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28 March 2007

Public debate of intelligence issues

One of the more interesting evolution in the foreign policy and national security affairs communities that has been created by the interwebs is the increasing efforts by a number of academics and experts outside of the community to examine core, current intelligence issues in public debate and writings.

This is of course a quite understandable impulse, especially given the attention attracted by many of the serious issues of the day. Such efforts can bring much needed additional perspective - and even simple additional eyes on target - that may surface issues not previously considered and generate alternative analytical lines worth exploring. (The benefits of such an approach have been well outlined by our friend Mr. Tanji, in far more persuasive form than we could pen.)

However, the limits to such approaches are also worth exploring, particularly as analysis efforts stray into matters outside of the realms of single discipline OSINT or DOCEX; or when core analytical methodologies are initiated from a position of advocacy rather than dispassionate objectivity. Given the great uncertainties in understanding of many of the hard target issues, particularly given the nature of active measures of disinformation which often poison the well from which open sources are drawn, the development of inferences and defense of analytical positions is, as always, a quite challenging task. But this lot is accepted by all analysts, regardless of discipline.

And the constant, painful awareness of the limits of such understanding absent other sources of information not accessible in the public realm also comes with that territory. While the intelligence community may emphasize the need for additional accesses to hard targets, one must always recognize that the vast machinery of national technical means and other collection programs generates unique information that will only surface into the public domain long decades after the issue ceases to be current. Indeed, the examination of the historic intelligence issues of days past, with the aid of the properly declassified documents, has long been the staple of the academic intelligence studies world – and has been among the most valuable contributions the academic world has made to the field.

Some recent academic efforts however have increasingly trended towards what may be construed as very aggressive positions on certain issues, including directly challenging core intelligence community conclusions. Challenge is good – it provides a pressure within the marketplace of ideas that the community may sometimes be otherwise shielded from, although interagency coordination fights and red cell analytical lines are certainly their own form of competition and should not be blithely discounted. However, many of the recent challenges have been made using only partially declassified versions of core intelligence documents – or worse yet, leaked documents which may represent only one small portion of the available finished conclusions, let alone the supporting indicators for those conclusions. Such leaks, and leakers, are both reprehensible in that they represent not only an abandonment of the oaths of secrecy and loyalty sworn by those few privileged to be trusted with such issues; but also due to the typical political motivation and attending bias which has driven the selection and framing of the leaked documents. And whether based on leaked or only partially declassified documents, it is certain that the full range of available information developed by community sources and methods has not been revealed.

Among the current issues that have received such treatment have been debates over explosively formed penetrator (EFP) Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) [1], chlorine augmented payload Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs) [2], Iranian WMD programs’ status [3], Chinese ASAT capabilities and intentions [4], North Korean nuclear programs [5], the scope of the dismantled Libyan CW program [6], and even the “strategic logic” of suicide terrorist attacks [7].

These debates have been interesting to follow, and one can respect the intellectual firepower that has been brought to bear by many learned individuals. Those who have put forth the effort to develop unique research sources, innovative alternative hypotheses, or technical analysis of difficult datasets, are to be commended in their efforts and encouraged to continue to bring new approaches and theories to the table.

We view these discussions with some growing unease, however, in that many commentators are increasingly straying from the open ended inquiry and exploration of difficult issues, conducted with the full realization that the levels of uncertainty inherent in the public discussion of such accounts will preclude any definitive statements. Rather, many experts are formulating positions – often heavily influenced by, if not outright grounded in, larger domestic political issues - and defending those positions with unfounded certainty or pure advocacy. This is unhelpful to the pursuit of truth, to say the least.

This should not be surprising, given the course of other public debates even in the most scientific and rigorous of academic disciplines. Apparently, there is something in the nature of the public discourse – be it personal reputation, cognitive biases, funding pressures, or something else entirely – that introduces subtle taint to the process. The intelligence community is by no means entirely immune to such factors, but it does benefit in decades of enshrined intent, and a solid corpus of analytic tradecraft and specific methodology designed to surface and defeat such intellectual contamination.

A most interesting related discussion in the context of global climate analysis can be found here - again from one of those most unlikely sources, a science fiction writer.

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