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date: 03 March 2021

Intelligence and US Foreign Relationslocked

  • Thomas A. ReinsteinThomas A. ReinsteinDepartment of History, Temple University

Summary

The United States has a rich history of intelligence in the conduct of foreign relations. Since the Revolutionary War, intelligence has been most relevant to U.S. foreign policy in two ways. Intelligence analysis helps to inform policy. Intelligence agencies also have carried out overt action—secret operations—to influence political, military, or economic conditions in foreign states. The American intelligence community has developed over a long period, and major changes to that community have often occurred because of contingent events rather than long-range planning. Throughout their history, American intelligence agencies have used intelligence gained from both human and technological sources to great effect. Often, U.S. intelligence agencies have been forced to rely on technological means of intelligence gathering for lack of human sources. Recent advances in cyberwarfare have made technology even more important to the American intelligence community.

At the same time, the relationship between intelligence and national-security–related policymaking has often been dysfunctional. Indeed, though some American policymakers have used intelligence avidly, many others have used it haphazardly or not at all. Bureaucratic fights also have crippled the American intelligence community. Several high-profile intelligence failures tend to dominate the recent history of intelligence and U.S. foreign relations. Some of these failures were due to lack of intelligence or poor analytic tradecraft. Others came because policymakers failed to use the intelligence they had. In some cases, policymakers have also pressured intelligence officers to change their findings to better suit those policymakers’ goals. And presidents have often preferred to use covert action to carry out their preferred policies without paying attention to intelligence analysis. The result has been constant debate about the appropriate role of intelligence in U.S. foreign relations.

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