Creativity in the IC – Or the Lack of It

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)

For the Intelligence Community, Creativity is the New Secret

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 cia.jpgother 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.

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