Intelligence And Irregular Warfare

A specialty of mine is irregular warfare and the American Experience. Irregular warfare is that which uses ambushes, hit-and-run techniques, and surprise tactics rather than more standard approaches to warfare. Terrorism is a subset of irregular warfare. National security experts often use “asymmetrical warfare” as a synonym for irregular warfare.

I mention this to help explain something you see in the news occasionally. One of the most valuable items in irregular warfare is intelligence, or information. Certainly, it’s vital in regular or symmetrical warfare, too. But because everything is irregular warfare revolves around the element of surprise, having or not having information is doubly essential. If you’re the attacker in irregular warfare, having surprise is mandatory and thus, so is information. Conversely, if you’re the defender in irregular warfare, having information can thwart your opponent and not having it can get yourself killed. Thus again, information is king.

This is why–in an era when terrorism and by extension irregular warfare is the primary national security issue–events like the behavior of Edward Snowden garner such attention. If he hands over information, he is handing over a valuable resource, indeed the key resource to those folks who choose or are relegated to fighting with irregular tactics. This why, some years ago, the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” entered into our political language. I realize that other aspects of these events, such as privacy and the Constitution, help to underscore the urgency of Snowden (now) or torture (then) in our current political debates.

So long as our national security emphasizes the presence of irregular warfare, we will consistently see controversies surrounding information and intelligence. Snowden won’t be the last.