A great article in World Politics Review by Josh Kerbel, a 14-year veteran of the U.S. Intelligence Community ( Hat tip to Col. David Maxwell)
It’s no secret that the increasing complexity of the international system — and in particular, its growing interconnectedness, integration, and interdependence — is eroding the fundamental business models of an ever-growing range of industries. Nowhere is this more evident than in the information industries, such as journalism, broadcasting, publishing, music and film, among others. More than a few entities have been swept to the brink of, or in some cases over, the precipice of irrelevance. And every information industry, it seems, is in some peril.
The U.S. intelligence community’s traditional model is similarly threatened by these transformations, but like so many other besieged industries, the IC is hesitant to deviate from it. In general terms, the IC’s model is a secret “collection-centric” one that:
- prizes classified data, with classification often directly correlated to value and significance;
- is driven by data availability, while analytical requirements remain secondary;
- is context-minimal, with analysis staying close to the collected data and in narrow account “lanes”;
- is current-oriented, since there are no collectable facts about the future;
- is warning-focused, emphasizing alarm-ringing;
- is product-centered, measuring success relative to the “finished intelligence” product provided to policymakers, rather than its utility or service.
This model ends up being highly “reductionist,” since secret collection leads to classification, compartmentalization and, inevitably, reduced distribution. Such a system, in which everything is constantly subdivided, was designed for the “complicated” — but not really “complex” — strategic environment of the Cold War. In that more linear environment, it was possible to know exactly where to look — namely, the USSR; access was severely restricted, making secret collection vital; the context of hostile intent and opposing alliances was well-understood; and the benefits of being forewarned, especially of imminent military action, was paramount.
Today’s complex strategic environment is vastly different. Now, there is no single focal point, as a threat or opportunity can emerge from almost anywhere; access is largely unrestricted, since the world is wide-open and information-rich; and context is much more ambiguous, because intent and relationships are fluid. In this more dynamic, non-linear strategic environment, reductionist approaches are, by themselves, a veritable recipe for systemic (i.e., strategic) surprise.
In practical terms, this means that it is no longer sufficient to just reactively collect data on how certain parts of the international system are acting in order to extrapolate discrete predictions. Rather, it’s crucial that such reductionist approaches be complemented by more “synthetic” approaches that proactively think about how the various parts of the larger system could interact, and consider how the synthesized range of possible threats and opportunities might be respectively averted or fostered. In other words, it is no longer enough to just monitor already identified issues. It is also necessary to envision potentially emergent ones. In short, it is time for the IC to use its imagination.
Read the rest here.
Comments, in no particular order of importance:
First, the underlying root problem is “political”. The IC is “collection-centric” primarily because the key “customers” for IC products have an implicit expectation of good intel as a higher level analytical journalism, just salted with some real-time “secrets” outside normal public purview. And some of them – George Schultz when he was SECSTATE is an example – want to be their own analyst, and are quick to complain about speculative,”edgy” analysis that clashes with their preconceptions. So IC senior managers are inclined to give the customer what they demand – current information which has a short shelf-life in terms of value. Educate the intel-consumer class of what the IC might be able to do given different tasks and they might start asking that new tasks be done.
Secondly, if the IC employed more programs that involved an investment in long-term “clandestinity” – it would both collect information of strategic, long-term value and offer the US opportunities to shape the responses of others through established networks of agents of influence. This is where imagination, speculation and synthesis would have greater play because of the need to create and seize opportunities rather than placing a premium on mitigating risk and avoiding failure.
The problem with analytical-reductionist culture in hierarchical institutions ( anywhere, not just the IC) runs deeper than a top-down, enforced, groupthink. Perceptive members of the org, even when compelled to parrot the party line “officially”, will often mock it privately and exchange more authentic critiques informally. The real problem is the extent to which this risk-averse, paralyzing, culture is psychologically internalized by individual analysts to the point of creating lacunae. As individuals rise in the org they carry their lacunae with them and begin actively imparting them authoritatively upon their subordinates.
Ideally, a quality liberal education would be imparting a reflexive skepticism, a tolerance for uncertainty and a greater meta-cognitive self-awareness that would check the excessive certainty generated by an excessive reliance on the methodology of analytical-reductionism. Unfortunately, the emphasis upon academic specialization has been pushed down so hard in undergraduate and even high quality secondary public school education ( AP courses are the worst offenders) that generating good, insightful, questions is a cognitive skill that has been abandoned in favor of deriving “right answers” using “approved methods”.
Scenario-building is an effective tool for breaking analytical-reductionist frameworks and freeing up our ability to synthesize and construct solutions. However, to be useful, scenarios require at least an internal logic or realism even if they represent improbable “blue sky” or “black swan” outcomes and they require more cognitively diverse inputs ( from “outsiders”, “amateurs” and “heretics”) to challenge what data the received culture considers significant.