Final Word

How intelligent is our intelligence service?

Spooks.jpg

Last week we bemoaned the fact that the country’s ‘intelligence service’ is letting us down. Why is this happening?

We decided to revisit the term ‘intelligence’, particularly in the context of good governance, to try and find the answer as to why this is happening. Why was officialdom left to scrabble around for answers on how to react appropriately to the student protests taking hold of the country? And that scrabble was no game!

The game of Scrabble, with which so many of us grew up, playing it on otherwise boring Sunday afternoons or cold winter evenings, took its name from the word that means to ‘scratch or grope around with one's fingers to find, collect, or hold on to something’.

In the context of what happened with government at the start of the student protests, it is telling to consider some of the synonyms supplied by dictionaries for ‘scrabble’: scratch, grope, rummage, grub, scavenge, fumble and scramble.

The history of the game itself is quite interesting. It was created in 1938 out of desperation, during a time of economic hardship, by the out-of-work architect from Poughkeepsie, New York, one Alfred Mosher Butts. He cleverly adapted an earlier word game called Lexiko.

Initially he did not have much success selling his game himself and in return for royalties he sold the rights to a big company selling board games in the US and Canada. In the end more than 100 million sets of the game were sold. Apparently Butts still played the game regularly with members of his family and friends, up to his death in 1993 at the age of 93.

History of ‘intelligence’

The probable answer as to the ‘why’ of what is happening with the South African ‘intelligence service’ came from a surprising source. But let’s first look at the modern history of the term, in dictionaries described as ‘the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills’ and sometimes as ‘the collection of information of military or political value’.

For the purposes of this column we leave aside the many academic arguments and debates around the term ‘intelligence’, nowadays used in a multitude of contexts, from scholastic ability to ‘emotional intelligence’, added as late as 1990.

Instead we concentrate on ‘intelligence’ as a tool of sound political and/or military strategy and good governance.

In this context the dictionary defines intelligence as ‘the capacity to acquire and apply knowledge by means of thought and reason’.

The use of the term to mean superior understanding or ‘sagacity’ (wisdom) dates back to the early 15th century. Its use in the sense of ‘secret information from spies’ goes back to the 1580s.

But, as we wrote in this column before, spies often play ‘spooks’, which can interfere with, or detract from, proper intelligence work.

The ‘why’

And that brings us to the discovery of the probable reason why things went so horribly wrong for government and officialdom with the, for them, apparently unexpected explosion in student protests.

The answer seems to lie in the root of the word ‘intelligence’.

The word arrived in English during the late 14th century from the Old French intelligence, which in turn comes from the Latin word intelligentem, meaning in the main ‘understanding’ and ‘power of discerning’ or to ‘comprehend’. The Latin term, in turn, was coined from joining inter (as in ‘between’) and legere, meaning ‘choose, pick out or read’.

I leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions from this.

by Piet Coetzer

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Final Word

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