Interview with editors of H-INTEL, a new intelligence email list (Part I)

H-INTEL list-serv logoBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
In late June of this year, Dr. Mark Stout, of Johns Hopkins University and the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, announced the creation of H-INTEL, a new scholarly discussion list. H-INTEL is an ambitious project that aims to provide an online venue for the scholarly discussion of intelligence. In doing so, it brings together academics, researchers, journalists, practitioners, and others with an active interest in intelligence studies and intelligence history, ranging from the ancient times to today. The list, whose message logs are located on Michigan State University’s H-Net server in East Lansing, has already over 200 members from several countries —and it is actively seeking more. In an effort to spread the world about this worthwhile effort, intelNews spoke with two individuals spearheading this project: Advisory Board member and List Editor Mark Stout; and List Editor Damien Van Puyvelde, a PhD candidate and member of the Centre for Intelligence and International Security Studies at Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom. Below is our interview with Mark. To read Damien’s interview, click here for Part II of this post.

intelNews: Would you share some identifying information about your own scholarly trajectory, your academic interests in the field of intelligence, as well as your current teaching and/or research activities?

Mark Stout: Well, I spent 21 years in the national security community here in the United States, something over half of that in the Intelligence Community in a variety of analytic positions. I’d always been interested in military history and military thought, but in 1997 I was asked to draft a short in-house history of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the US Department of State and that really spurred my interest in intelligence history, as well. To my mind, military history and intelligence history both deal with competition and conflict, so it seemed a natural extension of my previous interests. Then in 2010 I completed what one might call a mid-career PhD in history. I’d already started teaching on an adjunct basis at Johns Hopkins University and now I continue to teach there on a more regular basis –primarily courses in the intelligence studies realm– and I also work as the Historian at the International Spy Museum. My main research interests focus on the United States. They include intelligence during World War I –the subject of my dissertation, which I am presently revising for publication, I hope– and the early Cold War, though I’ve done a good bit of work on American intelligence assessments of the al-Qaeda threat, as well.

iN: When and how did the decision to launch H-INTEL come about? Whose idea was it initially, and what was it that provided the impetus for this new endeavor?

MS: The idea was originally mine, though let me add that I’ve had wonderful partners who immediately saw merit in the idea and have rushed to help. It just seemed to me that there were very vibrant, active, and productive list-servs on diplomatic history (H-DIPLO) and military history (H-WAR) that were important venues and in which the level of discussion was very high and why should there not be a similar list-serv devoted to intelligence? There are often threads in the other lists about intelligence, and intelligence studies and intelligence history are in a golden age right now. It seemed obvious to me and I couldn’t understand why it hadn’t already been done.

iN: How critical do you think that the role of a list such as H-INTEL can be for the overall development of intelligence scholarship in our time?

MS: I think it can be extremely helpful as a venue for sharing ideas and fostering collaboration, including international collaboration. I think it can also be useful as a venue for allowing people to think comparatively about intelligence. I’d add that in my opinion H-INTEL is especially needed because there is no single conference in the US (or, as far as I’m aware, elsewhere) that is the go-to conference for intelligence history. There should be, and maybe H-INTEL will help change that, but in the meantime I’m hoping that H-INTEL can serve some of the less formal purposes of a big conference.

iN: Do you think that, because of its subject, the field of intelligence studies poses endemic threats to scholarly analysis? To what extent can such threats be realistically contained in the online environment?

MS: Certainly many scholars, for instance Richard Aldrich, have warned us that we should not understand archives as analogues of reality. And certainly intelligence officers shade the truth and remember selectively and so forth in memoirs and interviews. It can be argued –though I don’t think that it’s self-evident– that these problems are worse with intelligence services than with other government agencies. None of this makes the lives of historians any easier, of course. On the other hand, handling such problems is precisely what historians do. At most this is a problem of degree, not kind, for intelligence history (I might add, by the way, that intelligence analysts are trained to handle precisely analogous problems). In the online environment, it seems to me, that the real danger is not with sources but with discussion. I refer to the ever-present danger that conspiracy theorism will rear its ugly head and drive away worthwhile discussion. To be frank, we’ve adopted pretty stringent editorial standards and we will politely but firmly invite those who want to argue that the Central Intelligence Agency is on the grassy knoll selling cocaine to the Bilderberg group to take their discussion elsewhere.

iN: What has been the reaction to the establishment of H-INTEL? Has it met your personal expectations thus far?

MS: We have well over 200 members and we are growing fast, so I feel very good about that. We have many scholars from all over the world: the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Spain, Greece, Israel, Brazil, Chile, Singapore, and Taiwan, just to name the ones that immediately come to my mind. These range from some of the very top names in the field to people just entering the field. We also have several official historians from US government agencies. In addition, we have a number of very well respected journalists, and quite a number of former practitioners, including a former chief of the CIA’s Clandestine Service and a former Director of Britain’s General Communications Headquarters. Now, I think the list is still feeling its way and I’d like to see more discussion there, but I have no doubt that that will come in time. One thing I would like to see us do, that will certainly help that, is to start publishing book reviews. We were concentrating initially on just getting the list up and running.

iN: In your official announcement of H-INTEL, you placed emphasis on encouraging “membership participation from around the world”. Considering that professional intelligence work tends to reflect strictly national interests, how important is international cooperation for intelligence scholarship? Is there such a thing as a “common agenda” among intelligence scholars in the international academic arena?

MS: I’m not sure that I agree with your premise that intelligence work “tends to reflect strictly national interests”. Intelligence liaison, as it’s called in the United States, is an indispensible part of the intelligence business and reflects the fact that many intelligence services have overlapping interests. Beyond that, I think that when we are looking historically at intelligence services that have been adversaries, there can be a great deal of room for collaboration among historians today. The obvious example that springs to mind is in understanding the intelligence aspects of the Cold War. There have been extensive declassifications in Eastern Europe and in the United States and some Western European countries. There have been significant involuntary releases of information from the Soviet Union. There is great potential for international collaboration. I’d also add that, with Iraqi intelligence records from the Saddam era starting to become available at the National Defense University’s Conflict Records Research Center, there is another opportunity for collaborative work to see what was going on on “both sides of the hill”.

Note: IntelNews readers can join H-INTEL by going to the list-serv’s homepage and clicking “Subscribe” on the left-side menu.

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Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

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