- Empires of Intelligence: Security Services and Colonial Disorder after 1914
Told from the vantage point of the colonial archive, Martin Thomas's Empires of Intelligence provides an in-depth comparative study of British and French information-gathering techniques and services developed and variously applied in the Middle East and North Africa as the sine qua non of imperial government during the interwar period; moreover, Thomas analyzes the reasons for the failure of intelligence to secure a stable social and political environment, or, alternatively, to prevent "disorder." The history of this instrumental form of colonial knowledge is framed within a notion of the "intelligence state." As the "first comparative study of colonial intelligence gathering in the early twentieth century" (1), according to Thomas, the book excavates an extensive documentary base and draws on an impressive array of secondary material to offer a layered view of how intelligence operated. However, the book also raises more questions than it is able to answer, which is a problem of theory and method rather than of the work's novelty.
On the one hand the work adumbrates the specificity of intelligence as a form of knowledge, while on the other hand it demonstrates the need to conceive it broadly when viewed in the context of empire. In the introduction, Thomas proposes a distinction between metropolitan and colonial information gathering processes, a theme he develops further in the following three chapters. "Colonial states were intelligence states insofar as the entire bureaucratic apparatus of imperial administration in Muslim territories contributed to state surveillance of the subject population" (14). The colonial difference here seems to rest on a positivist and liberal conception of state, wherein "intelligence and power were [not] one and the same" (2). Thomas's claim depends on the assumption that "consensual rule," the ostensible norm within the metropolitan context, was predicated on bases other than that of the evolving system of "state surveillance" over the course of the nineteenth century, which eventually became a tool for ensuring social stability through responsive government rather than through repression—the former being the domain of liberal politics. In the wake of decades now of studies on power inspired by Michel Foucault, this type of claim would appear rather naive. Indeed, the remainder of the text, through the telling details, which are its strength, belies the weakness of this framework for a comparative analysis of intelligence conceived as a particular technology of government that intertwined with other modern disciplinary and regulatory practices. That being said, while a Foucauldian framework might complicate the author's conception of power and its global distribution, the former, too, would need to be complicated in order to apprehend colonial difference.
In chapters 4–9, Thomas highlights instances of colonial rule in which that rule appeared tenuous or was indeed in danger of being undone. This choice is partially understandable given his framework of the intelligence state, although one might query even in this regard whether the frame would hold up against ordinary instances of colonial administration. But if we do not share the assumption that knowledge and power are categorically different, then the material he presents would require another analytic, to which the text itself points the way. An enormous range of colonial authorities' encounters with potential and actual threats is recounted and meticulously dissected in order to illuminate the specific interplays of intelligence-gathering techniques, indigenous and external actors, and the policy-making structure of imperial governments. Tracking existing and potential challenges to colonial rule from Morocco to Iraq, from city to desert, and within the metropole itself in the case of France and the Algerians, Thomas marshals a mountain of evidence that demonstrates the diversity of intelligence situations, actors, and even epistemologies (in the case of tribal law, for example) that characterized the history of British and French attempts to impose order on their "dependent subjects," or prevent their disorder. In short, the practices of imperial government were irreducible to any overarching theory of state that presupposed the workings of a sovereign subject [End...