the subject. One of the founding fathers of the British approach explains:
The root of the problem, is cognitive dissonance—the difficulty of adapting traditional notions of international relations and political history to take account of the information now available about the role of intelligence agencies.
As esoteric as this may seem, it is important because it dictates how intelligence is taught within mainstream politics, international relations, and history departments.
The Teaching of Intelligence
Intelligence studies is therefore a comparatively new subject. With the growth of Islamic terrorism and related world events intelligence agencies have become far more visible in government. The teaching of intelligence therefore becomes of paramount importance, not only for understanding historical events but also in comprehending contemporary world politics. The corollary of this is that “if scholars do not tell citizens what intelligence agencies have done for them in the past, why should the citizens expect intelligence agencies to be useful in the future?” Given the furor over intelligence and Iraqi WMD— without doubt the most vivid international expression of intelligence in the public domain —it is vital that the subject be better understood, something which is not happening at present.
It is these voids that the teaching of intelligence can hope to fill: firstly through an examination of what intelligence has done in the past via a demystification of the so-called “missing dimension” of governmental affairs and then by providing a clear notion of what intelligence is and what it does now. Strengthening our understanding of intelligence— both at an academic and at a public level—is vital because, by extension, there will be a knock-on effect at the practitioner level. As one CIA paper has noted, “the intelligence agencies, with their peculiarly high requirements for many different kinds of training, should be in the forefront of this movement.”
In 1960 Studies in Intelligence published a fascinating article by P. J. Dorondo in which he detailed what he believed ought to have been the way intelligence was taught at universities. The article is extremely revealing, not only for the ways in which a practitioner imagined intelligence should be taught, but in the simple fact that it has taken 40 years for the United Kingdom to effectively catch up. Writing in 1960, Peter Dorondo commented on how “the role of intelligence is well recognized among officials of government, [but] public interest and academic concern have yet to be awakened.” That this has now happened does not negate Dorondo’s further observations, which are still relevant:
The awakening public concern with intelligence offers our universities and colleges an opportunity and a challenge— the opportunity to take advantage of a rising interest and to meet a clear need, and the challenge to meet it effectively and thereby ultimately contribute to improving US intelligence doctrine and competence.
This, therefore, was the birth of US intelligence teaching in higher education—primarily a means to educate students in order to improve US intelligence as a whole.
How was it envisaged that this would be achieved? Firstly, the course should begin in basic terms, identifying what it is we mean by “intelligence,” before proceeding to a consideration of how intelligence is the “foundation” for policy planning. Interestingly, the author believed that the history of intelligence was unnecessary and that the course should not cover the conduct of operations. Given the problems of classified information and the fact that US intelligence was still in its primacy at this stage, both of these suggestions were sensible. The teacher of such a course, it was recommended, should have “extensive and well-rounded intelligence experience.” Importantly, given the discussion above on the meaning of intelligence, such a course “would apply the teachings of many academic disciplines.”
As ludicrous as such suggestions would have appeared to those in the United Kingdom at this time, they were acted upon in the United States. Writing 30 years later, former CIA officer Arthur Hulnick observed the evolution of such courses. The teaching of intelligence had indeed begun within the US higher education system. The teachers of these courses were “academics who have either been connected with the intelligence system in some way, or who have received a boost by participating in the summer seminar series sponsored by the Consortium for the Study of Intelligence.” This policy of indoctrinating academics working in the field was invaluable and continues to this day, where there are regular secondments of academics into the Intelligence Community. Intelligence studies in the United States is now an established discipline, not least in terms of teaching where there are a vast myriad of courses on offer.
A brief examination of these reveals that courses are either historical in scope, more definitional based, or (and this is the majority) wider examinations of intelligence within policymaking or foreign policy. Therefore, the parameters Dorondo set down in 1960 have created precisely the sort of higher education setup that was hoped for, and indeed, some scholars are now suggesting that the interchange needs to go further.
How have such developments occurred within the United Kingdom? In the aftermath of the Iraq war Lord Butler published his Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction. In this report Butler identified the analysis stage of the intelligence cycle as weak. In the aftermath, the Butler Implementation Group produced a report, detailing their recommendations for improving the British intelligence community. They advocated the creation of the post of “Professional Head of Intelligence Analysis (PHIA),” to sit as part of the normal Assessment Staff apparatus within the Cabinet Office. Although having various responsibilities, the new post had within its remit the task of “develop[ing] more substantial training than hitherto on a cross-Government basis for all analysts.” As a component of this, PHIA has begun to breach the academia/Whitehall divide. This is a process, though now started, is very much still in its infancy.
In a sense, therefore, these are the British beginnings that the CIA was considering in 1960. Whether these will extend to the secondment of scholars to the intelligence community is debatable, but probably it is still a step too far. In the United Kingdom there is a different tradition of intelligence. The Officials Secrets Act (which does not exist in the US) ensures that those with information generally do not talk, that is until papers are officially declassified. Similarly the entire ethos and culture of government is different: in the United States the use of political appointees once the administration changes is relatively alien to the United Kingdom.
In addition, there has been a general belief among some practitioners that intelligence, as written and studied by those without experience of the intelligence community, is redundant. While this perception is now beginning to change, it is still evident in some quarters. As a means to remedy this, many British courses include some guest lectures by former practitioners. These are invariably the most popular but are also necessary, for as Hulnick states, it is harder to learn such things from outside the community.
Despite this, intelligence studies is one of the fastest growing disciplines in academia, which since the first degree-level program on intelligence began in 1990, has only lately exploded in volume. One scholar recently compiled a list of those UK universities offering courses on intelligence, and, although in need of an update, it is instructive in detailing the breadth and depth of the subject. To illustrate how the subject is now being taught, let us consider these courses in slightly more depth.
There are now five university departments that offer postgraduate degrees in intelligence. The University of Salford appears to have been the first to embrace the discipline, offering an MA in “Intelligence and Security Studies.” This course, within the School of English, Sociology, Politics and Contemporary History is, as one might imagine, multi-disciplinary. According to Salford’s Web site the MA “aims to provide students with a well-founded understanding of intelligence and its impact on contemporary politics and international relations,” doing so through a consideration of the “theory, practice and history of intelligence.” It would appear, therefore, that the emphasis is on placing intelligence within the study of international relations.
By contrast, the most recent MA program, also in “Intelligence and Security Studies” and offered within the Business School at Brunel University, offers a combination of “the rigorous study of intelligence and security policy studies with practical opportunities to develop intelligence skills through case studies and simulation exercises dealing with intelligence analysis.” The teaching is primarily definitional and historical, but with the added practical elements.
Another approach is the MPhil in “Intelligence Studies” offered by the Department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham. As an MPhil program, this has a larger research component than other courses, but the taught element is concerned with “1) filling a vital gap in the traditional disciplines of ‘diplomatic history’ and ‘international relations’ and 2) enhancing the skills of current or future practitioners in foreign policy, government, business, and other fields by giving them a unique insight into US policymaking in the 20th century.” This is taught through a multi-disciplinary approach, and overall it, therefore, appears to reflect —either intentionally or otherwise—the edict as typified in the United States.
The Department of International Politics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, offers four master’s programs: an MSc Econ in “Intelligence and Strategic Studies,” an MSc Econ in “Intelligence Studies and International History,” an MSc Econ in “Intelligence Studies (Research Training),” and and MA in “Intelligence.” The latter two are more research training-based courses. In particular, the MSc Econ in “Intelligence Studies (Research Training)” is important because it has been recognized by the Economic and Social Research Council (a government-backed research funding scheme) as a 1+2 award—this means that the government has recognized that there is a need for state-funded PhDs in intelligence.
In addition, the department is the only place to also offer an undergraduate degree in “International Politics and Intelligence.” The MSc Econ/MA programs cover intelligence from 1900 onwards, taught through “both an historical and a theoretical understanding of intelligence and security.” Furthermore it seeks to examine “why states engaged in them [intelligence activities], how they contributed to policymaking and war-making or failed to do so, and how they influenced both national and international politics.” Descriptions of individual modules reveal that they are primarily concerned with “an understanding of the history of the development of intelligence as a factor in international relations,” perhaps not surprising given that it is an international politics department.
The fifth and final MA program is that taught within the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. This MA, in “Intelligence and International Security,” is once more multi-disciplinary and seeks to “examine the nature, processes, roles and case studies of intelligence and their interaction with developments in international security.” On a basic level, these courses are fairly similar—they all deal with general theoretical issues and explore the subject through a series of case studies. Yet more specifically there are differences. The Birmingham course considers the subject through a North American prism; the Salford and Aberystwyth courses appear to place emphasis on putting intelligence within a wider, international relations context; the Brunel degree puts great importance on the analysis exercise; and, finally, the course at King’s, though beginning with a theoretical treatment, is principally case-study based. Such differences in how intelligence is taught in the United Kingdom are more pronounced when individual modules are considered.
At King’s, in addition to the MA core course, there are two further modules. The first is a history of the “Joint Intelligence Committee and British Intelligence.” This course does not include any prescriptive theoretical grounding but instead explores the nature, composition and evolution of modern British intelligence. A second course on “Scientific and Technical Intelligence” seeks to offer a preliminary theoretical overview of the peculiarities of scientific intelligence and then considers the subject through case studies. Both courses place a large emphasis on the construction of an open-source intelligence exercise as a means of assessment.
By contrast, the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham, offers an undergraduate course entitled “The Vigilant State.” This focuses on “the means employed by states to gather information and implement policy clandestinely.” In doing so it places “these issues in a broader political or governmental context,” and consequently “this module is as much about how policymakers make use, or fail to make use, of these instruments as about the practice itself.”
In addition to its MSc Econ and MA core courses, Aberystwyth offers the undergraduate module “War, Strategy and Intelligence,” which places intelligence within the role of force in international relations. “Intelligence and International Security” looks at the evolution of intelligence as a factor in international relations, whereas “The Past and Present of US Intelligence” focuses on the history of US intelligence and how “it has promoted the political, military and other interests of the USA.” A further course, “Intelligence and American Military Power – 1917 to Present Day” examines “the role played by intelligence in maximizing American military power.”
In comparison to these rather contextual modules, other, more historical and empirical ones exist in other universities. The history faculty at Cambridge offers “The Rise of the Secret World: Governments and Intelligence Communities Since c.1900.” Instead of concentrating on the position of intelligence within domestic and international affairs, this looks at “the growth of modern intelligence communities; the intelligence they have provided; their use and abuse by governments; and their influence on policy and events.” In a similar vein, “The Secret State: Whitehall And The Cold War, 1945–70,” offered by the history department at Queen Mary, University of London, discusses “the substantial mutations to the central apparatus of government and the security procedures of the state which took place in response to the Cold War after 1945.” Both courses, therefore, focus more on the machinery of government, placing intelligence within this context.
The final three modules are again different in perspective. “Britain's Secret History, 1908–1951,” offered by the Department of History, University of Sheffield, concentrates far more on internal subversion and surveillance, encouraging “reflection on the role and development of secret institutions in a free society, and the contrast between intelligence and security in democratic and totalitarian societies.” Overall it is concerned primarily with the activities of MI5 in the period under question. This course is similar in content to “States, Security & Intelligence,” offered within the School of Social Science, Liverpool John Moores University. It is from this juncture that intelligence studies begins to branch off into more criminological topics. Finally, the School of History and Classics, University of Edinburgh, offers a module in “American Secret Intelligence 1898–2004,” which very simply is a history of US intelligence with a central focus on the role of institutions. All these latter courses therefore are seemingly devoid of any central theoretical component.
What these multitude of degree courses and individual modules indicate is that intelligence studies has great breadth and depth, which is reflected in the nature of the subject and how it is studied within higher education. The courses tend to reflect accurately the departments they are sited within. Thus, courses offered through politics or international relations departments largely consider the role of intelligence in those contexts; whereas history department courses are far more case-study based, either centered around institutions, countries, or epochs. Courses within multi-disciplinary faculties, the Department of War Studies being a prime example, do not really fall into either category.
It is noteworthy that in terms of the actual teaching of these courses, some employ primarily a lecture-based approach; others are principally seminar-based. In general terms the difference is reflected in the level of the course: undergraduate courses are mainly lecture-led while master’s ones are seminar-led. It is instructive to compare these with the initial ideas as set out by Dorondo, who stated that “lectures should be minimized in favour of reading, discussion, conferences and practical exercises.”
Overall, intelligence studies in the United Kingdom is a very healthy and rapidly expanding discipline, evident in the nature and increasing number of courses and modules offered. While it may not have as long a tradition as in the United States, it is certainly catching up quickly. According to American authors, for the subject to progress further cooperation with the agencies themselves is needed. This is still considerably behind the respective status in the United States, yet the first steps are beginning to be taken. The future of intelligence studies is bright, and the field can only continue to expand. As Michael Handel concluded:
Given the secrecy surrounding intelligence organizations and their work, and the understandable sensitivity of political leaders to the use and abuse of intelligence work, progress in this field will be slow, and most new knowledge will inevitably be based on historical case studies rather than on contemporary events. The extensive allocation of national resources to all types of intelligence work and the increasingly important role played by the intelligence community in shaping our national-security and foreign policies point to the need for furthering our understanding of the special problems and methods of intelligence work … significant theoretical and conceptual progress in the study of intelligence has been made in recent years – but this is only the beginning of the road.
I am grateful to Jane Knight, the first Professional Head of Intelligence Analysis in the Cabinet Office, for her comments on an earlier draft. I am also grateful to John Tolson of the Ministry of Defense, Professor Len Scott and Dr. Joe Maiolo.
This is the date given by Wesley Wark, “The Study of Espionage: Past, Present, Future?” in Intelligence and National Security 8, no.3 (July 1993): 1. The Ultra books referred to are: J.C. Masterman, The Double-Cross System in the War of 1939–1945 (London: Yale University Press, 1972) and F.C. Winterbotham, The Ultra Secret (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974). In the United States an equally important book was Roberta Wohlstetter’s Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962).
 Michael I. Handel, “The Study of Intelligence,” Orbis 26 (Winter 1983): 821.
D.C. Watt, “The Historiography of Intelligence in International Review” in L.C. Jenssen & O. Riste (eds.), Intelligence in the Cold War: Organisation, Role and International Cooperation. (Oslo: Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, 2001), 173–92.
See S. T. Thomas, “Assessing Current Intelligence Studies,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 2, no. 2 (1988): 239.
L. Scott and P. Jackson, “The Study of Intelligence in Theory and Practice,” Intelligence and National Security 19 no. 2 (Summer 2004): 141.
For more see Scott and Jackson, 140 and 147.
 C. Andrew, “Intelligence, International Relations and ‘Under-Theorisation,’” Intelligence and National Security 19, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 174. See also G. K. Haines, “An Emerging New Field of Study: US Intelligence,” Diplomatic History 28, no. 3 (June 2004): 442.
Andrew states that “Tony Blair has finally laid to rest the traditional taboo that British governments do not mention their intelligence services.” Andrew, 171.
E. R. May, “Studying and Teaching Intelligence,” Studies in Intelligence 38, no. 5 (1995): 1.
Andrew, 181 and 182.
The quoted phrase is that of Alexander Cadogan, the distinguished career diplomat who headed the Board of Governors of BBC. For more see C. Andrew & D. Dilks (eds.), The Missing Dimension: Governments and Intelligence Communities in the Twentieth Century. (London: University of Illinois Press, 1984).
J. Fulcher, “Comes the Teaching Machine,” Studies in Intelligence 6, no. 1 (Winter 1962): A5.
P. J. Dorondo, “For College Courses in Intelligence,” Studies in Intelligence 4, no. 3 (Summer 1960).
Until they were given a statutory basis in 1989 and 1994, the United Kingdom’s intelligence agencies officially did not exist. In the United States, by contrast, the existence of the CIA has always been acknowledged.
A. S. Hulnick, “Learning About US Intelligence: Difficult But Not Impossible,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 5, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 96. For a review of how CIA officers themselves, including Professor Hulnick, have contributed to teaching in US universities see J. H. Hedley, “Twenty Years of Officers in Residence,” Studies in Intelligence 49, no. 4 (2005): 31–39.
For a fascinating illustration see G. F. Treverton Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
See, for instance, the list produced by the Association of Former Intelligence Officers on university-level intelligence courses: http://www.afio.com/sections/academic/AFIO_AEP_Participants.html.
 May, 5. May is another example of a historian who has worked within the CIA and wider Intelligence Community.
HC 898, Lord Butler of Brockwell, Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction: Report of a Committee of Privy Counsellors. (London: TSO, 2004),
CM 6492, Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction: Implementation of its Conclusions. (London: HMSO, 2005), 9, para. 26.
It is interesting in this connection to note that the new Freedom of Information Act, which surpasses the old 30-year rule, has exempted intelligence agencies. Not exempted, however, are the Defence Intelligence Staff and the assessment machinery in the Cabinet Office.
This is certainly my experience amongst many older professionals, particularly those who worked in the collection agencies. Thomas also attests to this in the United States (227).
P. Maddrell, “Intelligence Studies at UK Universities.” Available at: http://users.aber.ac.uk/rbh/iss/uk.html.
http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/politics/co urses/ug_courses_list.php?code=000543& mod_year=optional&modcode=012706&page_var=mod_det.
 Handel, 820–21.
All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed in this article are those of the author. Nothing in the article should be construed as asserting or implying US government endorsement of an article’s factual statements and interpretations.