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15 August 2008

Medical intelligence and the PRC Olympic gymnastic team

The controversy over the allegedly altered official age records for the PRC’s Olympic gymnastic team has provided an excellent teaching example for the benefits of medical intelligence. There are a number of indicators which have been surfaced through open source reporting, including missing baby teeth, biometric anomalies, and altered official records and state agency news stories. These are compelling evidence in their own right to support further inference.

Of course, more sophisticated techniques are available for intelligence professionals. Such techniques have long been a staple of leadership analysis, in which foreign figures are closely examined for potential medical anomalies. The importance of accurate assessments of the health of foreign leaders was driven home after the failure to understand the severity of the Shah of Iran’s illness, which directly led the United States to underestimate the revolutionary climate of the country in 1979.

The discipline has been covered repeatedly in the intelligence literature, first in a (now declassified) Studies in Intelligence article, Remote Medical Diagnosis. The history of the methodology and its use was also revisited in an article published in the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, “CIA’s Medical and Psychological Analysis Center (MPAC) and the Health of Foreign Leaders”. There is a robust and well tested tradecraft available to help address these outstanding questions, even based solely on media recorded to date.

One particular analyst of our acquaintance leveraged practice honed in the far less rarified world of gossip magazines into an uncanny talent at spotting plastic surgery in handheld imagery. Needless to say, it is competency that one does not often find listed in human capital inventories – even in leadership analyst or medical intelligence vacancy postings - but yet one that has numerous uses in the intelligence profession. (Including, one might add, settling informal wagers taken over particular points of dispute that from time to time circulate through the vault.)

The application of these analytic methodologies is certainly not infallible, particularly when assessing the age of young females. A number of high profile mistakes have occurred in cases involving online pornography (albeit mistakes usually made by less well trained criminal investigators carrying with them a host of cognitive biases, rather than objective medical professionals focused on the art and science). However, the International Olympic Committee could certainly avail itself of far more robust diagnostic options than remote analysis alone might otherwise afford in order to reduce the potential error rate.

Regardless of the outcomes of further medical assessment, the controversy itself offers additional insight for political and leadership analysis. The insecurities of an authoritarian leadership - so desperate to prove itself on a world stage that it resorts to unsportsmanlike conduct and faked ceremony - demonstrate the impulses of the Communist government’s decision-making process as clearly as any other operational code yet documented. The reaction – or lack thereof - from a disconnected internationalist body mired in its own Utopian fantasy has also been instructive (and equally, could easily have been predicted by anyone who has spent any amount of time in the cloistered and anti-intellectual environment of Lausanne).

The truth will out. If nothing else, the case also demonstrates the value of intelligence to a wide variety of non-traditional consumers in this new millennium.

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