Beyond Turner's Intelligence Exceptionalism. A new concept for intelligence

Academic Paper, 2017

6 Pages, Grade: N/A


Beyond Turner's exceptionalism

A new concept for intelligence

In the igniting debate about whether intelligence represents or not an exceptional entity, it seems that an “uniqueness theorem” is hardly applicable in its entirety to the concept of intelligence. Intelligence is exceptional, but not categorically exceptional. Of all the four characteristics that according to Turner establish the foundation of “intelligence exceptionalism” – secrecy, law compliance, deception and fungibility –, only secrecy is genuinely exceptional about intelligence. The weakest part of Turner’s definition is undoubtedly the lack of comparison of each point with other activities: starting from this and through a series of juxtapositions, this analysis seeks to explain what the strong limits of Turner’s definition are.

According to Turner, there are four factors that define the concept of “intelligence exceptionalism”: secrecy, law compliance, deception and disinformation and fungibility. Firstly, secrecy is one of the pillars of intelligence as the leading criterion for both method and content of its activity. Secondly, and consequently, the law compliance issue, which involves the event of breaking other countries’ laws in the course of action. The third feature is the need for “disinformation and deception” in leading its duties, as a consequence of the first point. Finally, the function of fungibility of intelligence, which plays a not secondary role in the use of what intelligence produces[1]. In fact, it was the American background Turner was referring to when, in 2004, he discussed the intelligence identity. On the contrary, the aim of this analysis is to develop a wider-breadth understanding of the concept of “intelligence exceptionalism” beyond any risk of Americanocentrism. In other words, probing if it is possible to apply Turner’s exceptionalism to intelligence as a whole.

Firstly, the idea of secrecy. Many analysts and intelligence academics agree with Michael Turner’s view of “secrecy” as guiding star for intelligence action. Michael Warner, for instance, defines intelligence as «secret, state activity to understand and influence foreign entities»[2], bluntly asserting that «without secrets, it is not intelligence»[3] ; even more sharply, Ken Robertson describes intelligence as «the secret collection of other people’s secrets»[4]. On the other hand, other experts suggest this uniqueness shows signals of unravelling. Mark Phythian, for example, talks about «an apertura linking intelligence to society»[5], in which if «intelligence was previously a closed-off sphere», now «some of the exceptionalism surrounding intelligence has been lifted»[6]. Following Turner’s definition, intelligence holds secrecy as the “guiding principle” because secrecy prevents other countries from knowing what a country focuses on to pursue its own interests. During World War Two, for example, British military intelligence managed to break the German “Enigma” code with the utmost discretion and obtain access to crucial information about Hitler’s forthcoming advances. When Churchill learnt from the secret services about an imminent Luftwaffe attack on Coventry, instead of evacuating the town, he rather let the Nazis aircrafts raze it to the ground. In his judgment, clearing out Coventry would have meant letting the Germans understand that the Allied forces were spying on them. As a result, Coventry was sacrificed in November 1940 and the Germans kept on advancing unaware; Churchill weighed the lesser of the two evils putting the secrecy of his intelligence (and its successes) before innocent lives[7]. It could be objected that secrecy itself is not a prerogative of intelligence, because other entities use it in conducting their activities. Swiss banks, for example, are well-known for granting special “discretion status” to their clients[8]. Apple’s rigid confidentiality agreement about private communications has recently resulted in a resounding dispute against the FBI, which compelled Tim Cook’s company to decrypt a terrorist’s Iphone; Apple’s CEO, however, strongly rejected[9]. Regardless, these objections are not sufficiently pertinent, because no one of the examples above holds secrecy expressly as a guiding principle. There is no governmental or business entity which uses secrecy as founding “modus operandi” like intelligence does. This is the reason why, if we consider secrecy in its property of «guiding principle» by Turner’s definition, then intelligence is fully exceptional.

The need for secrecy implies the need for a certain “shadow cone” under which intelligence can work undisturbed. This leads us to the second point: How far intelligence can push itself beyond other countries’ legislation. All of the definitions previously cited confirm once again the idea of Turner: if intelligence operates undercover, it is because its operating range needs broader limits than the law allows. That is, it needs a tacit governmental approval in order to be able to preserve the national security and the strategic interests of the country. As a matter of fact, the collection of sensible information often involves a certain degree of “independence” from both international and domestic law. The recent NSA scandal strongly underpins this thesis: Snowden’s leaks showed the world that American intelligence machinery had infiltrated into private conversations of dozens of foreign heads of state and prime ministers, breaking national laws about espionage and personal communication[10]. When examining if intelligence is exceptional in its capacity of entity operating beyond foreign countries’ legislation, it is rather easy to argue that it is exceptional compared to other governmental bodies, often subject to severe transparency policies (the UK’s Freedom of Information Act[11], for instance). It is another matter when it comes to private entities. The case of Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange shows how technological development has enabled also private citizens to get access to foreign countries’ confidential information, breaking their domestic laws (even though countries like the United States decided not to charge him under their legislation regarding espionage[12] ). These examples suggest that Tuner’s thesis cannot be fully confirmed: Technology and modernity have broken down the exceptionalism because they have broadened the range of potential actors who can get access to sensible information crossing other countries’ law.


[1] Michael A. Turner, “A Distinctive U.S. Intelligence Identity”, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, 17:1, 50, doi: 10.1080/08850600490252650.

[2] Michael Warner, “Wanted: A Definition of Intelligence”, CIA,, Accessed October 10.

[3] Warner , “Wanted: A Definition of Intelligence”.

[4] Philip H.J. Davies, “Ideas of Intelligence. Divergent National Concepts and Institutions”, Harvard International Review,, Accessed October 13.

[5] Mark Phythian, “Culture of National Intelligence”, Routledge Companion to Intelligence Studies, 2013, 40, doi: 10.4324/9780203762721.ch3.

[6] Phythian, “Culture of National Intelligence”, 40.

[7] Martin Gilbert, Finest Hours: Winston S. Churchill 1939 – 1941 (London: Heinemann, 1983), 912-917.

[8] Guillaume Grisel and Raphael Gani, “Swiss bank accounts held in trust: the Swiss bank secrecy reborn?”, Trusts & Trustees, Vol. 18, No. 5, June 2012, 1-2.

[9] Chris Foxx and Dave Lee, “Apple rejects order to unlock gunman’s phone”, BBC,, Accessed October 10.

[10] Mark Mazzetti and Michael S. Schmidt, “Ex-Worker at C.I.A. Says He Leaked Data on Surveillance”, New York Times,, Accessed October 12.

[11], Accessed October 9.

[12] Sari Horwitz, “Julian Assange unlikely to face U.S. charges over publishing classified documents”, The Washington Post,, Accesses October 9.

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Beyond Turner's Intelligence Exceptionalism. A new concept for intelligence
Brunel University  (History, Politics and Law)
Intelligence & Security Studies
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ISBN (Book)
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intelligence, exceptionalism, michael turner, turner, spies, snowden, churchill, second world war, politics, secrecy, fungible, secret service, mi5, mi6, intelligence agencies, secret agencies, secret
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Giovanni Coletta (Author), 2017, Beyond Turner's Intelligence Exceptionalism. A new concept for intelligence, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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