Intelligence Isn’t Just for Commanders, Anymore

Zachery Tyson Brown
10 min readMar 27, 2022

Intelligence is for commanders, or at least so I’ve been told. Regardless of the term you prefer — commander, principal, or policymaker — the idea expressed by the phrase, that intelligence exists to help some “decision-maker” make better decisions, is conventional wisdom in the intelligence community. But it has probably outlived its usefulness.

In an age in which the speed, scale, and scope of overlapping national security issues have eclipsed the ability of any individual leader to keep track of them all, we must think seriously about broadening the intelligence audience. I think that in a period of renewed great power rivalry that takes place under globalized, digital conditions, intelligence must no longer be for commanders — it must be for entire organizations.

The idea that intelligence exists to support executive decision-makers is an old one, passed down through generations of intelligence officers. It originated, whether those passing it realized it or not, with the autocrats who established the first rudimentary spy agencies in the 16th and 17th centuries. Early modern dynasts viewed the gathering of information as their private concern and saw the information that was gathered as their personal property.

The same was true of the military commanders who aimed to further these rulers’ interests at war. For one example, consider Napoleon Bonaparte, who was perhaps the ultimate personification of both autocratic ruler and general who was also a voracious personal consumer of the intelligence gathered by his infamous Black Cabinet.

Napoleon’s contemporaries did the same. During the Peninsula War of 1807–1814, “…all intelligence came to [The Duke of] Wellington and the appraisal of it was his alone…” By the industrial revolution, the notion that intelligence existed to support centralized decision-making had long been established as doctrine. Consider how plainly it was put by George Armand Furse, a Victorian-era British Army colonel who, in his 1895 book Information in War, declared that all intelligence belonged to the commander alone and that “…it is only for him to draw proper conclusions from a thorough consideration of the total information gathered from every possible source.” This doctrine influenced the formation of early private sector enterprises in…