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21 March 2008

Insight problems, red cell mindsets and alternative analysis

We have long held mixed opinions regarding the computer security guru Bruce Schneier. While he often says interesting and provocative things, and has a distinct flair for memorably naming common phenomena (including introducing nomenclature such as security theatre, which even senior Transportation Security Administration officials have adopted in their own verbiage). At the same time, his off the cuff commentary frequently reaches far beyond his area of expertise into things of which he clearly has limited knowledge, but which he asserts with the same confidence – with less than useful results. It is a classic problem of the expert’s paradox, one frequently seen in those SME’s that spend a great deal of time in the media’s limelight.

Despite this caveat, we do commend to our readers a recent piece in which Schneier has brought to our attention an interesting course in computer security. The course attempts to inculcate the “attacker’s mindset” into new students, teaching them to view problems from the adversary’s perspective in what intelligence professionals will recognize as a classic red cell fashion. He notes that this kind of thinking is quite alien to most engineers. We concur, and to this category we would also add lawyers, most economists and political scientists, as well as others of like inclination which have been educated within the formal strictures of similar academic disciplines that do not value alternative models outside of their own recognized boundaries.

We are happy to see such matters being discussed in the otherwise normally disconnected halls of the academy. We feel it crystallizes an approach to addressing one of the core problems of the intelligence profession – that of teaching analysts about insight problems, and in particular the kind of insight problems that require experiential epiphanies to begin to understand. Much of the lack of creativity and loss of imagination in the intelligence field can be attributed to attempts to bound non-deterministic problems too tightly within the confines of a given methodological approach. While structured analytical techniques are vital to exploring the fleeting quicksilver of insight, those who try to squeeze too hard will find that quicksilver escapes their grasp. You cannot teach insight – you must inspire it, and teach the methods which can reliably generate such inspiration.

We view this as a vitally important and almost entirely neglected aspect of current intelligence education and training. Given that alternative analysis has been enshrined as a requirement to meet community standards, and that formal red cell efforts continue to proliferate throughout many agencies and organizations, cultivating the kind of analysts which can perform well in those environments is vital. And unfortunately, most current instruction falls woefully short of that which is needed to accomplish such a task.

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20 March 2008

Of lawyers and hammer fixation

We have condemned the too frequent intrusion of the lawyers into the realm of foreign intelligence on many previous occasions. From a perspective of policy and of practicality, it rarely results in good outcomes – especially when it comes hand in hand with the kind of toxic politicization that has so corrupted the contemporary environment. We can think of no better example than the continuing travesty which has been the leak plagued and talking point distorted scandal that is the attempt to apply unprecedented restrictions on foreign intelligence collection, brought about by a single un-reviewed FISA court decision and the political football that has resulted over corrective legislation. We need not revisit the matter here, as other commentators have spilled countless pixels on the topic, and we think the exceptionally candid statements by the community’s most senior leadership should have laid the matter to rest. That the debate continues is bitter testament to the folly of politicization too common in today’s national security decision-making abetted by ill starred over-lawyering.

It is against this backdrop we find yet another attempt to introduce the unelected judicial branch into matters which have long been properly held to be strictly questions for the elected officials of the executive and legislative branches who are themselves accountable to voters in questions of policy. In this case, the intrusion comes in the form of a paper which presents a "modest" proposal to hold the war-making powers of the elected branches hostage to an adversarial court process, in which the case to be presented will be composed from intelligence take. We initially would have thought this a jest in very poor taste indeed, but we unfortunately see it was seriously argued.

Presumably such intelligence would be inevitably demanded in its most raw form. This is a sure prescription for even more damaging leaks than have already cost significant investments in blood and treasure through the loss of the unique capabilities that such investments had purchased. It is also a sure prescription for intelligence failure, not merely due to the loss of those capabilities to leaks, but also due to failures of analysis. Prior to World War II, a good many legal minds attempted to act as their own analysts – and failed in ways which demonstrated just about every form of cognitive bias and logical fallacy that has ever been documented in analytic tradecraft. The parsing of law and the insight required of intelligence analysis are entirely different creatures, and do not mix well – especially under the conditions of great uncertainty and implacable time constraints which are found in international crisis situations.

Given the dysfunction which has so characterized what is among the most vital and timely of national needs in this Long War, to great and unfortunately continuing loss. Not every problem in the arena of national security and international relations is amenable to the lawyer’s hammer (or more appropriately, the judge’s gavel.) There are other instruments of national power, and making these subservient to a courtroom process is a certain path towards rendering them entirely impotent in a complex, dynamic and continually evolving threat environment.

h/t Volokh Conspiracy

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18 March 2008

No greater love…

There have been too few honours accorded those who walk furthest in harm’s way, and face nearly unendurable hardships and danger in the service of this Long War. Too often their sacrifices have been denigrated, or wrapped tight behind the cloak of secrecy.

But on rare occasion, the magnitude of a man’s actions may speak louder than the silent profession. The example set by such a man rises far above the fleeting fashions of the chattering classes, and demonstrates the truth of a warrior’s lasting legacy.

Michael Monsoor is such a man. And in him see all those who served in the shadows, to suffer for their comrades in arms without a word of any faint praise. In him know the willing choice to bear the full brunt of war’s energies so that others might fight through to victory. He was among the best of them all.

In the words of that oldest of warrior's poetry:
Here dwell I no longer, for Destiny calleth me! Bid thou my warriors after my funeral pyre.

Remember him.

h/t Haft of the Spear

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17 March 2008

Considering immunity

While there are those that believe the world of polite conversation and “good faith” in arms control and disarmament can trump the hard realities of proliferation, we see a world in which the technologies required to assemble and deploy a credible threat are increasingly within the reach of the most mundane of non-state actors. While we are rarely given to dwell exclusively on issues of threat, as threat is not always in fact the most interesting aspect of a particular problem account (despite what many outsiders may believe), there are a few areas in which our nightmares are never far from fruition in the hands of the wrong actors.

This is especially true in the areas of emerging biological threats. While we are very much aware of a particular academic effort that examined the matter recently, we found its results disappointing, to say the least, largely because its work focused far too much on an assessment of the present vice a truly predictive and forward looking estimate – one that would help to bound the future space of uncertainties, and would identify the drivers and forces moving on the horizon.

Nonetheless, we continue to see the faint indicators of these forces from time to time. These are best captured not in some formulaic collection of wiki pages dedicated to a highly geographic scope – as if disease somehow respected national borders. Rather, one looks for the trend lines, and those areas in which black swans may emerge without warning as sudden shocks to the unprepared perspective. And while there are those that will insist that a black swan event is inherently unpredictable by nature, we are reminded of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s original formulation of the turkey’s day. The black swan event of meeting the butcher is only a shock to the turkey after a thousand days of being fed and cared for by other humans; it is an entirely normal course of a day’s work for the butcher. Likewise, for those who shift their perspective to the edges where the future is not evenly distributed, there may one find the first seeds of those events sown.

The difficulty of course lies in winnowing the signals of true predictive value from the noise of the overwhelming range of possibilities and potentials. This is fundamentally an insight problem. And the difficulties faced in approaching these problems are the epitome of the danger of treating mysteries as if they were puzzles suited for deterministic approaches and linear solutions that can be tied up neatly in sections and a nice cover page.

We happened to glance today at just such a faint indicator in which the merest hint of future insight might be reflected. It comes to us by way of the scientific community – always fertile ground for an intelligence professional to mine when examining fundamental issues of the physical and the living (as opposed to our more usual domain of the virtual and the dead). We find the development of simple replica immune systems for rapid testing of vaccines quite interesting in its own right, with the prospect of accelerated (and more accurate) clinical trials as the first clear benefit.

But our darker minds also take hold of the concept, and ponder the dual use implications that such a technique might offer in the hands of an adversary seeking to accelerate testing of modified biological agents designed to defeat immune resistance - whether human or otherwise. The footprint of such a facility would not be large, and would pose a very different kind of challenge to the intelligence community of tomorrow than the classic concept of an offensive bioweapons program. Threats abound in most futures that are easily envisioned.

At the same time, the technology presents the potential hope of opportunities not yet conceived. Just the other day before the University of Maryland findings began circulating, we found ourselves listening to an interesting discussion of the value that captive wildlife populations might bring to large scale bio-surveillance programs, both for sentinel warning as well as novel agent detection. The potential for cultivating accelerated immune responses as test models by which we might know the signs of outbreaks through wildlife (or domestic animal) populations is quite intriguing, especially given the other utility brought by captive populations in the urban settings of major zoos.

We ponder this as case study not solely in pursuit of any account in its own right – as that is more properly the domain for the line analyst, but rather as a teaching example. The case illustrates well the difference between intelligence done off a checklist which presumes a puzzle to be assembled from some mythic collection of dots, vice the kinds of implicit linkages that can only be found through creative exploration driven by fruitful obsession. Whether that which has been sketched here has any true value is a matter for the more disciplined application of analytic tradecraft. However, if one is not preparing analysts to begin to find reflections in the endless stir of these echoes that they may seek to later crystallize through more formal methodology, all that they will have to work with will be checklists and formulaic incantations - which alone will not keep the dark at bay.

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14 March 2008

A glimpse of a future naval special operations mission

Thanks to the jesters at the futurist court’s table over at io9, we note a most interesting concept in circulation for new urban development project – at sea. The environment will be a tailored cross between luxury resort, cruise ship, and a small city. Throw in a casino and conventional center, and you have an interesting playground for what the designers presumably hope will be the rich and famous.

Should such a vessel ever be constructed, however, one can imagine its prominence as a target for maritime terrorism and piracy. And while authoring that threat assessment would be quite interesting, we are not sure we would want to be in the company directors’ shoes when briefing those results to an insurer such as Lloyds of London.

More interestingly yet, this inevitable threat raises the distinct possibility that a future naval special operations mission would be required to respond to a potential incident aboard. With anywhere between 20,000 to 50,000 souls on board, and what will likely be an internal architecture quite different from other maritime vessels, such a mission would no doubt be taxing in the extreme for even the most capable unit. Even the barge-like hull structure and high rise type construction envisioned by the ship’s builders would impose its own complications on such an operation.

While the concept itself looks slick enough, it is far from certain whether it would ever be ready for primetime. However, the idea does provide interesting fodder for intelligence professionals seeking to explore future scenarios for unconventional warfare and counterterrorism. And one cannot beat that back to the 80’s feel of the whole endeavor, even if one should include the more modern elements of Somali pirates and radical Islamist terrorist actors in the scenario itself. After all, it has been some time since considering the response to a vessel hijacking incident has been new enough to occasion comment.

For those future operators which may one day be tasked with this kind of mission, at least there is some solace to know that it will likely occur in a pleasant climate. After all, the rich do not generally favour less hospitable weather – which makes this a far cry from the typical oil rig takedown.

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12 March 2008

The intelligence community and technological surprise in the Cold War

It has long been a maxim in the intelligence community that despite other types of intelligence failures – created by both collection shortfalls and analytic errors – the one remarkable area of success was the “fact” that no Soviet weapons system was deployed during the latter period Cold War without the US being aware of it in advance. In this version of the telling, the initial period of uncertainty regarding Soviet capabilities was ended by new technical collection methods, and the analysis to derive insight from those collection systems. From that point forward – usually dated to around the time of the introduction of the U-2 platform – the US intelligence community allegedly never again faced strategic technological surprise.

This story has been repeated so often that it is no longer even questioned, particularly given the fact that multiple DCI’s and their deputies have also supported the statement. Despite this, a recent conversation regarding certain the post-Cold War discoveries regarding certain historical intelligence controversies gave us reason to revisit this old success story. The public history regarding the IC’s true knowledge of the main enemy’s scientific and technical intelligence advancements has become more clear as declassification continues to bring these topics back into the realm of academic discussion. One can also now make far more useful comparisons the increasingly public statements of former Soviet scientists, defense planners, and other professionals that are now recording their own services’ histories.

And from these comparisons, we find the old maxim gravely wanting in the revised judgment of history. Perhaps the most serious area of strategic surprise were the revelations first made public by Ken Alibek, the defector who formerly headed the Soviet Biopreparat program, of an unsuspected strategic biological warfare capability. This capability included weaponized anthrax and smallpox warheads deployed on R36 / SS-9 SCARP and R-36M / SS-18 SATAN ICBMs. This surprising revelation was however preceded by an earlier intelligence failure regarding Soviet BW programs, which missed the development and first operational deployment of T2 mycotoxins - yellow rain - in Laos and Cambodia. That alone should have provided warning that all was not well with the IC’s supposed scientific and technical intelligence superiority, as also should have the Sverdlovsk anthrax release accident. However, the rapidly and intensely politicized public debate over these latter two cases in particular serves to illustrate well the long term damage that can be done to the community by the failure to remain objective, independent, and apart from the media-led scrum.

US technical intelligence regarding Soviet chemical weapons programs also allegedly suffered from similar surprise, failing to initially detect the development of the entirely new class of Novichok nerve agents – again learning about the capability only from post-Cold War defector reporting. What might have been in this matter is far less clear, but as an exception it certainly disproves the rule.

It is important that when holding up a standard for new intelligence professionals to emulate that we choose one that has actually been met before. Absolutely avoiding all forms of strategic surprise in the scientific and technical area is a laudable goal. But that is not the bar that was set by the Cold War era – despite what others may claim - and measuring today’s efforts through that prism does a great disservice to those who are responsible for chasing an impossible mission under what are arguably the far harder circumstances of the contemporary operating environment.

This does not in any way detract from the excellent service given by those responsible for the assessment of Soviet weapons programs, and for the countless successes which initially gave rise to the myth. While the IC does not need aggrandizement, it does have ample legends that have more than earned bragging rights never exercised in a quiet profession. History owes those that never sought recognition in their own time an accurate accounting of the deeds of their day.

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11 March 2008

OSINT and faint indicators in the new cyber environment

For all of the sound and fury regarding the potential OPSEC implications of military and intelligence blogging, we must continually remind those mired in the old ways of thinking that there are far more pressing problems which inflict damage on the enterprise - be that enterprise government or commercial. While indiscretion will always remain a cardinal sin, the worst indiscretions are rarely committed by those that put pen to paper with proper foresight and consideration of the potential higher order effects of the discussion. The prohibition argument also rarely takes into consideration the kind of deliberate self-censorship that is routinely practiced by those with an active stake in the reputation market of the blogsphere – one that increasingly crosses into normal professional life in much the same manner as do one’s writings in an academic journal. The higher order benefits, on the other hand, of a robust and evolving literature, can be clearly shown to outweigh the actual problems identified in the kinds of studies which call for widespread prohibition of online writings on topics of relevance to the field. Worse yet, if such a prohibition would come to pass, the community will essentially have yielded the floor entirely to those who write without true understanding, and who increasingly lead the discussion further astray from the real issues and opportunities that today’s intelligence professionals face – as well as those critics which seek to deny entirely the legitimacy of the profession itself.

We have recently had occasion to note counter-examples which prove by comparison the vast gulf between the discretion of those current and former professionals engaged in active current debate in furtherance of the literature, and the kind of negligence and errors of the “official” discussion that if the shoe were on the other foot would provoke widespread (and justified) outrage. The first of these comes from the commercial world, at the Corporate Intelligence blog, where a case study examining the inferences which can be drawn from job vacancy postings is presented. We can recall quite a few similar issues emerging in the national security space, particularly with certain less than discrete contractors that tend to advertise in the major regional papers for rather explicit position descriptions, revealing rather more detail than one would like to see in public. These are rarely cited in prohibition discussions, however, but in the aggregate have likely done far more damage to the community than all of the public deliberative literature over the past sixty years.

We also recommend highly the analysis over at In From the Cold of a recent and much publicized incident involving the F-22 Raptor program, in which a pilot was less than discrete in online discussions. While we certainly feel that the individual responsible for disclosures deserves a long counseling session on appropriate standards for representing oneself in public, we take well the number of points in which supposedly “protected” information was previously disclosed through official public affairs channels. We also find observations of the interest displayed by certain parties more valuable than the information provided back to them, especially when the alternative pathways for those parties to obtain the same answers could have been used through entirely passive means, of which the community might never have been aware.

Of course, OSINT does have its dark side in that the adversary is always capable of using it against friendly interests. However, it requires a level of effort, understanding, and skill to parse through the overwhelming volume of noise to find those faint indicators – a task not unfamiliar to those that have ever worked with publicly available source information. In our view, it is better our adversaries waste that time – not knowing the wheat from the chaff – than they should spend efforts pursuing real collection against more sensitive activities that might yield a return on that investment that is more damaging to friendly interests in the long run.

The modern information environment is increasingly complex, and now that the genie of those technologies is out of the bottle, there is no chance of returning to a simpler era. It thus becomes all the more critical that the discussion regarding the effects of new media and online public discussions focus more narrowly on those areas which are truly essential elements of friendly information that must be protected with exceptional caution, rather than a blanket of prohibition that will harm our own side’s sensemaking and adaptation more than it will impair the enemy’s collection efforts.

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10 March 2008

Applications in commercial overhead imagery for stability and support operations

We continue to be impressed with the uses for commercial overhead imagery which the private sector now increasingly relies upon in an astounding array of situations. While none of these applications are new from the perspective of an intelligence community which has been employing national technical means to similar ends for decades, their independent re-discovery in the outside world, and operationalization in support of crisis situations, remains fascinating from the perspective of intelligence studies scholarship.

The most recent example comes from the conflict in Chad - which provides an excellent and evolving unclassified teaching case to explore the issues involved in small wars and destabilizing countries, particularly for the unique kinds of intelligence support required in noncombatant evacuation operations and other stability and support missions. UNOSAT has recently released a series of products derived from commercial satellite data which attempt to estimate the scale of urban evacuation of the capital of N´Djamena.

In the long ago forgotten history of commercial satellite imagery in the 1990’s, many early papers were written describing the potential impact that the availability of these then futuristic capabilities would have on the international community’s attempts to assess these kind of crisis events – which were frankly the dominant mission of the day. While many crises have come and gone since then, we have seen only a few efforts truly utilize open source imagery analysis during such events to produce truly effective intelligence support. This is a fundamentally different order of thing than how most NGOs and press organizations have attempted to use imagery, and the team which generated it is to be commended for their work. It should also be held up as a model to be emulated in future crisis situations by both the NGO and the PMC sectors; and as such studied by future generations of analysts that may find themselves employed as intelligence professionals in those sectors.

h/t War and Health

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08 March 2008

Vision and error

We have long been proponents of more predictive analysis in intelligence, and of increasing the prominence of truly strategic and futures focused assignments in order to get beyond the firefighting approach in which current and tactical accounts dominate more than the lion’s share of resources and energy. But this is not to say, as some critics might, that there are not extant attempts to elevate the line of sight.

The recurring debate regarding such matters has once again surfaced in a series of blog posts at Global Guerrillas, Fabius Maximus, Zenpundit, and Opposed Systems Design.

We must take exception with John Robb's comment that there "isn't a single research organization or think tank that is seriously studying, analyzing or synthesizing the future of warfare and terrorism”. Such statements, of course, are a common enough type of criticism which stems from what is also unfortunately a common error - the assumption that because one is not aware of a particular effort, then it must not exist. While not every shop which concerns itself with the problems of contemporary asymmetric conflict looks up from the current fight, there are a number of efforts which have attempted to answer the question of "what next" alongside the other work exploring the "what" and "so what" which tends to dominate current publications. Among just a few of the recent public aspects of such efforts that we can name off the top of our heads are the Proteus project, JFCOM’s Deep Futures project, and several of the publications authored by folks at the USMC’s Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities, the Naval War College and Army War College, the Naval Postgraduate School, the Air University, West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, the National Defense Intelligence College, and many other elements within the khaki tower. Of course, to this we should also add the Global Futures Forum effort where it touches upon related areas of interest.

Robb goes on to say that "Fatally, most of the big thinkers working on the future of warfare do their critical work in their spare time, usually while working other jobs to put food on the table for their families." There is some truth to this statement, but only insofar as the best work in futures intelligence tends to emerge from an analyst's own private war, and from their notes in the margins of other endeavors. Real insight tends to be generated not by those individuals who are given the blessing (or funding) from above to focus exclusively on pontificating unknown futures, but rather from those which are most fully immersed in substantive tasks - typically interdisciplinary in nature - which form the basis for illumination through a unique perspective. There will also always be a natural tension between the kind of research one wishes to conduct, and what is most needed at any given point in time.

Opposed Systems Design also weighs in with a line of thinking in support of a solution to this problem (be it perceived or real) that to us sounds very similar to Michael Tanji’s concept of Think Tank 2.0. We would certainly support such an effort – not because we are foolish enough to believe that no one else is considering the future problems which may arise in the dominant accounts of the 21st century – but because we strongly feel there is a need to better leverage the intellectual energies devoted to private crusades in support of a greater unified thrust.

We would also argue that this is already occurring to some extent within the intelligence community itself, particularly given the emerging style of smaller, more specific papers circulated in an almost academic fashion as discussion points. Indeed, we see this beginning to reshape coordination efforts prior to more formalized, and more visible assessments for major publications. We certainly see a greater role for outside subject matter experts and other thinkers in the process, but while far from perfect, this is quickly evolving given recent emphasis on analytic outreach.

In short, the there that these gentlemen appear to be reaching for is already there – just not evenly distributed. We would always agree that it could be better – but our focus for improvement is not on reshaping the org chart and mission statements to make some sort of new dedicated home for an “approved” effort, but through creating incentives around which positive effects in the field can begin to accrete.

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05 March 2008

Novel underground facilities revisited

We had previously covered the kind of unusual civil construction which makes for good unclassified teaching examples in consideration of the intelligence challenges posed by hard and deeply buried targets. Thus we thought it appropriate to also note the excellent example surfaced by the fine gentlemen over at Coming Anarchy, which appropriately notes the difference between the uses to which sophisticated underground construction techniques are put in an oil rich democracy versus its kleptocratic and autocratic counterparts in other places also graced with the geologic accident of such resources.

More importantly, the site also demonstrates the difference between construction at a true civil site – extensively documented, widely discussed, and exceptionally transparent – vice that of the kinds of subterfuge that can be observed at other suspected dual use or known bad actor facilities.

While we are not fond of the political purposes to which the seed vault itself has now been put – the issues of exceptionally long term climate change being the least of our worries in futures scenarios; we cannot argue with the idea of a genetic Ark as insurance against a future Black Swan event. However, our thinking on the matter trends much more towards concerns regarding the other high consequence / low probability events that may occur with far less warning, such as pandemic multi-crop agricultural disease.

We also note that this particular underground facility does indeed perhaps now truly merit our earlier erroneous application of an acronym drawn from the same convention as that of the Dining FACility (DFAC). Bon Appetite.

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04 March 2008

The problems of prophets and jesters

The need for more predictive intelligence is one that has seen a great deal of debate over the years. The first area of argument is as always (particularly when academics are involved) the definition of what prediction actually means, in the context of intelligence as both a process and as a product. (As much as we hate arguments over definitions, occasionally they ought to be revisited as first principles in a discussion, especially when a matter may be otherwise subject to misinterpretation.)

Our preferred view on this is that predictive intelligence means bounding the space of future uncertainties within an estimative framework. Good predictive intelligence therefore are estimates (and the tradecraft used to develop such estimates) that accurately, coherently, and pragmatically provide a view of bounded uncertainties that provide actionable insights to decision-makers that correspond closely to the actual course of future events. Good predictive intelligence also addresses the potential shocks - such as Black Swan events - that may emerge in future scenarios, in much the same way that well crafted capabilities intelligence addresses linchpins and milestones.

This is by no means an uncontroversial definition. There are those that would remove the term “predictive” entirely from the lexicon of intelligence, favoring only the specific verbiage of estimative intelligence. This we believe is a fallacy – first because the term is already in common use, formally or otherwise, and without seeking to distinguish good uses of the concept from those taught by false prophets one does a great disservice to those individuals which must work through the wider body of literature – or multiple agencies’ doctrines, where the concept may be favoured. The second reason we support discussion of predictive intelligence is because many intelligence consumers have articulated the need for improvement in the area as a key objective. There is certainly a common misunderstanding by consumers regarding the nature of what can be reasonably expected from prediction within intelligence, with the consumer’s desires leaning more towards the impossibilities of fortune telling. However, this makes it all the more critical that the purpose (and limitations) of predictive intelligence be communicated effectively to prevent such misunderstandings from colouring a consumer’s perceptions of products which are crafted to the best possible (realistic) standard – especially analysts are not issued a crystal ball with which to meet unrealistic and Hollywood influenced standards.

We see no conflict with the classic view of estimative intelligence in this discussion (although in some circles, we acknowledge that we may be a distinct minority of this opinion). After all, no less a luminary than the esteemed Harold Ford wrote that the among the questions that estimative intelligence seeks to answer are “what trends seem likely for the future, and how those trends might be affected in the event certain contingent events should occur” and that “the purpose, character, and significance of these courageous estimates of future unknowns has been recognized by many observers.”(The quotes are taken from his 1993 AFIO monograph on the topic, for those keeping score.) This very clearly refers to predictive intelligence in the same fashion that we describe it.

In a way, the debate over terminology and concepts – and in reality, the underlying purpose of what intelligence should seek to be – reminds us of the same debate over whether or not intelligence professionals should be responsible for examining questions of adversary intentions. While that debate has largely been settled conclusively in favour of that purpose, it was not always so. A good deal of literature – particularly that written in the earlier Cold War military context – made many of the same kinds of arguments regarding the impossibility of divining intention as we hear made regarding the prediction of future uncertainties. (And we should note that we still occasionally hear the arguments regarding intelligence on intentions when talking with law enforcement folks or others outside of the community.)

Having spent the foregoing establishing context, we recently also encountered a post by Charles Stross, one of our favourite jesters from the futurist court, which discussed the increasing difficulties of understanding technological drivers in out-years predictive scenarios given the accelerating pace of change (and adoption of that change). The points is well made by a chart taken from the Economist, depicting the deltas of technology penetration throughout history.

While technology drivers are often overstated in many futures intelligence exercises – particularly those conducted by individuals with their own stake in a given development or industry sector – there is no denying that from the perspective of certain intelligence accounts technology is often the defining feature around which other social, political, economic, and military events develop.

And it is not merely the rate of adoption within general societies that must be considered by intelligence professionals seeking a greater level of predictive analysis. The pace of hostile innovation has also radically accelerated, particularly when it comes to adoption of new technologies that enable asymmetric engagement, and which support the resilience of non-state actors under intense selection pressures. Many of these innovations are decidedly less than high tech – but as little as a decade ago still would have been the stuff of science fiction and laughed out of the briefing room had any intelligence analyst been foresighted (and naively foolish) enough to raise them as potential issues. We would do well to ensure that our current analytic environments do not likewise encourage such a narrow minded focus that would miss the sweeping rate of change that is bearing down on us, even as ridiculous as any given manifestation sometimes may seem from our current vantage point.

This is one of the reasons we seek to encourage the jesters, and to exhort the courtiers and fops to admit a bit more levity into their dance. For somewhere in the scullery there is a hard working young analyst that listens, and nurtures their own private vision of a future that may well be more probable than any included in the official powerpoint decks. If that analyst does not come forward for fear of the reaction within his shop’s environment, or is not given the opportunity to cultivate and explore those ideas, the loss of that concept may well contain the seeds of the next failure of imagination.

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03 March 2008

RAND views analytic tradecraft

The new RAND study “Assessing the Tradecraft of Intelligence Analysis” has been out for more than a few days now, but deserves an in depth look by those that may have merely given it a passing glance. It was brought to our attention by the Analyst’s Corner, which has become increasingly consistently interesting (although we knew it would be, given the earlier writings of its author.)

What is interesting is that the report is very much a snapshot of a transition period – one might even be temped to say one that was taken at the height of the revolution in intelligence affairs. We agree with our virtual colleague Michael Tanji in his statement thatThe dominant pattern in the U.S. intelligence agencies has been not stasis but almost constant revision, even to the point of disruption.” It is for this reason we have tended to look upon the cottage industry of intelligence reform with great suspicion, as too often of late we have had more than our fill of academics and other outsiders writing in with inspiration from what those in forward deployed locations often call the good idea fairy.

However, RAND’s study brings to the debate a number of important concepts, that while not new, certainly need to be circulated more widely. In part, this is due to the commendable methodology chosen for the study, in conducting formalized interviews across the community, targeted against not merely the ever changing organization charts (which as RAND itself noted “names have been a moving target”, given reorganization), but against the National Intelligence Priorities Framework and the Analytic Resource Catalog.

Among these critical concepts are the emphasis that analytic tradecraft is about the management of tradeoffs. There are few other human endeavors where this is not true, but for too long the community has focused on the ideal state, rather than maximizing the best possible outcome from the existing states. The ideal picture approach is very much an academic conceit, and assumes a mythical power to create organizational change simply by redrawing organograms or renaming offices under some centralized directive from on high. The real community simply does not respond to such abstracts in the clean and dispassionate fashion that many reformists would wish for. These tradeoffs are also one of the reason initiatives which begin organically within the working level line analysis shops are the most successful, as they allow those with the greatest stake in the outcome to balance their tradeoffs to the best possible effect.

The RAND study addresses interesting aspects of the increasingly dominant focus on current intelligence at the expense of longer term deep analysis. It also touches upon the issues of compensation and human resources that we have so often mentioned in these pages. We are quite pleased to see an increasing recognition of the importance of targeting analysis as a distinct discipline within the field – and given the delay between the interviews and the release of the public paper – one that we feel has been increasingly internalized within the community.

Collaboration and data sharing issues are discussed, but fall far lower in the spectrum than discussions of intelligence quality and value – quite in line with our own experiences.

The need to strengthen analytic training and education throughout the community is likewise emphasized, with the idea of a standard curriculum model again surfacing. We are aware of at least one quite promising effort in that regard, that goes far beyond what is typical academic fare; and hope to see further aspects of the model developed for mid-level and journeyman class analysis audiences in future iterations.

All in all, the RAND study is an excellent contribution to the literature which we are grateful now sees the light of day. There is much food for thought, which we will no doubt revisit again in due course. We did initially give pause upon a day’s reflection, fearing our agreement with the paper stemmed too much from a potential echo chamber effect of seeing similar views reflected back at us. However, these are things that are rarely formally captured in discussions of reform or the future of intelligence (at least, those written by outsiders). It is important to get them onto the table in a more formal setting – for as much as we believe in the value of the blog, it is a different vehicle for inquiry and scholarship than that of a more rigorous study approach.

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