The Role of Alternative/Competitive Analysis in Intelligence Analysis

In general, I’m in favor of using competitive/alternative analysis (AA) as a supplement to traditional methods; yet-sparingly. First of all, there should be a clear understanding what constitutes “traditional” analysis. If, as we have witnessed through various readings in this course, there is no consensus within the intelligence community (IC) whether intelligence analysis is produced based on intuition or structured methodology, and the tendency within the community is still to rely on intuition as a preferred “method”, any argument about potential harm of AA is meaningless and, frankly, quite absurd. What can be more alternative than intuition?! As intuition defies arranged structure, it could be argued that it is AA per se. Once again, I think people in the IC engaged in the debate of the pros and cons of AA are stuck in the tyranny of definitions. It is noteworthy that such debates tend to come to surface as a result of some intelligence or policy failure, or both, and are aimed at finding quick fixes by falling prey to either extremes: tradition vs. avant-gardism. I find neither position palatable: too much tradition and you risk falling into group think trap; too much avant-gardism, and you risk missing the “bare essentials” while on some far-fetched optimistic or pessimistic fancy.

From the views of the different senators on the NIEs A-B Team exercise on Soviet strategic capabilities and objectives in 1976-8, that of Senator Daniel Moynihan rang closes to my own take on the topic. Namely, Moynihan states several times that the point of doing AA is to sharpen the analysis by occasionally – “from time to time” (p.10) – challenging the analysts’ thinking. Institutionalizing AA as a regular component of analysis would mean to deprive it of its “alternativeness”, to go back to semantics once more.

Another point on which I particularly agree with Moynihan is his conclusion that AA need not be taken for all its worth but only for those elements that are lucid, relevant and sharpen the focus rather than take a different snapshot altogether. “No one should have expected that the intelligence community would accept the entire Team B position…”

This reminds me of Grove’s earlier discussion on the rising importance of complementors to an enterprise that chooses a flat as opposed to a vertical hierarchy. While these complementors are in a way competitors since they function as entities outside a given enterprise, they can be highly beneficial, often indispensable to the success of the enterprise. Similarly, AA should not be so much feared in the IC as a force exposing the inadequacies and outright failures in intelligence analysis produced by tradecraft-seasoned analysts, but as a complementor offering potential new opportunities.

Stack’s negative view of AA and his reasons for believing that: “Competitive analysis would fail again for four major reasons.” was rather unconvincing. Time, the first obstacle he exposes to conducting AA, and AA’s consequent irrelevance to current and warning intelligence, is: a) everyone’s number one favorite excuse for not doing something; b) time and its semantic cognate ‘speed’ can, and are, perceived differently by different people at different times. (Recommendation to Stack: examine Xeno’s tortoise paradox). What in one country’s estimate might seem as a current or tactical intelligence, from another country’s perception can well fall under long-term, strategic intelligence. Add to this the use of deception and coercion, and time assumes yet an altogether different dimension. Russia’s take/behavior in the Kosovo issue is one of the more obvious examples.

Stack’s second point can be dismissed outright because it reiterates the first, i.e. his editor didn’t check for tautologies.

His third point – OSINT provides a sufficiently alternative alternative to alternative analysis is self-defeating. Says Stacks: “…OSINT…exposes analysts to more diverse viewpoints on the same topic, without having to call in outsiders…”. First of all, OSINT comes from outside, not inside the IC. Second, you still need people within the IC to analyze and sort through the tsunami of open source (often foreign language) information flooding the IC’s collection capabilities. Third, OSINT has been considered AA until fairly recently by people like Mr Stack himself, and is still struggling with the IC’s mainstream secrets obsession to be recognized as an integral part of analysis.

Stack’s fourth point, echoing Senator Gary Hart’s opinion is that the various intelligence agencies “each with differing opinions and bureaucratic alliances, already perform separate analyses in the current intelligence community structure.” Separate – yes. Competitive – no. Going back to the report on the Team A-B exercise, it is interesting to note that the level of constructive inter-team contribution was higher regarding technical questions, while the discussion on Soviet objectives and intentions “was more controversial and less conclusive.” (p.3) There are several conclusions we can draw from this finding. First, AA does not, as Stack seems to think, constitute in compiling an assessment from different intelligence agencies (and disciplines, by extension). AA may involve interdisciplinary knowledge and methodology, but its purpose is to provide an alternative within a given intelligence discipline. If we’re talking about Soviet intentions, a look at the technical capabilities of a particular weapons program is a different question altogether.

Second, while it might be easier to achieve “constructive contribution” from a Team A – Team B exercise on a technical issues because the basis of the analysis is more factual than psychological-ideological, it is the latter – objectives and intentions – which would benefit more from AA because it is here, where our cognitive and cultural biases, as well as a tendency to politicize information, is the most strongly ingrained.

Finally, Stack’s continuous references to pleasing the policy body over producing good analysis, got on my nerves. Is anyone within the policy community taking half as much time to improve relations with the IC?

With reference to the analysis I’m currently writing on Russian foreign policy toward the Balkans, I would choose the Red Cell method as a good complementor in trying to see behind the façade the Russian administration is parading in the face of Washington and Brussels. Because this is a technique which aims to manipulate cultural and political biases, I think it is particularly well-suited to explore how one actor (Russia) is playing a role of a defender of cultural heritage and made-up religious “brotherhood”, with the bravado of being a strict supporter of international law and sovereignty while at the same time stalking the fire of ethnonationalism in the Western Balkans to further destabilize the region, so it may achieve its own political agenda (anything but culture and/or a Slavic, Orthodox common identity).

For a humorous alternative analysis of Russian culture and political world view, I would recommend a close analysis of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel Master and Margarita, which opens with a brilliantly dark humor passage about the futility of the term “foreseeable future” by having an atheist intellectual, upon concluding a conversation with the devil-in-disguise, on a Moscow park bench, slip on the tram rails and have his head cut off. As I’ve mentioned in earlier assignments, dramaturgy, and now I add humor, can be quite revealing about a political Weltanschauung of a nation, its leadership and its subjects: poetry as politics – from the Greek verb poeio, meaning ‘I make’, and the poesis, ‘that which is made’.

 

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