The role of education is to both instill knowledge and help in the development of analytical frameworks to assess the intrinsic value of information in a particular context. The power to collect information, assess it’s relative utility and determine whether the facts merit action is fundamental to decision-making and interaction in complex societies, ranging from human relationships to larger ecosystems. To be educated is to be informed, and to possess the necessary skills to make decisions based upon that information. Within more complex systems, such as financial markets or governments, the role of providing information is fundamental – individuals whose experience and perspective can lend insight to the value of data, discuss what actions may be taken in a larger context, and what the perceived costs or benefits might be, are sought after in all fields.

This is the role of intelligence agencies in national governments – to collect, analyze and interpret information so that decision-makers may be informed. Often, the reach of such networks is misunderstood and questions rage surrounding security vs privacy. This essay will choose to focus instead on lending context to more recent events in the United States, and to answering the question: In democratic governments focused upon policies that fall within the spectrum of nationalism, what role have intelligence agencies played? In theory, such agencies act as independent non-partisan bodies whose expertise is valued by all members of government, and whose focus is decided upon by elected officials. In the case of authoritarian regimes, these conceptual ideas are swept aside in the weight of supposed patriotic duty. But democratic regimes surely differ, no?

Intelligence agencies may be focused upon the detection of threats either within or outside a nation’s borders. To some, the mark of a totalitarian regime is the simple creation and use of a domestic intelligence agency. This notional equivalency is an oversimplification – the modern age makes preventing all threats from individual or parties, whose reach can span the globe, impossible. But the rights of citizens must be ensured. Looking outside one’s borders is equally complex. Maintaining a respect of the privacy of allies is paramount to preservation of alliances. But governments elected democratically who exhibit a distrust of international bodies and agreements may be able to argue that their mandate is one of state power, not of respect for other countries.

Russia’s SVR, the post-Cold War successor to the KGB, falls within this spectrum. Since the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, it has been repeatedly publicly admitted that the SVR (intelligence) plays a greater role in the setting of the foreign policy agenda than the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (diplomacy), shown through independently defining a clear national stance on nuclear proliferation in Iran and NATO expansion in Europe. The Director of the SVR reports directly to the office of the President. And all information presented comes with recommendations of foreign and domestic policy action for the national government to implement.

Israel’s Mossad sees a similar role – while Israel’s relationships with foreign governments have publicly deteriorated over the last decade (diplomacy), national security advisors and spooks act behind the scenes to strengthen relationships with both friend and foe alike (intelligence). A key role of the agency is said to be the maintenance of relationships with Arab governments who do not publicly express support for Israeli statehood. The current head of Mossad, Yossi Cohen, was elected after having spent two years as national security advisor to Prime Minister Netanyahu. His loyalty was proven – and more important, his loyalty to the nationalist currently representing the state was rewarded.

Compare this to the outlined role of intelligence agencies in the United States – to collect and distribute intelligence analyses, conduct covert operations and to serve as intelligence liaisons between branches of government (intelligence). They play no role in the development of foreign policy, nor in the maintenance of relationships between states (diplomacy). In fact, they often disagree with leadership when it is politically unsavoury – The Downing Memo, released in 2005, showed that during the Iraq War, President Bush publicly disagreed with the previously ignored the CIA report that there were no WMDs in the region, and showed that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”. The CIA was removed in 2002 as being the primary source of intelligence in Iraq and replaced with the OSP, headed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, which was later found to be an organization with political aims who had ignored facts in pursuit of a political agenda.

Leaders with nationalist policy objectives are shown to place greater emphasis on realist politics – where crises are existential and the collection of intelligence is used not to best enact the wishes of the electorate, but to maintain power for individual administrations. The difficulty being that it takes merely one administration to begin to use intelligence agencies as political aides before a dangerous precedent is set. Accountibility, another core principle of democracy, becomes more opaque when spooks guide foreign policy – after all, their influence is supposed to go unseen.

The power of information remains the capacity for decision-making, the value of context and an understanding of consequence. Used with caution, intelligence is a valuable tool in preserving the interests of the state. When used to further political aims, they can be tools that exemplify the dangers of abuse of political power. The role of government is to represent the state, not themselves. One hopes they may possess the intelligence to remember that.