My interest in the intelligence profession began in 2012 when I was working on a novel that included an intelligence analyst. I realised almost everything I knew came from fiction, films and hearsay. So I started searching for solid facts. The journey took me to places I never anticipated.

Ethics and the intelligence profession

Horror was my first impression. The more I studied, the more frustrated I became with the mindset and practices, and the implications that came from that. The obsession with secrecy was frustrating and counter-intuitive, but the way people were unintentionally hurt by intelligence actions was deeply concerning.

As a story teller, there are disciplines we follow. The story belongs to the fictional characters and the readers. For the characters, we want to explore their different viewpoints. For the readers, they need to decide for themselves. Don’t impose your own voice.

So I kept asking questions. Why do intelligence workers behave like this? Why don’t they change? Is there a better way that would work?

Fiction writing was a good way to explore it.

Fiction can provide examples, but it’s not an intellectual framework. It doesn’t portray the full breadth of what needs to be changed, it has forced simplifications, and a story is just one case.

Much has been written about how the intelligence profession could be improved. Frequently it’s a simple solution. But simple solutions don’t work for complex problems, and they distract from things that can be improved.

In my day job, I work on organisational change. We’re trained to learn how the whole system fits together, and how to redesign elements to make it work better. In the articles below, I figured I’d work on practical things that can be done, and things that are already happening. It’s not a quantum leap, but any progress would help.

The intelligence profession uses intrusive surveillance, often hidden. [Adobe Stock photo]
The intelligence profession uses intrusive surveillance, often hidden.
[Adobe Stock photo]

Facts in a “secret” intelligence profession

The intelligence profession is notoriously secret. I began to wonder if it was impossible to find the truth, without becoming part of the profession. But that I would not do, under any circumstances. I’m a story-teller. That comes first.

I found old text books, dating back to the 1990’s when the profession was very different. I found biographies from ex intelligence officers, trying to glorify the things they had done. I read articles of supposed released intelligence. The accounts were contradictory, and the underlying ideas were often complex and poorly described.

The secrecy in the intelligence profession comes from an extreme level of competitiveness. Some opponents are prepared to use violence and deeply illegal activities. The result is a culture of secrecy. It’s a necessity, which its practitioners accept. But the intelligence profession also attracts people who like secrecy, and take it to levels that are not needed.

The identities of intelligence workers are secret, for their own protection. Their operations and missions are secret, until journalists or investigators get them into the public domain. Their technical capabilities, they keep very secret because it’s competitive.

I was surprised to find two exceptions to the secrecy rule.

Firstly, their methods are not secret. There’s a whole academic discipline to studying intelligence practices, and there are books written for students who aspire careers to intelligence, and there are open source units who talk about their methods.

The second exception is that things become apparent, because of the way organisations work, the nature of people, and the constraints of office technology. For example, some of the research technologies now available are so specialist that only a few people in an office know how to use them. In films and TV shows, we’ve seen the “super researcher” who can find anything, from anywhere. It’s as comic as Superman and Superwoman.

Stories about the intelligence profession

The commentary on ethics spawned short stories. I wanted to illustrate the pain people suffer, and how intelligence workers can contribute their own piece to the bigger puzzle.

One idea, one illustrative story. It’s a different discipline to thriller writing, with its main story, plots and sublots, and character arcs.

I figured on writing 10 short stories. But I found there’s an enormous range of stories – the intelligence profession is enormous, with intriguing subtleties and diversity. The ideas keep coming. I just need time to write more of them.

Career advice

What surprised me with the stories was the profile of the audience reading them.

Yes, I know analysis of reading behaviour has weaknesses, and the audience is relatively small. But it was clearly coming from people who want to understand the profession. Newcomers, students, and enquiring minds.

That led me to think of people deciding whether to join the intelligence profession. It’s their choice, for good or bad. But the choice should be made with eyes wide open.

When I started this journey and worried about the ethics of intelligence, it never occurred to me I’d be writing about people’s career choices.

Living in the intelligence world

Most of my creative effort goes into writing novels. With that comes the discipline of getting into the mind of the main characters. At work, away from writing, I tried imagining myself as an ex intelligence analyst, now working in industry. And when I came to manage sprawling complex projects, I imagined myself as an ex intelligence officer.

A crisis occurs at work, so how would my heroes handle it? There is a setback, an opportunity, a sadness. The same question: what would my fictional characters do?

It’s changed the way I work, and the way I see myself. The way I work helps other people. And the exercise has also impacted my writing.

I figured there was a poetic circle, between fiction, me, and the people I influence at work.

Rediscovering risk management

With the poetic circle, I thought it was almost complete. All that remained was the struggle to develop my story-telling to the point where I have a publisher and readers to please.

The discovery of “intelligence-led project management” came my accident. Or more exactly, it came from necessity because I found myself in a situation where conventional project management techniques was certain to fail. I had to improvise, and the only techniques that could save me were ones I’d learnt from studying intelligence methods and writing about the people who use them.

It breaks the metaphor of a poetic circle. Like so many metaphors, it’s too limiting. This is an adventure into the unknown.