Question Holly Politics & International Relations

Intelligence Bias in Times of War

What is the role of bias in intelligence dissemination in times of war?

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Intelligence is acknowledged as a key element of national security and can help to provide knowledge of the enemy, of the terrain and of strengths and weaknesses of the forces an army is fighting (Keegan, 2010). As such, it is perceived as providing accurate and timely information that enhances strategic approaches to conflict. However, the notion of perception may be problematic. Butterfield (1993, p. ii) notes that bias may play a variety of roles in the intelligence dissemination process because "...biases influence observation, observations are mediated by preconception, and perceptions pass through the filter of critical judgement." In effect, bias lends intelligence a subjectivity that may be disruptive during the dissemination process in terms of its ability to subvert the requirements and priorities based upon erroneous judgement, as was the case in the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 (Betts, 1982). As such, the role of bias in intelligence dissemination in times of war has the potential to be that of an unwitting distraction. However, there is another possible role for bias in wartime intelligence dissemination. Davies (2011) notes that biases may be cognitive or self-serving in nature, both of which may adhere to a given budget or an agency's adopted position and therefore influence the extent of the dissemination process and the recipients of the data. Under this role, biases may be designed to engineer a favourable outcome in line with policy or political agenda. The use of "guestimation" in the Cold War, for example, served the risk averse policy of the US government but elicited irrational reactions from Cuba and the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis (Duyvesteyn, 2013). In effect, the role of bias in intelligence dissemination largely depends on its application to the given situation in wartime.


Betts, R., (1982). Surprise Attack: Lessons for Defense Planning. Washington DC: Brookings Institute.

Butterfield, A., (1993). The Accuracy of Intelligence Assessment: Bias, Perception and Judgement in Analysis and Decision. Defense Technical Information Center. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 19 October 2016].

Davies, P., (2011). Intelligence. In K. Dowding ed. Encyclopedia of Power. Los Angeles: SAGE, pp. 343-344.

Duyvesteyn, I., (2013). Intelligence and Strategic Culture. Abingdon: Routledge.

Keegan, J., (2010). Intelligence in War. London: Random House.