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‘Intelligence’, the CIA’s expanded definition


The launching of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on 18 September 1947 signaled an American addition to the customary use of the word ‘intelligence’. In the past, as well as referring to mental capacity, the word had carried one of two principal meanings. The first, by 1947 archaic, simply indicated news. The second meaning covered information, at least partly clandestine in origin and sometimes processed and analyzed, that might be of strategic importance.

The advent of the CIA encouraged an additional meaning that had already been gathering pace, and would solidify in the near future. The expanded definition came to embrace not just the gathering and cognitive processes, but action as well. First in CIA parlance and then in general American usage, intelligence came to include covert operations, the effort to influence politics in foreign countries by undercover means.

Cloak of respectability

Deployment of the word ‘intelligence’ was a way of making covert action more respectable. The battle was already half-won, as covert operations had come to be accepted and admired in the Second World War, and the anxieties generated by the Cold War were now predisposing people to accept peacetime practices that they might previously have questioned.

But ‘intelligence’ still had a better reputation than covert operations. It had come to be seen as a magic wand. There was a widespread belief that had U.S. intelligence not been in disarray, it could have prevented Pearl Harbor. Equally popular was the belief that improved intelligence had helped to achieve victory in the naval battle of Midway and in the wider war. The word ‘intelligence’ had a benign connotation. It conferred a respectability behind which the dirtiest of ‘dirty tricks’ could hide.

The lawyers who drafted the 1947 National Security Act that created the CIA felt they had to proceed carefully. The law made no mention of covert operations, and in retirement President Harry Truman rather unconvincingly complained he had never intended the CIA to run dirty tricks. The ‘housekeeping’ provisions, the use of unvouchered funds to finance covert action, crept in only after the creation of the agency. At first, they were described euphemistically as ‘psychological’ operations. The application of the term ‘psychological’ to misinformation campaigns had its origin in the recent war, and continued to be used until the early 1950s.

Another feature of the early days was private bodies’ conduct of operations such as the sabotaging of communist election campaigns in Europe. America’s national security leaders were convinced, though, that they had to be in control and that the CIA had to be a ‘full service’ agency. This meant absorbing the private initiatives and undertaking spying, counter-espionage, evaluation, and covert action.

From theory to politics

The expanded remit of the Central Intelligence Agency gave rise to the broader meaning of the word ‘intelligence’. The new meaning did not have an easy birth. In the 1940s, there was a fierce debate, in America, over intelligence theory. For example, the conservative philosopher Wilmoore Kendall, who had served in intelligence in the war, was insistent that the remit of intelligence should extend beyond the elimination of surprise (memories of the Pearl Harbor surprise attack had motivated Congress to vote for the CIA). Roger Hilsman, a future director of State Department intelligence, urged that intelligence should not be divorced from politics. The idea of an intelligence-politics marriage was anathema to purists who feared political contamination of the intelligence product. But Hilsman’s view continued to command support, in recent years, for example, from CIA director and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The mingling of politics and intelligence affected not just analysis, but also the newcomer to the intelligence fold, covert action. Care was taken to supply a ‘circuit breaking’ mechanism that would shield the president from, say, the fall-out generated by an assassination plot – if things went wrong, one could blame an intervening committee or the director of the CIA, not the man in the White House. But in practice, the president authorized all significant covert actions, from the overthrow of the democratically elected leader of Iran (1953) to more recent drone strikes in Pakistan. The Central Intelligence Agency ran both the aforementioned operations. The word ‘intelligence’ thus continued to sanctify, perhaps losing some of its gloss in the process.

Challenges to re-definition

Not everyone accepted the expanded meaning of the word ‘intelligence’. Harvard-based diplomatic historian Ernest R. May defined intelligence as ‘knowing one’s enemies’, a definition that is too narrow to include covert operations. A leading academic authority on the CIA, Harry E. Ransom, objected to the justification of nefarious activities ‘by stretching the meaning of the word [intelligence].’ But Ransom noted that this stretching was ‘admittedly a common practice.’ Words change their meaning through common usage, and in American diction, at least, the word ‘intelligence’ has taken on an expanded meaning since the creation of the CIA.

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