INTELLIGENCE, PUZZLES AND MYSTERIES
Gregory F. Treverton writing in the latest issue of The Smithsonian:
“Risks and Riddles“
“During the cold war, much of the job of U.S. intelligence was puzzle-solving—seeking answers to questions that had answers, even if we didn’t know them. How many missiles did the Soviet Union have? Where were they located? How far could they travel? How accurate were they? It made sense to approach the military strength of the Soviet Union as a puzzle—the sum of its units and weapons, and their quality. But the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of terrorism changed all that. Those events upended U.S. intelligence, to the point that its major challenge now is to frame mysteries….
….Puzzle-solving is frustrated by a lack of information. Given Washington’s need to find out how many warheads Moscow’s missiles carried, the United States spent billions of dollars on satellites and other data-collection systems. But puzzles are relatively stable. If a critical piece is missing one day, it usually remains valuable the next.
By contrast, mysteries often grow out of too much information. Until the 9/11 hijackers actually boarded their airplanes, their plan was a mystery, the clues to which were buried in too much “noise”—too many threat scenarios. So warnings from FBI agents in Minneapolis and Phoenix went unexplored. The hijackers were able to hide in plain sight. After the attacks, they became a puzzle: it was easy to pick up their trail. Solving puzzles is useful for detection. But framing mysteries is necessary for prevention. “
This article, though written for a general audience, struck a number of chords with me. Specifically:
* “Noise” is an important consideration in an era of attention scarcity economies. Eliciting a surge in ” white noise” by unrelated third parties ( say disinformation that sends pro-lifers off on a media campaign and in turn, energizers their pro-choice enemies to respond, diverting the attention of the general public to “X” degree) is useful camoflague. Purpleslog had a deservedly well-received post at Dreaming 5GW on ” the Puppetmaster” as a “5GW Archetype”. Such a mentality would cultivate media noise the way the KGB once set up and subsidized endless Communist front groups in the West.
* Uncertainty is relative. Some “mysteries” are more decipherable with a change of perspective, scale or temporal framework; others represent questions of deep uncertainty. Imaginative scenario planning exercises can help pattern recognizers familiarize themselves with latent possibilities ( Neo–Eurasianism ? Pan-Turanism ? A derivatives-driven implosion of globalization? Eco-extremist bioterrorists longing for planetary genocide?).
We need radical thought experimentation.
IT security expert Gunnar Peterson has already covered this base well but from a different angle:
“Vulnerability Puzzles and Mysterious Threats“
“Risk differs from uncertainty in that risk may be measured and managed whereas uncertainty may not. Risk management efforts hinge on this important distinction because it highlights differences where a team may be more proactive. For instance, many vulnerabilities are known, hence they may be measured and managed whereas the threats to a systems contain a greater degree of uncertainty in that the threat environment contains numerous elements such as threat actors that one’s organization can not directly control.”