The following discussion draws on the work of Abram N. Shulsky’s 2002 book, Silent Warfare: Understanding the World of Intelligence. The concept of intelligence applies not only to governments but also to many other types of organizations. For example, business corporations treat intelligence as information designed to meet policy-making needs. Similarly, a political party or campaign performs intelligence-like activities in trying to figure out what the opposition is up to. A few of the most common applications of intelligence are:
Intelligence collected from individuals or groups within the nation’s borders is an extremely sensitive issue, especially in the US. This is largely because how a government defines such internal threats depends heavily on the type of government it is. For example, a single political party that has a monopoly of power is likely to regard any domestic political dissent as a security threat, and its intelligence service will focus a great deal of attention on detecting and thwarting that dissent. In the extreme case, a totalitarian government may regard all nonmembers of the ruling party as actual or potential enemies. By contrast, the notion of a “loyal opposition,” as found in democratic systems, implies that the government’s domestic political opponents do not pose a security threat and hence are not suitable targets of intelligence.
This focuses on threats which are not primarily from a foreign government. Examples are narcotics trafficking or certain types of organized crime. These threats appear to fall within the ambit of law enforcement rather than of intelligence, but intelligence is often involved in the fight against them. Intelligence may be called upon for information about the foreign aspect of these activities; information that would otherwise be unavailable. Also, the law enforcement approach typically waits until a crime has been, or is about to be committed, then attempts to solve that particular crime and arrest the perpetrators. This may not be an acceptable approach toward certain transnational threats. When dealing with entirely domestic organized crime groups, however, law enforcement agencies often use intelligence techniques. For example, with respect to domestic law enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) distinguishes between criminal intelligence investigations and ordinary criminal investigations. The dividing line between the law-enforcement and intelligence approaches is whether the focus is on the punishment of a given criminal act or on the struggle with an organization engaged in criminal activity.
Intelligence can be used to enhance a nation’s economy. Acquiring advanced technology was and is an important goal of Russian and Chinese intelligence. This activity saves both countries the great expense and difficulty of developing technology on their own, whether for military or civilian uses. In a market economy, however, it is much less clear which economic issues have national security dimensions that justify or require the involvement of intelligence agencies. In general, specific economic questions that have a direct impact on military or other foreign policy aspects of national security fall within the purview of intelligence agencies. For example, information concerning a county’s access to strategic materials. The broader question is if intelligence should be used to advance the economic well-being of the nation. As Schulsky points out, private economic interests could probably put it to much greater use, but it is not clear that information gathered clandestinely at government expense could be distributed equitably to individuals or corporations to further private interests (Shulsky, 2002, p. 6).
Intelligence has been applied to “nontraditional” areas such as environmental issues. Environmental security seems to be one of the major nontraditional areas. It integrates the fields of science, diplomacy, law, finance, and education to provide policy-makers with a methodology to tackle environmental security risks in time. The goal is to ensure a scientifically sound response to complex human-environment events such as climate change, West Nile Virus, and Lyme disease. According to Shulsky, “While the argument is made that environmental problems can affect national security, the main motivation seems to be that technical intelligence collection systems developed for other purposes can help track environmental changes over time and across large expanses of territory, and that they can do so at small additional cost” (Shulsky, 2002, p. 7).