Amid the welter of commentary about intelligence and weapons of mass
destruction in recent months, a persistent question has been: are the
intelligence agencies competent? Inquiries are being launched or demanded,
left and right. Whether in Washington, London or Canberra, the key agencies
are under scrutiny.
It is a good time to ask some searching questions. Unfortunately, the
politically charged atmosphere is not especially conducive to the right
questions being asked, or the right answers being found.
A particularly ill-considered criticism of the CIA on February 3, by
New York Times columnist David Brooks deserves singling out, because it
exhibits a mentality that all too many people are prone to and which, if
given its head, could do a great deal more harm than good.
In his piece headed "The CIA: Method and Madness", he claimed the CIA's
analysis was not politicised; but deplored its (alleged) obsession with
scientific and rational analysis as the source of its errors; and called for
a stiff dose of intuition and imagination at CIA headquarters.
His prescription is to bring in people who have a decided aura of the
unscientific: "When it comes to understanding the world's thugs and menaces,
faster than I'd trust a conference-load of game theorists or risk-assessment
officers, I'd trust politicians, who, whatever their faults, have finely
tuned antennae for the flow of events. I'd trust Mafia bosses, studio heads
and anybody who has read a Dostoyevsky novel during the past five years."
Well, perhaps, if you want an intelligence service run like Tammany Hall,
the Mafia or Hollywood. But if you want to avoid error, those may not be
especially promising paths to go down.
Brooks went so far as to identify, on the CIA's own website, an e-book,
Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, by Richards Heuer Jr, which he
describes as "scientism in full bloom" and representative of the methodology
that is the problem at Langley. He cannot have read it or thought about it
very clearly if he believes this.
The problem at the CIA, I suggest, has not been slavish adherence to some
dogmatic methodology, but rather the failure to inculcate in the agency the
principles of critical thinking outlined in this very book.
In an illuminating foreword to the book, written in 1999, Douglas
MacEachin, former deputy director (intelligence) at the CIA, asks: "How many
times have we encountered situations in which completely plausible premises,
based on solid expertise, have been used to construct a logically valid
forecast - with virtually unanimous agreement - that turned out to be dead
He doesn't answer his own question, but he's plainly aware of a litany of
errors. Where he differs from Brooks is in his diagnosis of the problem.
Here's what he wrote: "Too often, newly acquired information is evaluated
and processed through the existing analytic model, rather than being used to
reassess the premises of the model itself."
The kind of intuition Brooks calls for might introduce people who think
outside the "existing analytic model", but they would have implicit analytic
models of their own. If they deliver accurate forecasts, that's just lucky,
because there is no clear basis for assuming that, as circumstances change,
the invisible and unexamined premises of those models will continue to yield
accurate forecasts. So, we'd quickly be back where we started.
It is the explicitation and critical examination of the premises
themselves, the assumptions underlying mental models, that is the key to
really sound analysis. Brooks implies that the CIA does too much of this and
that this is what causes its errors. He could not be more mistaken.
MacEachin's testimony on this point is trenchant. He notes, first, that,
far from being excessively wedded to critical analysis, "many CIA officers
tend to react sceptically to treatises on analytic epistemology" - because
it tends to offer models as generic answers to problems, when what is needed
is fluidity of thinking in a policy-oriented world.
"But," he goes on, "that is not the main problem Heuer is addressing.
What Heuer examines so clearly and effectively is how the human thought
process builds its own models through which we process information.
This is not a phenomenon unique to intelligence ... it is part of the
natural functioning of the human cognitive process, and it has been
demonstrated across a broad range of fields from medicine to stockmarket
analysis." (emphasis added). In other words, it will be as true for
politicians, Mafia bosses and studio heads as for country experts at the CIA
or, say, Merrill Lynch.
"The commonly prescribed remedy for shortcomings in intelligence analysis
and estimates - most vociferously after intelligence 'failures' - is a major
increase in expertise," McEachin went on to remark. But "the data show that
expertise itself is no protection from the common analytic
pitfalls that are endemic to the human thought process. A review of
notorious intelligence failures demonstrates that the analytic traps caught
the experts as much as anybody. Indeed, the data show that when experts fall
victim to these traps, the effects can be aggravated by the confidence
that attaches to expertise - both in their own view and the perception
of others." (emphasis added).
These observations by McEachin are spot on. Is the answer, then, to bring
in people distinguished by their lack of expertise? Surely not. Rather, it
is to bring people in whose expertise consists in re-examining mindsets,
mental models, premises and assumptions; winkling them out from where they
often hide and coaching the content experts themselves in seeing their
reasoning and their world views in a new light. Bringing in the Mafia, I
suggest, would be a very hit-and-miss affair - and the hits might not be the
ones you'd really want.
Being able to see and critically examine one's own reasoning processes is
more difficult than is intuitively evident. Strong experimental evidence
suggests that, in fact, experts in various domains have a poor grasp of how
they actually use evidence in making judgements.
They typically tend, in Heuer's words, to "overestimate the importance of
factors that have only a minor impact on their judgement and underestimate
the extent to which their decisions are based on a few major variables".
Those variables are often assumptions so deeply embedded in the expert's
mental model as to be invisible to the critical eye. They come in below the
radar, as it were. What happens, therefore, is that evidence is sought to
confirm, or test, variables which turn out not to be crucial.
Moreover, an obsession with getting "all the facts" can compound this
problem, by obscuring the underlying reasoning process and lending a false
confidence to errant judgements grounded in unexamined premises.
Both at the CIA and here in Australia, if we want better intelligence
analysis, we would do well to invest heavily in creating a cadre of analysts
especially skilled in what might be dubbed "Heueristics", rather than
handing over the house to inspired amateurs with no disciplined training in
critically examining their own mental models or their own self-confidence.
This is no easy task and Brooks is quite mistaken if he believes that it was
long ago accomplished at the CIA.
It is, however, the task that 21st century intelligence organisations
must tackle - for their own good and for ours.