Does secret intelligence make public policy worse? At a panel at the annual convention of the Association of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies this weekend, I learned something from one of my co-panelists which made me think that perhaps the answer was yes. It is worth considering in more detail.

We can, I hope, all agree that the First World War was an unmitigated disaster for almost everybody involved. As policy decisions go, the one by European states to start the war was shockingly bad. Yet it would appear that in the case at least of Russia, the decision was the product of strikingly good intelligence.

“For every case where intelligence has improved policy making, one can probably find another where it has worsened it.”

The fact that Russia had penetrated the Austro-Hungarian General Staff and was well aware of its plans for war has been known for decades. What is new, and I learned at my panel, are some of the details. It turns out that one of the key pieces of information the Russians learned was that any Austro-Hungarian mobilization would include a hidden, secret mobilization of the country’s army in Galicia. Since the Russian mobilization plan depended on railways which ran close to the border with Galicia, an Austro-Hungarian mobilization there put the defence of the Russian empire in jeopardy. If Austria mobilized and Russia didn’t, then if war subsequently broke out, Austrian troops could rapidly cross into Russia from Galicia and utterly disrupt Russian military preparations. Just in case, therefore, any Austro-Hungarian mobilization had to be met with a Russian one.

This knowledge, acquired through a first-class intelligence effort, meant that when Austria declared war against Serbia, Russia felt compelled to mobilize its army. By the peculiar logic of the pre-war alliance system, this in turn guaranteed war against Germany as well as a German invasion of France and Belgium, so causing a world war.

The Russian intelligence services were not at fault here. In fact, their actions were exemplary. They discovered important information and distributed it promptly to those who needed to know. The information was 100% accurate. Its consequences were catastrophic. Why? Not because the policy makers responded illogically. Their response made sense given the information they had received. Rather the reason was that the intelligence, however good, was incomplete. It did not, and could not, tell the Russians anything about Austro-Hungarian intentions, which in fact were not to invade Russia. Had the Russians not known that Austrian war plans included a hidden mobilization in Galicia, they might not have responded as they did, and their response would have been more appropriate for the actual situation. The intelligence, in short, was spot on; the policies it suggested entirely wrong.

This is not a unique case. Partial knowledge can be worse than no knowledge, and all intelligence, however accurate, is partial. For every case where intelligence has improved policy making, one can probably find another where it has worsened it. That is not to say that intelligence has no useful role to play, but its usefulness comes more in the execution of policy than in the making of policy itself, and it is therefore on the former rather than the latter on which it should concentrate. To expect it to produce better policy is to expect too much. If the Russian intelligence services had been a little worse at their jobs in 1914, the world would have been much better off as a result.

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