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04 February 2008

Revisiting Twelve Angry Men and legalism in intelligence analysis

For a number of years, the classic black and white film Twelve Angry Men has been a frequent teaching aid in introductory analysis courses dealing with the basics of evidence and argumentation. The conventional use of the film is to provide an accessible means of deconstructing a fictionalized scenario for students with little prior experience with formal debate. Given the current decline in public education, this helps remedy a basic skills deficit that is unfortunately and increasingly all too common.

However, it is with interest that we observe the controversy that has erupted once again over this fifty-one year old movie. The criticisms that have been leveled against the underlying premise of the film deserve some additional consideration – not the least of which because they point out the serious problems in applying much of what is taught as legal logic to the unique problems of the intelligence domain.

The Spectator’s argument surfaces one of the reactions common among many students, but in a far more articulate fashion than any entry level professional might be expected to voice. In essence, this criticism is based on the need to focus on the external worldview, rather than the tactical maneuvering in the courtroom that such kinds of arguments inevitably devolve towards. It is a quite valid point, and among the reasons that we have long decried the trends towards creeping legalism that have lately come to dominate intelligence work. The bulk of a lawyer’s litigative activities – and therefore a disproportionate degree of their education and professional experiences – are dictated by entirely tactical considerations that apply nowhere else but within the limited framework of the legal system. Too often this is easily forgotten, to the detriment of the strategic picture – and the accuracy and veracity of analysis. We have written on these problems before, but to be frank we had rarely considered the myriad of ways in which – by borrowing from the older legal profession’s traditions in teaching basic logic and rhetoric – the intelligence academia may continue to contribute to these unhelpful trends of cognitive bias. Among these, of course, are the kinds of ludic fallacy identified by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

The folks at Volokh Conspiracy take a different tack, arguing for greater consideration of interdependencies within factors under examination in the film’s fictional trial. This is also a very useful approach for discussions with students, many who likewise tend to view evidence in isolation. It is particularly appropriate when covering structured analysis techniques such as ACH – and one that rarely touched upon, if only due to the frequently too shallow examples offered to illustrate the methodology, which are unable to support a more robust discussion.

Westminster Wisdom rises in defense of the film, and illustrates the more important but also often overlooked value to the piece in the intelligence studies classroom – the discussion of uncertainty. The intelligence professional will always work within a framework of ambiguity, doubt, and frequently, deception. However, the role of intelligence is not merely to reach a lower standard of proof than that used in a criminal trial (or even the lesser civil threshold), as is commonly taught (and in particular, a tenant of faith within law enforcement intelligence). Rather, intelligence’s purpose is to provide accurate insights despite such uncertainty; and where absolute accuracy is not possible, to bound the space of uncertainties for the policymaker in a manner that supports informed decision-making.

In light of all of the foregoing, we continue to search for good alternatives to the film for use in the classroom. Our search is also driven by the simple fact that to the Millennial generation, the black and white format is very nearly entirely alien. It creates such a visceral negative reaction that the first ten to twenty minutes of the film are simply an orientation to the unfamiliar environment. The pace of the thing is also glacial by modern standards, and particularly so to minds attuned to rapid multi-tasking and immersive information environments. While one can make all the arguments one likes about the need for sustained single focus attention, their native preferences are indeed more suited for the kind of world in which they operate as intelligence professionals than the Industrial era conventions that black and white film represents.

The single set format, and the emphasis on argumentation, has however made it exceptionally difficult to find a substitute. Our best – but admittedly still imperfect – alternative has lately been the 1999 film Deterrence, which offered a President’s decision-making process in a nuclear crisis while snowed in at a small diner. Unfortunately, the film’s scenario is constructed around a fictionalized Iraqi dictatorship – which in the modern politicized climate often steers debate too far astray of the real purpose and into the debate over Operation Iraqi Freedom. It also pre-supposes a certain level of student knowledge regarding nuclear warfighting and mutually assured destruction strategy: something not always guaranteed in the post-Cold War cohort. This sometimes makes for quite interesting discussions, to say the least. These are the same problems that incidentally also led us to abandon using the old JMITC exercise that relied on the film version of Hunt for Red October as a notional scenario from which the students would develop practice analytical pieces. While, as a friend recently reminded us, that particular film ages very well as such things go, we recognize that writing intelligence on Soviet era ballistic missile submarines is an anachronism to which few students will respond well –and one that does not serve their real and current professional needs.

All in all, teaching intelligence with films – for as engaging as the technique might be for students bored with lecture – remains a difficult proposition. We hope that in time the development of newer tools for digital animation – and the kinds of interactive scenarios that new gaming engines permit – will render the question entirely moot. But the cultivation of young professional minds remains a terribly stubborn business, and one that is not frequently improved by new technologies. We do wish to see such improvements become effective, and preferably in the near future. But given that the same promises have been made since around the time black and white films first graced the big screen, we remain skeptical.

h/t Overlawyered

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