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08 February 2006

Beware false prophets

As the years pass and the darkest programs begin to fade into the gray as the leaks accumulate, drip after drip until they are a flowing river that consumes the very foundations of secrecy, there of course step forward a number of persons seeking to put forth the tradecraft and the stories of their personal struggles within the vast and labyrinthine reaches of even the most obscure of intelligence specialties. A good number of these are not ill-motivated, seeking to pass on the lessons they learned through sweat, toil and sometimes blood. Some are merely following the great American tradition of telling their stories because the story is the only thing left to them, after retirement or time has worn away the rest. In most cases, these accounts are vetted and truly do no harm – sometimes even motivating those of the next generation to step forward into what is normally an elusively defined and poorly recruited career field or passing along a unique perspective of a struggle that can be applied to its latter-day counterpart problems.

There are those who seek to encapsulate professional technique and conceptual advances within the pages of a bluntly titled volume, or stand forth to lecture in the halls of academe for the advancement of their craft. In some ways, even this work before the reader now can be placed into this category. But these efforts all recognize that they have stood upon the shoulders of others- if not giants, then very tall mortals indeed, and that while they may present a few new perspectives and insights, the majority of genius in the field has long ago been spoken for.

Then there are those to whom the doing is past but not the passion, and so they have turned to the teaching of those that will do in the future. These are often the most cynical, but in many ways among the most valuable. They face year after year of eager young faces that keep getting younger. They watch old issues fade and arise anew in guises not so different from the accounts they faced, and they watch the same mistakes and organizational failures consume so many. But they keep on still, and while in the end they may fade into the background their legacy lives on in the careers of those they helped to take up arms, conceptual or otherwise, against the vast and heaving sea of the countless troubles.

All of the aforementioned efforts have their purposes, many of them useful and some critically irreplaceable if the profession of intelligence is to continue. But there is the flip-side to these effort, the dark side of ego and insecurity and compensatory fantasy.

I speak of the Walter Mittys, the untalented and inexperienced that nonetheless steal the cloak of those that have been there and back again. These individuals are at best talking heads, parroting the pretenses and mouthing the formula while never understanding its true form. They shield themselves in the mystique and use it to create an image of themselves that never was. Whether it is by stealing valor – the false pretense of a veteran’s status, or by stealing thoughts – plagiarism and outright lies, these wannabes and never-could-have-beens dishonor the profession.

But yet they are proliferating. They emerge from nowhere and fade back to nothing when challenged, yet pop up again in the most unlikely of places. One cannot say decisively whether it is because of the new openness of community regarding much of its past, the new eagerness of so many in the private sector and government agencies outside of the traditional boundaries of the community, or because of the profitability of contracting in its many and varied forms. What is discernable is the increase immediately after crisis, when buzzwords are most wholeheartedly adopted and shingles hung in professional areas previously occupied by too few people to even establish a proper interoffice betting pool. Afghanistan is but one example, as are the accounts dealing with non-proliferation and consequence management issues. One can list the favored accounts of the hour, or more specifically the contract award cycle, but they are infinitely mutable and quickly forgotten as soon as the next new thing emerges.

These instant experts that emerge upon the scene babbling platitudes copied from the latest 24-hour newscast commentators and print pundits by the very fact of their existence demean the profession. But indignities we have all learned to live with, especially those who have had to push past protestors on the way in to work in the morning (gritting our teeth and trying to remind ourselves that this really is the democracy we have sacrificed so much to preserve). What is worse is the damage these frauds do to the profession, as they push aside those that have nurtured the obscure analytical accounts and nearly forgotten issues through the long, lean years. The fakirs stride forward, stealing the funding and the spotlight and often the promotions, ticket-punching their way past the long suffering grunts and in the process displacing the very organizational knowledge and experience needed to deal with what has often suddenly becoming a pressing crisis. [1]

It is no wonder those that are shouldered aside often choose to leave, seeking more lucrative career paths in places where their experience is recognized. Worse yet is when they are tired of being ignored yet again, and discard the depth of familiarity in their usual accounts in favor of the next new thing themselves. And while these latter never fall quite as far as those that helped convince them to this course of action, they never quite shine as brightly as they might have, though they often rise higher than they otherwise would. Of course, incompetence seeks its level, and often at the councils of unremarkable middle management one can glance around the table and see the face of both, intermixed and all grasping for the new thing that will propel them higher. For is cannibalistic and self-perpetuating… new blood must routinely be sacrificed and new ideas strained into the soup of mediocrity else the mire hardens too thick to keep pushing out onto the waiting tables of the uninitiated and the uninformed, both starving for a nourishment they will not find.

The test of a false prophet is simple, and bears close resemblance to the test of any human source. First is the accuracy of the information: does the stated “truth” advance knowledge of the discipline or the target account? Does the analytical conclusions or the methodology taught to reach them assist in better understanding the raw data indicators? Does this actually help the consumer? While these are tests even the most well-intentioned of those true professionals who have never claimed to wear any special wizard’s hats may occasionally fail, the preponderance of the evidence will usually prevail. And the defining element, when in doubt, is as always reliability of the source. Are they driven by a true desire to impart knowledge, or assist in providing expert advice on difficult matters? Are they willing to admit mistakes, reconsider conclusions, retract analysis that has proven incorrect or rethink methodology that has been shown to be flawed? Or are they driven by ego, seeking to emblazon their names on a project, whether successful or not, so long as they do not receive the blame? Do they constantly name “new” methodology after themselves, or flog old issues as new craft?

Ask yourself from whom you can truly say you learned your craft, and measure them against this standard. Ask yourself from where you truly found your analytical strengths, and test it accordingly. And lastly and most damningly, look into the mirror and see where you may stand… or fall.

And if you even have the courage to take this latter step, whether you doubt or not, rest assured you have already gone further than any false prophet ever might. For they can only look into the mirror to the aggrandizement of their ego, for even a moment of self-doubt could prove fatal. And besides, such individuals are not given to self-reflection in the first place.

But we that are willing to emerge every morning and look full into the face of the realization that not everyone can be Sherman Kent, or even a name less repeated yet still remembered, we have but begun the journey. For inside that mirror is also the world of deceptive knowledge. We are speaking not of maskirovka, or PSYOPS, or even deliberate falsehood. It is the natural human inclination to rely on our strengths rather than challenging our personal failings – when we become victims of our own perceived knowledge. It is a subtle form of self-deception, brought about in a profession where ego investment naturally comes with the same expenditure of time and energy in the mastery of sometimes occult subject areas. It comes when we define ourselves, or are defined by others, as an expert of that subject matter – be it geographical or issue-based or even technical in nature. We deceive ourselves as the extent of our recall. We mis-estimate the coverage we have read into. We even mis-state the nature of our involvement – and not usually through a deliberate desire for self-aggrandizement but through the natural process of selective memory. [2] We forget how few things we actually could claim to know in a crisis. We do not recall the frantic paging through the order of battle or the accumulated piles of other peoples’ writings in search of that name that eludes us or the date that we never could seem to remember. And of course, we cannot recall what we never knew – the gaps in our knowledge, the fallacies in our assumptions that never came to light, and the subtle cognitive biases that remained embedded even in the final product delivered to our consumer who may very well have shared and embraced them.

This, of course, is the true challenge of the mirror. We may avoid the overt paths that lead to becoming a false prophet, but this alone is not enough. Every morning we must awake and discard everything that was known but has not been again tested. Every ounce of prior knowledge, while invaluable in terms of historical depth and the perspective of experience, must be challenged and relegated to the historical file if found to be obsolete. In many cases, we may be like the man who merely trims his beard, removing only a little at a time as the subject matter changes but slowly. On other days, it is not merely our faces that are shorn but also our heads, down to bare scalp, as we are overtaken by events and what understanding we may have possessed is rendered irrelevant by the inevitability of a new day. The critical realization is that this does not make us less than what we were: we still know what it was to have had a beard, unlike the fresh-faced youth that may now stand beside us. And likewise, while we may be equally uncertain with others in the face of a new and fluid situation that usually has not even begun to take on its eventual shape, we have not only the ability to understand it and grasp the implications it may bring, but the perspective to relate how it is different from the historical analogy others may bring forth not having lived the previous knowledge that we may have helped create.

In this, our profession is in many ways unique. The near-constant ritual of sacrifice of what may have been years of effort in return for but another transient advantage is a demand that few others would stomach. See how bitterly scientists fight over the revision of their theories, in the academic press or otherwise. Note how strongly held political views may be throughout generations, even to the point of Balkanization or ethnic conflict. And in the practical matters of engineering, an architect who understands the principals of building a bridge does not need to revisit them each time a span is erected, nor an electrician to rediscover the principal of resistance. Yet we ask and expect this of ourselves, for the failure to do so carries a great and terrible cost.

In this, we do have ancestors in analogue if not practice. The ancient Maya used to sacrifice their bravest and strongest warriors to the dark power Tezcatlipocha (known to the modern day as Smoking Mirror) in an effort that the blood might forestall apocalypse and preserve their way of life. Likewise, we cast even our most closely held knowledge, often unshriven (or at least unpublished), into the deep sinkhole wells of history while the morning fog still lies heavy on still waters, in order that we too may prevent catastrophic intelligence failure. Our advantage, of course, is that these sacrifices cost us only a measure of the ego we have invested in the possession of that knowledge and not our yet unrealized futures, genetic or otherwise. And the surest remedy to minimizing the loss of invested ego, itself a normal and healthy aspect of professional psychology, is to measure our worth not as mere subject matter experts but rather as those capable of creating new expertise. The difference is as striking as the proverbial man who has been given the aquatic dish versus his counterpart who has set about weaving nets. When all that is left is a pile of clean-picked bones and the hunger remains unabated, we can continue to deliver high-quality knowledge products in a timely fashion to satisfy the consumer while others scrabble for leftover scraps, starving for knowledge.

And herein lies the greatest failings of the false prophets. They grasp at incantations and steal shamelessly to stave off the day when they will be exposed as the frauds they are, because they do not have the ability to create new knowledge nor express the repeatedly proven tradecraft in innovative ways. They cannot even face the mirror, let alone make the necessary sacrifices because their ego is tied up in what they know – not who they are and what they are truly capable of achieving.



[1] This contributes to the effect of scenario diffusion articulated by Kristan Wheaton in his book, The Warning Solution. Speaking particularly of crisis and surge requirements, he defines this as the phase where “a level of analytical certainty that levels off or even declines despite increased resources”. This he claims occurs for two reasons: “First, the true experts become stretched too thin” and “In addition, the true expert becomes increasingly marginalized as the issue gains the attention of prominent decision makers. Individuals who are close to these decision makers often interject themselves between the decision maker and the analyst.” While he does not impute the baser motivations the authors point out here, he is still basically discussing the point at which the process becomes hijacked by talking heads.

[2] In his unique study, the Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, Richards J. Heuer pinpointed this tendency towards hindsight bias in evaluation of intelligence reporting, stating that “analysts normally overstate the accuracy of their past judgments”, a trend backed up by “experimental evidence (that) suggests a systematic tendency toward faulty memory of past estimates.”