Possible Sources of Future Intelligence Failure

Russ Travers’ article written in the eve of 9/11 does sound sinister in retrospect in that he points to shortcomings in the intelligence community, which did, sure enough, manifest themselves in a major calamity. This, at least, was my impression after reading his article the first time. However, on a second read, I began to question his Cassandric powers because for every shortcoming he identified, I could think not only of a historical precedent, but also of a current analogy. This makes me question to what extent we are truly fooling ourselves that an event such as 9/11 can ever be predicted and/or avoided. Further, to what extent were measures to carry out an intelligence reform a knee jerk reaction to the dramatic tragedy of 9/11? Are we, 7 years later, talking about major intelligence reforms as a response to the 9/11 “failure”, or is the question more intrinsic in nature? What if 9/11 hadn’t occurred? Would the same intelligence reforms be important to implement? Are the reforms we are talking about reactive or proactive in nature?

The shortcomings Travers discusses in his 2001 article seem to me to have changed very little. So little, in fact, that today we’re having the same debates and still trying to convince – the community? the executive branch? the legislative branch? ourselves as individuals? – that more radical change is needed. We seem to be stuck in limbo land, in the Death valley described by Grove, in a deadlock argument that falsifies the past and obscures the future. I will enumerate here a few examples from Travis that seem to be particularly pertinent, and I would like to refer to them as

Unfinished Business

“Data was there,” he says, “but we failed to recognize fully their significance and put them into context.”

This is hardly an original excuse. Examples of this kind abound from myth, to history, to literature, to our own personal relationships. Essentially, this is a cognitive problem and solutions to it might be physically limited. Seen from an anthropological perspective, in primitive cultures, it is the role of god(s) to encode a message. The message is then recognized (best case scenario, but not a given) by mortals as a portent of something (usually ominous), and interpreted or decoded by an oracle (often in such a way that the interpretation is equally ambiguous), whereupon the mortal, fearful of the divine message but emboldened by the oracle interpretation, makes a decision and acts on it. Sometimes it is the right decision; other times it is not.

I apologize for the following diversion, but I include it here because I think it illustrates the difference in cognitive processes between encoding, decoding and interpreting a message.

In his essay “Sema and Noesis: Some Illustrations”, G. Nagy [NAGY, G., “Sema and Noesis: Some Illustrations“, Arethusa 16, 1983, pp. 35-55.] examines the etymology and use of cognition vocabulary in Homer. He establishes the word sema ‘sign’ as a cognate to the Indic dhyama ‘thought’. Sema is found in the roots of our modern English words ‘semiotic’ and ‘semantic’, pointing to a relation with the mental process of thinking. In Greek, this connection appears in the words noos ‘mind, sense, intelligence’ and its derivative verb noeo ‘perceive, take note, think’, along with the derivative noun noesis. The etymology of noos has been traced back to the Indo-European root *nes- meaning something like ‘return to light and life’. Nagy points out that sema is “the key to a specific aspect of cognition, namely recognition.” (p.36) Most frequently sema is used in Homeric epic in the context of the recognition of Odysseus by his philoi ‘those near and dear’. The activity which denotes the recognition of the sema is the verb anagignosko. What is more important is that the recognition of the sema is an act of interpretation. On several occasions when Zeus sends a lightning (sema), its interpretation is different according to who the interpreter is (Il. 2.353, 9.236, 13.244, 21.413, etc.) or in the words of Nagy: “a code bearing distinct messages that are to be interpreted in context by both the witness and the narrative itself.” (p.36)

The place where recognition occurs is the noos. Thus Alki-noos ‘notices’ that twice the disguised Odysseus weeps whenever the bard sings about the Trojan War (Od. 8.94, 8.533), which enables him to recognize the true identity of his guest. By contrast, the leader of the suitors is named Anti-noos, as both he and his comrades fail to recognize the many signs (semata) signaling their doom. (Od. 22.8-30)

A sema can be properly interpreted only in the context of knowing its relation to other semata in any given situation. The example Nagy provides is that the recognition of the Dog Star as a sema (Il. 22.30) depends on the knowledge of the position of the other stellar semata.

Two further examples:

In book 6 of the Iliad, Proetus sends Bellerophon to Lycia carrying a tablet, inscribed with “murderous signs”. Bellerophon cannot read what spells his death, but the king, for whom the message is intended, does, and upon reading the instructions, sends Bellerophon to death:

He quickly sent him off to Lycia, gave him tokens,
Murderous signs, scratched in a folded tablet,
And many of them too, enough to kill a man.
(Il. 6. 198-200)

When the king receives the “fatal message” (210), he identifies it as a sema (217) and kills Bellerophon.

In book 7 of the Iliad, Ajax and other Greek heroes decide to draw lots among themselves to see who will meet Hector in a single combat. The horseman gives the command for the lots to be shaken “and each soldier scratched his mark on a stone and threw it into Atrides Agamemnon’s helmet” (202-3). After the lot is drawn and the herald takes it through the ranks, none of the heroes recognize the mark except for Ajax, to whom it belongs. This is important also because it establishes a connection between the two passages in that the manner in which the “inscription” communicates the message independently of whatever graphs it may contain. Regardless of the way it is spelled, the message can be encoded only by the one who knows the relation between this particular sema and its context. To everyone else, it is meaningless.

The problem of noise vs.signal in the context of intelligence analysis is, I believe, rather similar to the examples above. These days, we might not rely on oracles to interpret the divine significance for us, but our faith in science and technology to do that are not that different. I have no formal training in cognitive science, but through amateur interest in the subject, I remember reading that the thought process is a lot more demanding on the brain than the process(?) of belief. Our cognitive biases are precisely that: beliefs that are easier to hold onto than the energy required to make a couple of neurons rub and produce a spark.

The word “context”, so often featured in intelligence debates, has always struck me as rather strange. What does it mean to put something into context? It means to see where a particular piece fits in the whole. It is to have, yet another cliché, a “big picture” view of the problem. A noble enterprise. Have we become that self-delusional that we think we are capable of playing God? Or is it that we aspire to create an intelligence community that is nothing short of a conglomerate of Olympians? Viewed through the prism of 9/11 or any other dramatic historical event, perhaps a better way of reform would be to recognize that there are limitations to our cognitive capabilities, and that there will be times when we will not be able to predict the future, short or long-term. In fact, in front of events of such magnitude as 9/11, phrases such as “the near future”, “the foreseeable future”, etc. are utterly irrelevant. Chances are, on 9/10 the analysts preparing the PDB for the following day, as well as anybody else, would have most likely seen no threat in the “foreseeable future”.

Another shortcoming of the intelligence community Travers talks about is the lack of adequate response to increased complexity of military, social and cultural factors. He says that not only was there no agency “postured” to conduct integrated analysis that would reflect this increasing complexity and interconnectivity, but that a deliberate “division of labour”, i.e. commissioning separate military, economic and political analyses, will lead to failure because such divisions do not reflect the external environment. True enough, such artificial divisions present a Platonified view of reality, and as Travers maintains, they result in Balkanization of competencies, leaving little room for competitive analysis while making the exposure to risk and failure ever greater. I do not know to what extent reforms toward fusion analysis have been implemented in the intelligence community since the writing of this article. From the on-going debates one reads about in declassified sources, it would seem, progress has been slow. On the other hand, it seems that the need to give up the silo structure and replace it with more holistic methods, has been clearly understood and supported by academic institutions geared toward preparing a new crop of analysts. Taking courses at the Mercyhurst Institute for Intelligence Studies has made this evident to me for the past year.

The lack of fusion as a result of division of labor has even more important consequences still. It results, as Travis says, in the view that the whole is less than the sum of its parts, which I think brings my argument full circle to the notion of “the big picture”: no big picture, no context.

Finally, Travers speaks of a lack of a systematic national security policy. He claims that security policy is conducted on an ad hoc basis, in response to whatever happens to trigger a given administration’s knee jerk reaction. This is another intrinsic problem which, although not stemming from the intelligence community, it greatly affects it. How? We can call Grove to our help here. Clarity and determination are qualities that Groves associates with a successful transition period of a company. In my opinion, the intelligence community still lacks both the clarity and the determination to transform itself. On one hand, lack of systematic security policy (clarity) results in unclear prioritization. On the other hand, lack of strong leadership to show the way forward through personal example undermines the ability to carry out significant reforms. Moreover, all these factors – lack of vision and clarity, and weak determination, contribute to demoralizing the work force. Grove points out that “Demoralized organizations are unlikely to be able to deal with multiple objectives in their actions. It will be hard enough to lead them out with a single one.” (p.151)

I saved the point of leadership till the last because I believe it is the one of most significant importance in the circumstances we are facing in 2008. Thinking of potential dooms day scenarios to answer this week’s contextual assignment question, I thought of various Armageddon options, but none rings as devastating as what Roger Kimball describes as “cultural suicide” in an essay entitled “What We Are Fighting for: The Example of Pericles”. In this essay, Kimball compares the 5th century B.C. Athens of Pericles with the U.S. today, using Pericles’ Funeral Oration to illustrate the similarities of fighting for freedom and democracy – intrinsic characteristics of both Athenian society in antiquity and American society today. Among the attributes he praises are the vigilance and sense of responsibility of the citizens who under a democratic government enjoy certain common privileges, but also share common responsibilities, as well as the impulse to achieve, to excel, and to surpass. Kimball laments that the concept of democracy today has been abused by people “fighting for their rights”, but giving little back to society. He calls democracy a substitute for mediocrity, a “shorthand for…lowering standards and pursuing them as instruments of racial or sexual redress or some other form of social re-engineering.” (p.73) In that sense, Pericles’ oration is a refreshing departure from mediocrity in that it calls the people of Athens to mobilize their spirit and act in defense of excellence and a “healthy competitive spirit”. The speech, of course, is set up against the backdrop of the enemy – Sparta, whose way of life and political system is in contrast to that of Athens. For Kimball, and I concur with his analogy completely, “The spectacle of radical Islamists dancing joyfully in the street when news broke of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington should remind us of that fact.” More than a surprise attack or intelligence failure, more than an attack on capitalist symbolism or American citizens, 9/11 was an attack on Western value systems as described by Pericles two and a half thousand years ago.
Kimball goes on to identify some shattered illusions in the West as a result of 9/11, more notably shattered fantasies of academic multiculturalists, the illusion that the world is a benevolent, peace-loving place, and that the use of power by the powerful is by definition evil. I think he is being optimistic about the shattering of these illusions. I think they are still here today, more persistent in some sectors than others, but widely ubiquitous in academia (especially the social sciences) and the media. The intelligence community, and the whole security sector, needs the type of Periclean leadership that will drive it forward toward achieving excellence and taking responsibility for its actions while weeding out the elements of mediocrity, complacence and resignation. Starting with a clear definition of what intelligence can and cannot do, this new leadership will have to define realistic parameters for transformation.



2 Responses

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