What ‘Game of Thrones’ Teaches Us About Intelligence

By Zachery Tyson Brown

April 13, 2019

When I began writing about Game of Thrones, my colleagues’ thoughts leapt to the spymaster Lord Varys, or the schemer Littlefinger, who is what we might today call an operations planner. Both are masters of intrigue. But the spy’s reports and the schemer’s plots are not, by themselves, intelligence.

No, the purpose of intelligence is to inform better decisions. The role of the intelligence officer is to facilitate the decision-maker’s understanding, to cohere the incoherent. In Game of Thrones, this function is fulfilled by the order of maesters, those guys who wear the chains around their necks and advise the scheming lords and ladies of Westeros. Their chain symbolizes their service to the realm itself—a refreshingly modern concept—over any individual lord, literally binding them to the idea of service to country over politics. 

Take Maester Luwin of Winterfell, most trusted advisor to the ruling Stark family, who watches the usurper Theon Greyjoy murder the remaining Stark children and steal their ancestral home. “I will not claim to bear you any great love,” Luwin tells Greyjoy, “but I cannot hate you either. Even if I did, so long as you hold Winterfell, I am bound by oath to give you counsel.” Luwin literally raised the children he witnessed Theon kill, yet hewed to his duty to provide sound counsel. 

Like the U.S. intelligence community, the maesters’ reputation is bound to their apolitical reputation. They revoke all ties and swear to hold no lands and father no children, removing them from the eponymous game of thrones. Another example is Maester Aemon of Castle Black, the elderly, blind advisor to the Night’s Watch. Aemon—surname Targaryen—surrendered the Iron Throne to serve the realm instead at its most vulnerable northern border. 

Known as the “knights of the mind,” the maesters are probably the closest thing in the Seven Kingdoms to scientists. Like the best intelligence officers, they are cross-disciplinary. While many choose to specialize in certain areas of study over the course of a lifetime, in general, they retain a holistic approach to knowledge. Each subject they master becomes a new link in the chains they wear, with different metals to symbolize each specialty—gold for economics, for example, or iron for warcraft.

In this regard, the maesters are close to Sherman Kent’s ideal model of an intelligence profession composed of elite scholars who police their own ranks and do not allow base political opinions to cloud their judgments. 

Of course, like America’s IC, the order has problems—some of which are very similar to our own. Despite the maesters’ aspiration to independence, there are politics involved in their structure and appointment. The order’s leaders choose to dispatch members to castles across the Seven Kingdoms to advise those holdings’ rulers. If a castle doesn’t have a maester dedicated to it, it’s not considered significant enough to merit one. Very similar politics have surrounded distribution of the President’s Daily Brief over the years. 

Being a human institution, not all of the maesters are as inspiring as Aemon or Luwin. One subplot follows the sinister royal security advisor Qyburn, a former maester stripped of his title for his unethical behavior. Qyburn charms his way into the Queen’s graces, attempting to supplant the maesters’ authority by sycophantically supporting her aims. There’s an ethical allegory there about the risks of politicizing intelligence and using one’s position to seek retribution on political opponents. 

The Citadel—the maesters’ headquarters—is inspired by the Great Library of Alexandria, the ancient world’s repository of knowledge. It contains the enormous astrolabe from the series’ opening credits (which is about the most meta thing ever). It also houses a massive raven rookery from which all those birds carrying messages come and go, a sort of Westerosi parallel to the National Security Agency’s massive data centers. 

Anyway, the Citadel is quite literally an ivory tower; a not-so-thinly-veiled criticism of the sort of elitism the maester order represents. By the time of the events depicted in the series, their reputation was in decline. Many judged them to be detached from the troubles that plagued everyday people, their experts mired in endless debates over minutiae like so many subject-matter experts drafting a National Intelligence Estimate

This attitude recalls the darker periods in the IC’s history — the late 1970s, for instance, when a senior analyst at Langley declared with disinterest, “It does not matter whether CIA papers are read downtown; this is what we believe.” Of that period, former Director of Central Intelligence and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote, “CIA knew how foreign policy was made in every country except one—our own.”

In Game of Thrones, this sort of self-referential irrelevance is incarnated in Grand Maester Pycelle. A rough parallel to our Director of National Intelligence, the Grand Maesters serve as the senior advisor to the executive on intelligence; they sit on Westeros’ equivalent of the National Security Council’s Principals Committee. In practice, they hold little actual authority and can be pretty easily ignored by a willful ruler. Pycelle is worse because he is not only irrelevant, but corrupt, craven, and conspiratorial, to boot. Nonetheless, he believes his counsel to be the most important in the kingdom, and himself to be the smartest person in any room.

Eventually, Samwell Tarly, putative maester of the Night’s Watch (and arguably the true protagonist of the entire series), arrives at the Citadel to learn the ways of the maesters to help win the war against the White Walkers, an imminent and existential threat to the realm. Sam, the virtuous outsider, is more concerned with practicality than process, and quickly grows frustrated with the maesters’…let’s call them “on-boarding techniques”: learning by rote, menial labor, humiliating cleaning duties.

He is even more frustrated by their endless deliberations over the meaning of first-hand field reports. He takes it upon himself to acquire the information he needs — which, as so often happens in our own intelligence enterprise, is locked away in a literal compartment that he cannot open. Sam basically steals classified information and keeps it at home—not a method we want to encourage. But his frustration with the order’s archaic knowledge-management system is perhaps understandable. 

Obviously, there are many differences between the maesters and the IC. American intelligence officers don’t have to be shackled or celibate. They are bound by oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution and seek to always put service to country over political preference. They must abide by applicable laws and protect the nation’s secrets that they’re entrusted to know. But they should also be empowered to use their judgment to share those secrets with others who need to know them to accomplish their own missions and advance the nation’s goals. They shouldn’t have to skirt procedures or develop workarounds to cumbersome and often outdated procedures. 

IC officers should possess an insatiable intellectual curiosity and forever remain unsatisfied with narrow expertise. If the job is to make sense of an increasingly complex world, we can’t do it by only knowing one issue or region. Instead, we must be comfortable with uncertainty, adroit enough to move within several domains at once, producing consilience for our clients. 

Lastly, outcomes must, in the end, outweigh output. In other words, it doesn’t matter how many reports we write in the ivory tower if we don’t climb down once in a while to meet the users of intelligence where they are, in the trenches of competition and conflict. Intelligence is instrumental; it has no autarkic significance at all. Unlike academe, we in the IC do not pursue knowledge for its own sake, but to provide an advantage to our decision-makers. 

Zachery Tyson Brown is an intelligence officer and U.S. Army veteran who consults for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild and his writing has appeared in The Strategy Bridge, War on the Rocks, and West Point’s Modern Warfare Institute. He can be found on Twitter @ZaknafienDC


By Zachery Tyson Brown // Zachery Tyson Brown is an intelligence officer and U.S. Army veteran who consults for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild and his writing has appeared in The Strategy Bridge, War on the Rocks, and West Point’s Modern Warfare Institute.

April 13, 2019

https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2019/04/what-game-thrones-teaches-us-about-intelligence/156283/