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15 February 2008

An alternative film for intelligence analysis exercises

We have been surprised at the level of discussion sparked by our previous consideration of the classic 12 Angry Men and other films, for teaching the fundamentals of intelligence analysis and writing to entry level candidates. Apparently, the technique is more widespread and popular among instructors than we knew. Frankly, we have found that it is something possible only in professional in service sessions, where there is usually enough contact time to permit such hands-on practical work. Typical academic environments rarely afford sufficient engagement to lose the several hours involved, and we have found that most students assigned to view the same film on their own will tend to present remarkably similar work product (although the assignment tends to be very popular with students, particularly prior to weekends and in coed classes.)

We have thus given the matter some consideration, seeking a better replacement for the now classic Joint Military Intelligence Training Center exercise which utilized the film The Hunt for Red October (briefly mentioned in our earlier post on the topic.) That film was an excellent choice for the time, insofar as the limitations of Hollywood typically permit – and was even used as a teaching aid at the submarine school in Groton for a time after its release (though albeit moreso for its counterexamples). Its utility was no doubt derived from the unique historical basis for Clancy’s original book – a composite of several real world cases of great strategic importance during the Cold War.

The purpose of the film exercise was to provide the analyst student with a chance to practically apply basic tradecraft dealing with ambiguity, and to create a collaborative analytical product using simplified unclassified material. Each student would be assigned to a smaller group, which would then be tasked with a specific intelligence component to focus on. The students would then seek to answer a key question regarding the factors which influenced the defection of the fictional Russian submarine captain in light of these larger strategic issues within the Cold War. The film material itself was treated as authoritative narrative – requiring a degree of suspension of disbelief, but not terribly so if the students were unfamiliar with actual undersea warfare. This typically led to some excellent discussions and more than a few unique analytic outcomes.

Replicating this exercise in a more modern context has proven to be no easy task. There simply have not been films which encapsulate the unique factors which made the Red October exercise such a good choice. But as much as we liked the case, its value is limited for students who will be engaged in the Long War for some time to come.

We considered – and rejected – quite a few other options. The 1996 film The Peacemaker was one possibility, but for most students the Balkans conflict is as remote as its World War I antecedents, and WMD terrorism and homeland security issues are now viewed through a far different lens in the post 9/11 world. The 2005 film The Great Raid could offer potential, but was a more limited tactical scenario in a far less ambiguous information environment, from which actual historical materials would be far better suited as a source of instruction. We briefly contemplated the film Spy Games, but it is far more suited for a history of intelligence class than an analysis course. Syriana too came under consideration, particularly given the involvement of a former case officer in its scripting, but the explicit politicalization of the film also ruled it out. The drug film Traffic was rejected for similar reasons. Most of the other contemporary drama or action films can be dismissed out of hand, being little more than flights of fancy – something that removed films such as Swordfish, the le Carre works, and all of the Bond pieces from our list.

This left us with few options. Thankfully, our dilemma appears to be solved – for the time being – by the 2007 release of The Kingdom. It is unsurprising the film’s early releases were trialed in the greater Washington DC metro area, and that a high number of community professionals were among those early audiences. While the work suffers from the usual Hollywood inaccuracies and the insufferable modern politicization, it does present a narrowly scoped case which is itself a composite mélange of historical incidents of ongoing relevance. While we hate to be seen promoting the Bureau – particularly through the fantasist version of that organization presented in the film – if one ignores those aspects, there is value in the sense of realism otherwise conveyed across the piece through a good application of the director’s art.

Again, the key to turning the film into a good analytic exercise – rather than just a several hour long break from lecture – is to encourage deeper discussion of the underlying factors that led to, and would result from, the incidents depicted. The students should be able to pull out a number of specific points that can be summarized and expanded with additional open source research into unique finished analytic papers. The film offers a variety of these springboards – from the tactical aspects of attack TTP, to terrorist propaganda operations, to the role of re-integration programs for former terrorist prisoners, to profiles of host nation CT capabilities, or to the issues of radicalization within specific industries, geographies, or societal segments. The instructor may need to assist the students in settling upon these aspects during post-screening discussions. This is less a group product, although a collaborative framework can be created in which individual papers support a larger work, especially using a wiki production environment.

Despite finding what we feel is a good solution for the time being, we will continue to seek out alternatives for use in other areas of the contemporary intelligence domain beyond the CT sphere – and will of course welcome any suggestions (along with reasoning in defense of the choice) that our wider audience might contribute for general circulation.

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