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15 December 2007

Arguments in intelligence history

We occasionally note the scrum which emerges as the topic of intelligence history is approached within the context of larger political science debates. In this case, Sic Semper Tyrannis has resurfaced the debate over the utility of social science derived approaches to intelligence analysis practice; centered around Sherman Kent himself and the original Ivy League influenced R&A, first raised back in 2005. The current piece expands the discussion into a wider examination of the use of intelligence within a supposed political school of thought allegedly shared by several recently prominent decision-makers. Though we find the formulation “neo-con” to be a particularly unhelpful analytical framework, both too heavily influenced by recent political rhetoric and prone to use as a shorthand masking too many anchored and unexamined assumptions; the piece does offer some value in summarizing a set of arguments of the contemporaneous back and forth of Soviet analysis that is rarely well captured in modern study. Also quite interestingly, whatever one’s take on the issues themselves, the discussion does illustrate the impact of the academic and privatized intelligence tradition on key community history, influenced which are too often overlooked and thus all too rarely taught.

We also note the very differing perspectives on the first exercise of alternative analysis, the famous Team B studies, to other views about the experiment referenced by Former Spook over at In From the Cold. It’s an old stalking horse of the intelligence academia, and in our opinion, too much of the subsequent debate over these cases has been influenced by contemporaneous political maneuvering intended to protect a government monopoly on intelligence in the face of a unique privatization challenge. We note that alternative analysis has now been enshrined into community practice – thus the lessons of the original competitive analysis exercise could not have been nearly so negative as many subsequent commentators would insist, whatever one might believe about the relative estimative accuracy of each team’s conclusions. Tradecraft may well be advanced by even imperfect experimentation, so long as methodologies are refined in subsequent iteration.

We also wish to thank Non Partisan Pundit for the kind words in the comment thread, and hope we may continue to strive to earn the appellation “not only well written and informative, but it's also refreshingly free of politics.” An intelligence practitioner is always intended to be professionally apolitical – a fact that we believe is not stressed nearly enough to the younger generation in an environment of highly politicized media, and the ongoing football between the Hill and the Administration (and back again). We see not only the ethical obligations inherent in this requirement, but also the practical benefits to the apolitical approach, as exemplified in Tetlock’s research into expert judgment, best approached through his recent work cast in Berlin’s metaphor of the fox and the hedgehog. We also look forward to the Pundit’s further examination of intelligence studies issues, such as the discussion of the effect of “yes men” within closed regimes.

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