The Difference Between Intelligence and Espionage

An out­side the box strate­gic dis­cus­sion by Ted S Galpin

The Dif­fer­ence Between Intel­li­gence and Espi­onage.

Is a mat­ter of life and death.

(2016 Bonus answer – because this article gets a ton of traffic – here’s the direct answer:

Intelligence is information gathering.

Espionage is illegal.  When you break the law to obtain information (secrets).

Or grey area illegal involving lying, cheating, stealing, misrepresenting.  Unethical or Immoral behaviour that risks lawsuits and making enemies is espionage or borderline espionage.  The Society for Competitive intelligence has guidelines and a code of conduct for this sort of thing.  People protect secrets for reasons.  Stealing secrets is espionage.

The classic SCIP example is if an anonymous source sends you an unmarked package full of your competitor’s secrets – it’s unethical espionage, and potentially illegal if you keep and use the package once you understand what it is – it makes you an accessory to espionage.   SCIP at least used to recommend you return the secrets to their owners, and act in a honest and trustworthy fashion.  Which is good advice in a context where you can’t kill your enemies, also know as the civilized world.

A kid that steals their older sister’s diary is a simple example of basic espionage, because if trivial, it is an act of stealing protected secrets and their are consequences if you get caught.  The remaining old article illustrates the real world consequences of intelligence and espionage.)

I actu­ally had some fun stuff planned for this week’s arti­cle, but catch­ing up on the news changed my mind. As a cute com­edy song pointed out in 2004, Amer­ica is so spoiled now that obe­sity is an epidemic.

Really? Just think about that. We have it so good that one of our most dif­fi­cult chal­lenges as a soci­ety is eat­ing too much.

About 1.7 Bil­lion peo­ple live in Poverty. That basi­cally means about a third of the earth isn’t sure where their next meal is com­ing from. And Amer­i­cans are dying from overeating.

So what does that have to do with intel­li­gence and espionage?

Well, con­sider Amer­i­can are so spoiled we are dying from overeating. How else are we spoiled? One could say most Amer­i­cans view the world through Dis­ney col­ored glasses; War is an abstract idea we see in movies; crime is rare and the police han­dle it. Eat­ing, heat, and elec­tric­ity are a cer­tainty, even air con­di­tion­ing and inter­net access are a cer­tainty these days. The worst thing most peo­ple can imag­ine is los­ing their job.

The rest of the world isn’t so for­tu­nate. War, Plague, Famine, and Death are com­mon. Life is cheap, guns cost less than food. Chil­dren fight wars started by par­ents that died before they could know them.

I’ll spare the sta­tis­tics and num­bers because this is depress­ing enough already. The point is peo­ple need to remem­ber how dan­ger­ous a place the world is when they start inter­act­ing with it, or their mis­takes will get some­body killed.

And I don’t know about you, but I don’t like hav­ing a death on my con­science. Not if I could have eas­ily pre­vented it, or worse yet contributed to it.

Recent Events
The Rea­son Why
Wit­ness Pro­tec­tion
Did it make a dif­fer­ence?
Walk­ing The Line
Cross­ing The Line
Who Pays the Price?
The Ethics and Morals of Infor­ma­tion


Intel­li­gence is about gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion and ana­lyz­ing it so you can make informed deci­sions to accom­plish your goals. Sounds sim­ple eh? The trick is some prob­lems are com­pli­cated, and some infor­ma­tion is hard to find or under­stand. That is why we have busi­ness intel­li­gence, com­pet­i­tive intel­li­gence, defense intel­li­gence, national intel­li­gence, etc. Peo­ple fig­ured out that news and opin­ions make great enter­tain­ment, but you need intel­li­gence analy­sis to really make a good deci­sion and antic­i­pate the con­se­quences of your actions.

Espi­onage is about dan­ger­ous intel­li­gence; i.e. secrets. These are things that peo­ple are will­ing to fight to pro­tect and protected by laws. Most busi­ness secrets really aren’t that big a deal, and domes­tic indus­trial espi­onage is a hard to quan­tify activ­ity often result­ing in legal action and peo­ple los­ing jobs.

You get out into the world; espi­onage is con­sid­ered a mat­ter of national secu­rity, is often a mil­i­tary mat­ter, and peo­ple kill to pro­tect their secrets. Often because those secrets keep them alive. Osama bin Laden doesn’t want his loca­tion to be known, because if it is, a bomb will land on it. That’s a sim­ple exam­ple of the infor­ma­tion peo­ple are will­ing to kill or die for.

Obvi­ously most Amer­i­cans don’t do those sort of things or think in those terms. If they do, they often wind up in jail or worse.

The last tech­ni­cal term is “redac­tion;” basi­cally a fancy word for cen­sor­ship of secrets. That old TV show where “names are changed to pro­tect the inno­cent” is a great exam­ple of redaction.

Recent Events

So what started all this?

Wik­ileaks is an inter­na­tional orga­ni­za­tion based in Swe­den that calls itself ” a multi-jurisdictional pub­lic ser­vice designed to pro­tect whistle­blow­ers, jour­nal­ists and activists who have sen­si­tive mate­ri­als to com­mu­ni­cate to the public.”

Ear­lier this week Wik­ileaks released 90,000 secret US mil­i­tary Afghan war intel­li­gence doc­u­ments it obtained to news sources, and made about 75,000 pub­licly avail­able online. To their credit Wik­ileaks did make an effort to try and redact the doc­u­ments to reduce any neg­a­tive impact. The media reac­tion has been sig­nif­i­cant, talk­ing through the details and reaction.

The Rea­son Why

Wik­ileaks, much like the mod­ern media and jour­nal­ists is all about free­dom of infor­ma­tion, trans­parency in gov­ern­ment, and fight­ing cor­rup­tion; all while pro­tect­ing the sources that pro­vide them with information.

So basi­cally they don’t like secrets, and hon­estly do pro­vide an impor­tant gov­er­nance func­tion to help keep the pow­ers that be a lit­tle more honest.

But the ques­tion is did they accom­plish that this time?

Did it make a dif­fer­ence?

Well, accord­ing to both the Wash­ing­ton post and for­mer CIA Direc­tor Michael V. Hay­den, no. All the media out­lets are report­ing that the wik­ileaks infor­ma­tion only con­firms what we already know:

– War is worse when described by peo­ple on the ground than by politi­cians.
– There are civil­ian casu­al­ties in war.
– Pak­istani Intel­li­gence is hard to work with.
– The Tal­iban are get­ting stronger.
– The Amer­i­can backed Afghan gov­ern­ment has prob­lems with corruption.

All things we’ve known for a long time, and most of them men­tioned in my pre­vi­ous arti­cle on Afghanistan.

Despite their mis­sion state­ment; Wik­ileaks didn’t give us any­thing new to work with. The “whistleblowers” are being inves­ti­gated by the mil­i­tary. All they pro­vided were some his­tor­i­cal records that don’t change the Amer­i­can Pol­i­tics at all, but will prob­a­bly get the peo­ple Wik­ileaks is try­ing to pro­tect arrested. Not exactly good for the rep­u­ta­tion is it?

Wit­ness Protection

Here’s the whole point of what I’m writ­ing. The dif­fer­ence between intel­li­gence and espi­onage is wit­ness pro­tec­tion. When peo­ple are will­ing to kill to pro­tect their secrets, what do they do to the peo­ple that tell you the secrets?

When you use a per­son as a pri­mary intel­li­gence asset — that is you ask them to spy and con­duct espi­onage on your behalf; there’s usu­ally an implicit social con­tract that you will not endan­ger the life of your source or their fam­ily; oth­er­wise why would they risk them­selves to share the infor­ma­tion with you?

In Afghanistan and Pak­istan, the US Mil­i­tary has eas­ily thou­sands of civil­ian intel­li­gence con­tacts hid­ing in plain sight, covertly pro­vid­ing us with infor­ma­tion on the Tal­iban and Al-Qaeda. Most are likely civil­ians who live in areas fre­quented by our ene­mies, or who con­duct busi­ness with our enemies.

Wik­ileaks redacted the names. But report­edly the dates and places and details are there, free for down­load on the Wik­ileaks web site. You want to know how the US learned about the meet­ing where your brother got killed in Kan­da­har? Now you can read the Pen­ta­gon file on it. It’s like try­ing to remem­ber the name of the guy who puked in your sink at that party in col­lege. If you were there and you know all the peo­ple involved, it’s not to hard to con­nect the dots and start fig­ur­ing out the names of who’s talk­ing to the Americans.

Wik­ileaks just compromised the lives every con­tact we have in the region, and the lives

Walk­ing The Line

The Hacker com­mu­nity is the orig­i­nal “Set the infor­ma­tion free” cul­ture. In the same week as this Wik­ileaks con­tro­versy is going on, Adrian Lamo, a well known hacker, had a sim­i­lar oppor­tu­nity this week, and han­dled it very dif­fer­ently. He took the hard drive filled with 90,000 secret doc­u­ments pro­vided by an Army intel­li­gence ana­lyst, and returned it to the mil­i­tary. He said “I went to the right author­i­ties, because it seemed incom­pre­hen­si­ble that some­one could leak that mas­sive amount of data and not have it endan­ger human life,” as quoted by

But the hacker under­stood the con­se­quences of publicly releas­ing that infor­ma­tion — peo­ple would prob­a­bly die.

He under­stood the dif­fer­ence between intel­li­gence and espionage.

Cross­ing The Line

Funny that the hacker with a crim­i­nal record was wor­ried about the wit­ness pro­tec­tion issue. And Wik­ileaks only did enough to pro­tect the iden­ti­ties of Amer­i­can soldiers.

And what did they get out of it? There has been no change in our view of Afghanistan or Amer­i­can pol­i­tics due to the leak. All they did was get credit for the largest leak of mil­i­tary secrets ever, and consequently endan­gered the lives of thou­sands of Afghan and Pak­istani con­tacts and their families.

Who Pays the Price?

In an arti­cle on for­mer 4 star gen­eral and CIA Direc­tor Michael V. Hay­den called wikileak’s release both stu­pid, and a tragedy.

Most of the sources men­tioned in the 75,000 released doc­u­ments now have to won­der, how good are their ene­mies at con­nect­ing the dots? How do they pro­tect them­selves and their families?

The Amer­i­can mil­i­tary and intel­li­gence com­mu­nity has lost it rep­u­ta­tion for pro­tect­ing it’s part­ners in the region. Remem­ber the next time you work with the US gov­ern­ment, your inter­ac­tion will be doc­u­mented, and who will be look­ing for pay back when your deeds come to light?

So the US will prob­a­bly lose most of it’s spies in the region, and has lost cred­i­bil­ity for recruit­ing new ones. Doesn’t exactly help us fight terrorism.

The Ethics and Morals of Infor­ma­tion

Iron­i­cally this is prob­a­bly some­thing best under­stood by hack­ers and intel­li­gence pro­fes­sion­als. The Strate­gic and Com­pet­i­tive Intel­li­gence Pro­fes­sion­als even have a care­ful Code of Ethics that addresses the con­se­quences of controlling information.

Any­body who trades in infor­ma­tion, be they a jour­nal­ist, an intel­li­gence pro­fes­sional, or an ide­al­ist like wik­ileaks really needs to under­stand the respon­si­bil­i­ties and con­se­quences of that trade. And part of that is decid­ing how and when to respon­si­bly report the infor­ma­tion you have with­out jeop­ar­diz­ing the lives of inno­cent people.

I would argue that “The peo­ple have a right to know,” does not take pri­or­ity over the oblig­a­tion to do no harm. We might all ben­e­fit from jour­nal­ists and groups like wik­ileaks devel­op­ing an eth­i­cal stan­dard like the hip­po­cratic oath.

But real point is, if you traf­fic in infor­ma­tion — in intel­li­gence, journalism, or oth­er­wise you need to under­stand the dif­fer­ence between intel­li­gence and espi­onage, or you will get peo­ple killed.


If I were a Tal­iban or Al-Qaeda strate­gist — I now have 75,000 clas­si­fied US Mil­i­tary reports that tell me what my ene­mies know and don’t know. What they are good at and what they are not good at. And best of all, it gives me more than enough infor­ma­tion to purge (kill) every source of pri­mary intel­li­gence the Amer­i­cans have in Afghanistan, Pak­istan, and prob­a­bly the sur­round­ing parts of cen­tral asia.

The Wik­ileaks down­load is actu­ally an amaz­ing resource for mak­ing a strate­gic assess­ment of the US Mil­i­tary in Afghanistan.

The Amer­i­can mil­i­tary now enjoys a rep­u­ta­tion as not being able to pro­tect it’s allies.

And Wik­ileaks has proven at least in this case, that to take credit for a good scoop, they will release infor­ma­tion that does no good whatsoever, but does plenty of poten­tial harm.

Wikileaks has proven they don’t care if their leaks get people killed.

Makes you won­der, are they stu­pid or just self­ish? Does it make a difference?

The only thing I can say — is with “friends” like these, who needs enemies?

The take away here is in intel­li­gence, the dan­ger is your typ­i­cal busi­ness risk. But espi­onage con­no­tates laws being bro­ken, and life threat­en­ing dan­ger. Those who work in espi­onage often risk not only their lives, but for the com­pro­mised con­tacts in Afghanistan, likely their inno­cent fam­i­lies are in dan­ger as well.

The dif­fer­ence between intel­li­gence and espi­onage is sim­ply the level of risk you take to get the information you want.  You chase secrets and start breaking laws, you crossed the line.

And the corollary to that is likely the higher the risk, the greater the poten­tial to inflict harm.

And infor­ma­tion pro­fes­sion­als have a moral and eth­i­cal oblig­a­tion to not com­pro­mise the safety of inno­cent peo­ple. That’s a mes­sage Wik­ileaks needs to hear.

And to the point, Wik­ileaks needs to take off their Dis­ney col­ored glasses, rec­og­nize how dan­ger­ous the world is and learn the dif­fer­ence between intel­li­gence and espi­onage, so maybe they will think twice before they endan­ger thou­sands of lives by releas­ing sen­si­tive infor­ma­tion that has no pro­duc­tive effect on the world.

Thanks for reading,

Your hum­ble strategist,

Ted S Galpin

5 responses to “The Difference Between Intelligence and Espionage”

  1. AG Hussaini

    The above theory of intelligence, and difference between espionage from the former is interesting, I need more of that to be a very good security officer and consultant please.

  2. Ed Ward

    Sorry this post comes six years late. I have just discovered it. If you are interested, I have a few comments about your comments about the difference between intelligence and espionage. I shall paraphrase your words in an attempt to help clarify the definitions.

    You wrote: Intel­li­gence is about gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion and ana­lyz­ing it so you can make informed deci­sions to accom­plish your goals.

    I write: Intelligence is the knowledge gained from gathering information and ana­lyz­ing it so you can make informed deci­sions to accom­plish your goals.

    You wrote: Espi­onage is about dan­ger­ous intel­li­gence; i.e. secrets.

    I write: Espionage is the process of gathering intelligence. Of course, it is done in a secretive way.

    The reason people are willing to fight to protect espionage is because this is the source of the intelligence — the people, systems, etc. that gather it. It is much more valuable than the intelligence itself.

    To simplify: Intelligence is the data or knowledge that is gained and espionage is the process used to gather the intelligence.

    I agree that espi­onage is a mat­ter of national secu­rity and is often a mil­i­tary mat­ter. I prefer to consider espionage as a matter of military and the civilian government. The are many of what I call overt covert organizations: such as, NSA, CIA, FBI, etc. There are also many of what I call cover covert organizations that are not common to the citizenry.

    Example 1: Osama doesn’t want his loca­tion to be known, because if it is, a bomb will land on it. If I was an enemy of Osama and wanted to drop a bomb on him, I would need some intelligence identifying his location. In order to do this, I would need to do some espionage; such as, interviewing local citizens, analyzing satellite images, monitoring radio communications, etc. Once the information had been collected, processed, and analyzed, I would need to determine the probability of a kill (and the cost of doing such) if I were to drop a bomb.

    Example 2: During WWII the Germans would send coded military messages. The Allies wanted to cipher the messages to aid in their war effort. The process of espionage included obtaining an Enigma machine, intercepting communication messages, sharing knowledge between allies, etc. The intelligence then became taking the intercepted messages and decoding them. The ciphered messages were the intelligence gained.

    I hope this is useful and does not add confusion.


    1. Ed,

      Awesome point. The trick is there are many kinds of professional intelligence gathering done in the civilian sphere, especially competitive intelligence as performed in the business and non profit spheres. Even here the difference between intelligence and espionage is important and touched on by organizations such as the Society for Competitive Intelligence Professionals…

      They engage in ethical and legal intelligence gathering. Espionage is illegal intelligence gathering, that breaks the laws of a government. Which is why many oppressive governments with arrest journalists for espionage. Because many journalists engage in what is essentially commercial intelligence gathering.

      Intelligence is the analyzed information packaged for decision making support. Espionage is illegal intelligence gathering.

      Your comment focuses on the military and geopolitical sphere of intelligence.

      I agree given the hits I’m getting on this article, it needs an update

  3. Everything is very open with a clear clarification of the issues.
    It was really informative. Your site is useful.
    Many thanks for sharing!

  4. Kingdom

    While I agree that Intelligence is a matter of national security, I also believe that espionage is important in strenghtening national security defence system against any possible terrorist threat or attack. For eexample, a secret information gathering on the activities of Boko Haram group in Nigeria will provide the military insights and real-time intelligence to counter terrorist attack or lay ambush that prevent planned terrorist strike. Such could said to be Espionage .Nations uses professional Spies to obtain sensitivity and valuable information from the enemy within the limit of law. Here I mean state-sponsored espionage such like ethical spying for military advantage.

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