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22 February 2006

Wanting to believe – the mystique of intelligence

The word intelligence itself has an aura about it. To say it is to invoke old and restless spirits: whispering sentries, robed advisors to crowns long since corroded to dust, the dark secrets of countless wartime nights and courtier’s eves. Those who do not have such a sense of history may feel only the modern mythos, the black-suited spookshow, the silent helicopters and all-seeing satellites and miniature microphones that everyone knows have to exist – or at least so they think.

The craft of intelligence is burdened by its mystique as much as it is has been sustained by it. In the United States, national intelligence has fortunately passed through the uncertainty of the earlier interwar eras that plagued the earliest efforts to premature downsizing and dissolution, and were the defining mindset of even our greatest contemporaries at the dawn of the Cold War as they too feared a repeat of what seemed an inevitable cycle. Then, every ounce of mystique was necessary to ensure that costly and poorly understood efforts were funded in the time of the extensive drawdowns after the long conflict, so that we could continue to practice this arcane art so many have reflexively assumed to be somehow immoral or at the very least ungentlemanly.

Today, however, the organizations and actors have become institutions, long since embedded in the fabric of our governance. It is the private sector that now struggles with the constant need to underline its definitions, and the constant struggle for funding and access that will permit it continuity. In its struggle it sometimes grasps for the mystique of its older brother – though whether it should or not is another matter. To wear another’s cloak, however rich a tapestry it may be, is sometimes worse than the humblest of rags if it is ill fitting.

The mystique has often been not only the lifeblood, in finance and in perception of need, but also the bedrock of credibility. The young analyst stands in the briefing room presenting not his own thoughts and opinions, but rather the wisdom that has been given the collective stamp of three letters and a crest – these days most often more than one, thanks to the proliferation of joint interagency working group task force commonality. It is not just a stack of paper with keen observations and learned judgements, it is a sanctified ritual complete with incantations scrawled in red or purple ink – a variety of initials scrawled ad infinitum. The consumer receives not merely the product, but a dose of the mystique to help him to swallow it. For most people in positions of power seek not advice, but validation of their power. And intelligence that provides good advice, and strong supporting materials upon which to base its recommendations and options, must be carefully coated so the consumer will accept it. The mystique is part of that coating, the shimmering glitter that is not gold concealing the otherwise overlooked pearl (or worthless dross and vapor, as the case may be.)

Thus the mystique does serve a value, or did once. But the reverse side of the equation is the damage it does. It is most often subtle, creeping and insidious. The mystique too often warps the collective practitioners, in our insular world behind the curtain. We begin to rely on the incantations to cover our slips of tongue or of pen. We assume we should be believed because our judgements carry with them the weight of many seals, and cannot understand why our consumers dismiss what is irrelevant or ill-served. We depend upon the mystique to shield us within the walls of our vaults, so that none may enter and pose challenge before the carefully crafted illusion is complete.

This is not to say we are dishonest, or even shamans clutching ancient beliefs. We as an aggregate body are but human, and we the authors just as much as anyone. It is a difficult enough thing to shatter our preconceptions day by day, and reexamine the tenants of our knowledge on every subject again and again to ensure we take nothing for granted. But intelligence is an ego investment profession. The mystique in some ways begins to define who we are, and not just for the posers and wannabes on the cocktail party circuit. Even the most respectable and most balanced among us to some extent defines themselves by the all-encompassing nature of the work – in some ways, we couldn’t be as good at what we do if we did not live and breathe it. But it is a far harder thing to reexamine who one is – this is for most the stuff of mid-life crisis or at least major life events, not a daily task on the to-do list. But in essence, that is what is demanded of analysts seeking to avoid the pitfalls of too-hardened mindsets and other flavours of cognitive bias. The measure to which we succeed is often based as much on the flexibility of personality than the rigor of imposed training or personal discipline – but one aspect of the myriad of factors that combine to self-select the practitioners that will stand above the crowd.

The mystique also imposes its burden upon us. We must live up to it, in the view of our managers and our consumers and even ourselves. It drives us to ever more elaborate organizational structures, fancier power-point presentation slides, more complex simulation videos. This drive can benefit both the quality and nature of our work. However, that burden can sometimes impose delays, add unnecessary layers of ornamentation, compound costs and overall reduce utility to the consumer. When a single page will do, we are sometimes compelled to send a dozen, or if we are more sophisticated we may send a page a day for a month, or worse yet establish a standing requirement that the page becomes a recurring product that will outlast our involvement – perhaps even our tenure. And, of course, this also will perpetuate the mystique as we refer to that product in future briefings and lessons learned documents.

Whether we like it or not, the mystique is a part of us. It is passed on, generation to generation, renewed in the oral histories relayed over coffee or in the conference rooms or even in the ever-more frequent memoirs of those who have been there and back. It is not just a sub-culture – it is the dominant paradigm. Why? Because at the end of the day, we all want to believe. It justifies our sacrifices, the long hours and the thankless labour in windowless basements or cramped cubicles under the glare of artificial lighting. It justifies the old computers and the slow networks, the low pay and ancient industrial-era human resources practices. We need the mystique because if we did not have it, we would need to find another justification. Or worse yet, we might question and find no satisfactory answers.

And then what would we believe?