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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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