GIG HARBOR, WASH. — Time was, if you wished to taste the world of spies, you picked up a well-written spy novel. Nowadays, intelligence assessments - the fruit of real-world spy work - are daily fare for us all. Unlike a novel, we can't put these problems away to read later. They touch our own safety. The government announces "specific and credible" clues of a possible terrorist attack. We must decide. Do we go to that meeting downtown? Do we take the subway? Or do we stay home with plastic taped over the windows? When can we relax?
Interpreting 'intel' is a new part of basic citizenship. We are shown photos of a chemical compound in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Do we agree these prove he is sufficiently dangerous to make the invasion an act of urgent self-defense on our part? On the other hand, do we concur that satellite pictures of a nuclear compound in North Korea mean that diplomacy is the safer tactic in that crisis when intel says these folks can hit us on the West Coast with a rocket? And here comes a recording of Osama bin Laden, calling once again for our destruction. The intelligence gurus say it is the real Osama. Why would such a tape turn up just at this moment? Is he - or someone - trying to mess with our minds?
Being able to weigh an intelligence report is becoming as vital a skill as driving a car. The object is the same: staying in one piece in a dangerous world. Easier said than done. The snippets being fed to us make us feel dumb, and distrustful.
Our intelligence system is designed to parcel out secrets to senior officials, not shovel unclassified information to citizens.
Intelligence has as much to do with the user as it does the target. To deliver meaningful, credible judgments, an analyst must know the decisionmaking needs of the user as intimately as she or he understands the target. The corps of professionals spread across intelligence agencies specializes in making raw facts meaningful for a particular group of client officials. Military intelligence feeds generals, various political intelligence units feed policy officials, and so on. Even the gathering of information - the "dots" collected by satellites and spies and computers - is shaped by the customer's needs.
At present, no group specializes in serving the public. Intelligence serves national security, not personal security. Sept. 11 changed that - we're all on the front lines now. For us citizen-clients, learning that we'll need to pay for a better fighter plane in the next decade is less urgent than knowing if it's safe to hold the family reunion next Sunday. A photo of an Iraqi missile launcher may help a pilot drop a bomb; it doesn't help us decide if we want our troops committed to years of rebuilding in Iraq.
Of course, the top officials being served by the intelligence community are talking to us. But as we've learned in the long run-up to the war in Iraq, speeches by the secretaries of state and defense, the national security adviser, and the president often seem intended more to persuade than inform. Enter distrust when some detail or other turns out - as intelligence data often do - to be ambiguous or dated or inaccurate.
Another complication: manipulation. This is the age of (distorted) information. People take on different personalities in e-mails, politicians "spin," governments deliberately mislead with official - but often covert - propaganda campaigns. Those threatening us are also expert in these arts. We could use some help navigating in this thick info smog.
Could our secret intelligence system deliver commonsense intelligence to the public? Yes. Notwithstanding all the finger-pointing about who didn't connect which dots before Sept. 11, we can count on the professionals at the center of the intelligence processes. It has been my experience that the dedicated analysts who pull "all source" data together and translate it into finished intel do their level best to deliver balanced estimates. We need a way for those professionals to connect to us, their public clients, without blowing the cover on the highly classified and expensive collection processes at work in the background.
In recent years, the intelligence community has put emphasis on expanding its reach among officials. To protect this flood of high-quality, highly classified material, offices all over government have been turned into SCIFs (Special Compartmented Intelligence Facilities). It's now time for a SPIF, a Special Public Intelligence Facility, to package intelligence directly and independently for the public.
To help us understand local conditions, weather professionals show us storm patterns sweeping the nation. Similarly, we need plain-talking terrorist "weather" reports. We may not like the forecast any more than we welcome the next tornado, but regular updates on the big picture, on what is happening where - incidents, arrests, threats - will allow us to apply some of that good old American common sense. We can handle the facts - and gaps in the facts. What we can't handle is dribs and drabs that add only anxiety.
The problem is not going to go away. Suicidal terrorists, long-range missiles, man-made diseases, and other problems will threaten us for as far into the future as we can see. We are all intelligence officers now.
• Larry Seaquist, a former US Navy warship captain and Pentagon strategist, is the chairman of The Strategy Group, an independent, international conflict-prevention and peacebuilding organization.