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Intelligence as the Philippines’ First Line of Defense

By Francis Domingo

A formidable defensive strategy is dependent on the understanding of an adversary’s intentions and capabilities. Inherently, a good strategy must then be based on solid intelligence. While military strategists have acknowledged the importance of intelligence, many doubt its quality and reliability considering the devastating intelligence failures in the 21st century. In the case of Philippines, intelligence is generally regarded an enabler of military operations. However, given the limited operational capacities of the military, improving intelligence capabilities should be the main focus of the Philippine Government. This article argues for the importance of prioritizing intelligence in defending the Philippines against adversaries.

Intelligence collection and analysis

Making intelligence the first line of defense requires a greater emphasis on foreign intelligence collection and analysis more than actual military  operations. The logic behind this strategy is that intelligence activities undertaken in foreign countries is the first line of defense because it will allow the government to adopt a pro-active and decisive posture in addressing national security threats before adversaries execute hostile actions. This strategy is easily discussed in theory but would be extremely difficult to execute for the Philippine intelligence community.

Enhancing foreign intelligence collection requires specific resources and capabilities to sustain extended operations abroad. There are different types of collection sources and methods, but not all of these methods are accessible to small states with limited resources. As a result, it would be more feasible for developing countries such as the Philippines to rely on human intelligence.

While is it standard procedure for states to deploy government personnel to collect intelligence, the Philippines can augment its intelligence capabilities by making use of its extensive human capital that is based abroad. This is not to imply that the millions of Filipinos abroad should be recruited and trained as spies, but rather to use their observations and insights to supplement the information collected by the government. This strategy is crucial especially in regions such as the Middle East and Africa where access to information is limited. Exploiting all sources of information will only improve intelligence.

Another option is to strengthen intelligence cooperation. The Philippines is a treaty ally of the United States and can therefore obtain information and support from the most capable intelligence community in the world, which would certainly be beneficial for defense purposes. The current Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement does not explicitly mention anything about intelligence, but it would be reasonable to assume that both governments have discussed the issue of intelligence cooperation given the overall objectives of the agreement.

Furthermore, intelligence analysis is absolutely essential if intelligence is to be the first line of defense. This process will not be possible without competent analytical minds that have the necessary knowledge and skills to undertake analysis. Aside from knowledge of different analytical techniques, studies have shown that analysts need to have outstanding cognitive abilities in the following areas: written expression, reading comprehension, inductive reasoning, deductive reasoning, pattern recognition, oral comprehension and information ordering.

Unfortunately, it is not clear that “intelligence analysts” are given the proper professional training and recognition in the Philippines, as most analysts tend to leave the government after just a few years of service. More importantly, intelligence analysts do not thrive in the Philippines because there are no specialized academic and professional training programs that are accessible to the public.

Intelligence and minimum credible defense

Using intelligence as a first line of defense compliments the current defense strategy of the government because the well-organized collection of reliable foreign intelligence can mitigate surprises, thus strengthening the defense posture at home.  The government needs to overcome several strategic challenges if intelligence is to become a main priority, such as the allocation of resources, improving intelligence transparency and introducing intelligence education in the country.

Given that the Filipino government’s focus is on improving capabilities of the military, most if not all available resources for national security has been allotted to infrastructure, hardware and operational expenses. In line with this it would also be reasonable to consider improving the capabilities of intelligence organizations, which would of course require more resources. For instance, based on the Department of Budget Management’s National Expenditure Program 2014, the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency’s approved budget is around PhP 591 million (USD 13 million), a substantial portion of which is dedicated to coordination and integration of intelligence activities that are presumably related to national security. If this budget includes foreign intelligence collection, would it be sufficient for extended intelligence collection in more states?

The general perception about intelligence organizations is that it operates in secret because it is mandated to collect information regarding internal and external security threats against the state. Unfortunately, intelligence organizations in the Philippines are generally criticized for their lack of transparency and accountability since the government does not consistently inform the public about the purpose and objectives of intelligence organizations. This problem can however be addressed if the Filipino government discloses basic information and explains the strategic value of intelligence organizations. A simple example of a public information tool is an intelligence primer that provides the public with a general understanding of how intelligence organizations can protect the population against national security threats. Emphasizing the importance of intelligence will help justify extended foreign intelligence activities and assure the public that the first line of defense is working outside the borders of the Philippines.

Another challenge to prioritizing intelligence in government is to introduce intelligence education to the public in order to develop more professional analysts. Intelligence Studies as an academic subject, encompasses a range of disciplines including social sciences, engineering, as well as business, computer and physical sciences, but certainly does not include operational or tradecraft skills (Rudner 2009). While some government officials question the necessity of studying intelligence in universities, enhancing public awareness is in the best interest of the government because, ultimately, intelligence organizations exist to protect the Filipino people.

Francis Domingo is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at De La Salle University in Manila and a doctoral candidate at the School of Politics and International Relations of the University of Nottingham.

Published inAsia and PacificConflict & SecurityInternational Relations

One Comment

  1. A. Mangahas A. Mangahas

    Thanks for this, Francis. We don’t get nearly as much discussion on Philippine intelligence as we ought, although this could be attributed to the agencies keeping a deliberately low profile. The AFP might be the exception; I been told they ‘leak’ military intelligence reports to the media when it suits them. In any case, some thoughts of my own:

    Because NICA coordinates by design, getting a full picture of our civilian intelligence budget and capabilities requires us to look into the individual agencies performing these tasks domestically: NBI, PNP, Customs, etc. I don’t believe any of them operate internationally, but this would be precisely why your suggested intelligence primer would be useful. It seems like it would be good project for someone to dig into the mandates of the individual agencies’ intel sections and their typical budget allocations.

    The best we have abroad are our foreign service representatives and professionals from other agencies seconded to the embassies – the defense and trade attachés – who have relationships with Filipinos and their counterpart in government. Even without espionage, our embassies (like all others) are already engaged in information-gathering activities that should feed into intelligence analysis. They’re worth nothing so that we can evaluate our standing capabilities (open-source and HUMINT) prior to thinking about what development and expansion would look like.

    When it comes to expansion, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on what sort of information worth targeting on our own. While information on unfolding events in the Middle East and North Africa should be supremely useful for the people planning evacuations, I don’t believe there are any adversarial governments there whose actions we need to think about pre-empting. With regard to China, the DFA must have access to satellite images for it to enjoy releasing pictures of land reclamation on the various rocks and shoals. Domestically, the US provides some tactical military intelligence, thanks to Mamasapano. There is definitely other Five Eyes activity in the Philippines – Aussie SIGINT revealed in the Snowden leaks and confirmed by arrests of radicalized Australian nationals. What do you feel might be the blind spots?

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