Jennifer Sims, one of the former chairs of Georgetown University’s intelligence concentration in the Security Studies Program, joined the Center for Security Studies (CSS) for a conversation on her new book on intelligence in international politics Jan. 31.
Daniel Byman, a Georgetown professor in the School of Foreign Service (SFS) and the former director of CSS, moderated the event for the CSS speaker series. The event centered on intelligence as an element of power, its use in domestic and international military engagements and the role of intelligence agencies in times of crisis.
Sims said her latest publication, “Decision Advantage: Intelligence in International Politics from the Spanish Armada to Cyberwar,” is an effort to lay down a theory of intelligence. According to Sims, this requires knowledge of the history of the intelligence profession and an understanding that intelligence exists as an activity outside of institutions like the Central Intelligence Agency.
“The way you can actually find out what intelligence is, how it’s worked and not worked, is to look at the centuries prior to the 20th and 21st century to go way back in history,” Sims said at the event. “Any intelligence expert or academic will tell you it is the world’s second oldest profession.”
Sims said intelligence is all about gathering information for competition rather than for the goal of revealing the truth.
“Its objective is not truth telling, although truth telling is an important ingredient,” Sims said. “Its objective is to gain advantage over the other side, over the enemy. It can be less than perfect information, less than thoroughly true, so long as it is better than what the other side has at any given moment.”
Sims said that even with a lot of public information available about intelligence, there are still many gaps in knowledge about its role.
“Despite all these books out there, you still have muddy thinking about what intelligence is, how you build it as a form of power, how you use it, and who is doing it,” Sims said.
Sims said it is important to have the upper hand in information collection. This is how the English were able to outwit Spain during their defeat of the Spanish Armada, a 130-ship naval fleet that Spain sent to invade England in 1588.
“When you go into a competition, you want to understand the terrain of uncertainty and develop a strategy that puts what you know foundationally into the priority box,” Sims said. “If you are going to fight, fight on ground you know.”
The use of information in intelligence applies to current military and political struggles including the ongoing war in Ukraine, according to Sims.
“First of all, when you go into a competition, you want to understand the terrain of uncertainty and develop a strategy that puts what you know foundationally into the priority box,” Sims said.
Sims explained that Ukraine’s determination to maintain its knowledge of its own land is why Russia has not completely overtaken Ukraine.
“Everybody was discounting Ukraine,” Sims said. “Part of the reason Russia has not overtaken Ukraine is that Ukraine is fighting for its own turf. That affects willpower, but it is also the knowledge of the terrain that counts.”
Sims said intelligence depends on anticipating what the enemy will do next, the proximity of decision makers to intelligence professionals and selective secrecy — effectively choosing what to keep private. Sims also said it is important to collect information beyond that which exists in the intelligence institutions.
“You cannot be biased and think that the only platforms that count are the ones owned by the intelligence community,” Sims said.
Outside-the-box-preparation will be critical in successful intelligence strategy in the future, according to Sims.
“Find out what the unexpected is, what policymakers for some reason are not interested in,” Sims said. “That is where you win in strategic warning.”
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