Intelligence Exceptionalism. What warrants the U.S. intelligence as exceptional?

Essay, 2016
6 Pages


What warrants the U.S. Intelligence as Exceptional?

By Mohammad Naved Ferdaus Iqbal

As the New York Times has put it, “obtaining “humint” as the Central Intelligence Agency likes to call it, has been dismayingly difficult”,[1] the need to render United States (U.S.) intelligence a distinct value from other government activities becomes all the more evident. The inherent tension between transparency and secrecy resulting from a democracy-intelligence relationship in the U.S. gives the country’s intelligence some characteristics, which warrant intelligence to be deemed exceptional.

Michael Turner has characterized intelligence exceptionalism in contrast with other government functions in an attempt to advocate for its particular value in the U.S. democracy. Turner has presented four characteristics of the U.S. intelligence, which can be tagged to their competing relationship with the democratic institutions. Firstly, as the U.S. democracy demands transparency in government, use of secrecy in intelligence to protect and preserve U.S. national security interest becomes complex. Intelligence, therefore, has to negotiate its way through the Congress to achieve its missions. Secondly, instances of U.S. intelligence needing to breach the laws of other countries are peppered through out the U.S. political history. Historical precedents, however, do not spare the U.S. intelligence from its accountability to the Congress regarding U.S. engagements abroad. Thirdly, intelligence being seen as subject to deception and disinformation is corroborated by U.S. intelligence’s history of Deception and Denial (D&D) on adversaries and vice versa. Such occurrences, also, do not go without the responsibility to answer to the country’s democratic institutions. Lastly, the fungible nature of intelligence inadvertently enables its use by politicians and leaders for varied purposes, some of which could stand against the very objective for which intelligence has been obtained in the first place. Fungibility thus poses challenges for the U.S. intelligence in the face of the country’s democratic need for transparency and accountability.

Turner’s advocacy for intelligence exceptionalism in relation to U.S. democracy “makes intelligence more political than scientific.”[2] A similar thought is resonated by Dr. Stephen J. Cimbala. According to him, intelligence “is conditioned by American culture and style, the organization of U.S. national security decision making, and the perception and proclivities of American leaders. What comes out of the intelligence process is a product whose acceptance is not determined by its truth or falsity but by the policymakers’ perceived predicaments”.[3] The political essence of intelligence exceptionalism is also reflected in the establishment of Information Awareness Office (IAO). Dr. John Poindexter said, “Today, we are in a world of asymmetries. The most serious asymmetric threat facing the United States is terrorism, a threat characterized by collections of people loosely organized in shadowy networks that are difficult to identify and define and whose goals are the destruction of our way of life. The intelligence collection targets are thousands of people whose identities and whereabouts we do not always know. It is somewhat analogous to the anti-submarine warfare problem of finding submarines in an ocean of noise - we must find the terrorists in a world of noise, understand what they are planning, and develop options for preventing their attacks. If we are to preserve our national security, we must figure out a way of combating this threat.”[4] The IAO initiative emphasizes all the more the need for secrecy in intelligence to gain competitive advantage over adversaries. But the competing requirements of democracy have later resulted in Congress defunding IAO, which was perceived as infringing citizens’ right to privacy. This does not dismiss secrecy as a guiding principle of intelligence, rather illustrates the challenge to balance the need for secrecy in intelligence against democracy’s demands. The intelligence community's emphasis on secrecy is “best described in a 1950 National Security Council directive, which advised ‘any publicity, factual or fictional, concerning intelligence is potentially detrimental to the effectiveness of an intelligence activity and to the national security.’ The directive instructed all relevant departments and agencies to prevent the disclosure of any information about intelligence, except when specifically authorized”.[5] Thus, history indicates that U.S. democratic institutions have recognized secrecy as particularly essential to intelligence. The same recognition, however, does not apply for other non-intelligence government functions. For e.g., “The New Delhi Office of the U.S. Library of Congress (LOC) is the regional centre for the acquisition and processing of materials published in India, Bhutan, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka where the LOC staff conduct local and out station acquisitions trips to obtain non-commercial and hard-to-acquire publications which would not be otherwise available. Acquisitions for the LOC are geared to the information needs of Congress.”[6] LOC can also provide vital feeds to the U.S. intelligence on economic, technological, and social data as well as open and subtle political thoughts brewing in those countries. Such information with intelligence implications is acquired without needing to operate in secret.

To further advocate for intelligence as exceptional, it is historically evident that intelligence activities do violate laws of other countries. An example of U.S. breaching another country’s law is “CIA’s support to the Contras on Nicaragua territory, against Nicaragua territorial integrity and political independence. The CIA’s involvement violated the International Law that prohibits interfering and intervening in another state’s affairs or supporting civil conflict against sovereignty of another state.”[7] A strong support to intelligence exceptionalism in its political essence is also apparent in the “U.S. response when the Soviet Union accused USA for violating principles of Charter of United Nations in the U-2 incident of 1960. When the U.S. aerial surveillance operation pilot was caught and convicted for espionage by Soviet Union, the U.S. justifications for their illegal actions against Soviet Union were (1) general practice of espionage by all states, (2) the necessity for self-defence, (3) the necessity to maintain the balance of power, (4) the unreasonableness of Soviet objection in view of its own espionage activities, and (5) the virtue of espionage or other types of intervention against communism.”[8] There is, however, presence of international regulatory support when it comes to intelligence activities by U.S. diplomatic missions abroad. “The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR) of 1961 allows diplomatic missions to install and use wireless transmitter system with permit of host state and also grants the secrecy of information transmitted from the diplomatic mission to the home state.”[9] Unlike the U.S. intelligence, other non-intelligence government agencies do not receive such international regulatory support if they engage illegally in a foreign country. For example, “USAID carries out U.S. foreign policy by promoting stable, free societies, creating markets and trade partners for the United States, and fostering good will abroad.”[10] While there may be common interests in carrying out foreign policy by USAID and the U.S. intelligence, a non-intelligence government agency such as USAID will not have the same regulatory support as diplomatic missions do for breaking the law of another country to achieve its mission.


[1] Michael R. Gordon, “DAY OF TERROR: AN ASSESSMENT; When an Open Society Is Wielded as a Weapon Against Itself, ” New York Times, September 12, 2001, accessed October 12, 2016,

[2] Michael A. Turner, “A Distinctive U.S. Intelligence Identity”, International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, 17:1, 43, DOI: 10.1080/08850600490252650.

[3] Dr. Stephen J. Cimbala, “Amorphous Wars”, International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, 73, DOI: 10.1080/08850608808435049

[4] Remarks as prepared for delivery by Dr. John Poindexter, Director, Information Awareness Office of DARPA, at DARPATech 2002 Conference, Anaheim, Calif., August 2, 2002, accessed October 12, 2016,,

[5] Stephen Aftergood, “Secrecy and Accountability in U.S. Intelligence”, prepared for a seminar on intelligence reform, sponsored by the Center for International Policy, accessed October 12, 2016,

[6] “About the New Delhi Office”, Library of Congress, accessed October 12, 2016,

[7] Arber Ahmeti, “Question on legality of espionage carried out through Diplomatic Missions”, International Association for Political Science Students (IAPSS), February 16, 2015, accessed October 12, 2016,

[8] Arber Ahmeti, “Question on legality of espionage carried out through Diplomatic Missions”, International Association for Political Science Students (IAPSS), February 16, 2015, accessed October 12, 2016,

[9] Arber Ahmeti, “Question on legality of espionage carried out through Diplomatic Missions”, International Association for Political Science Students (IAPSS), February 16, 2015, accessed October 12, 2016,

[10] “Who We Are”, USAID, accessed October 12, 2016,

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Intelligence Exceptionalism. What warrants the U.S. intelligence as exceptional?
Brunel University
MA Intelligence and Security Studies
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intelligence, exceptionalism, what
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Mohammad Naved Ferdaus Iqbal (Author), 2016, Intelligence Exceptionalism. What warrants the U.S. intelligence as exceptional?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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