Cultural Revolution in Intelligence

The piece below is my contribution to a special report on the revolution in intelligence affairs and was originally published by the International Relations and Security Network. Particularly insightful is the editorial by Kris Wheaton and a topic piece by Ken Egli on the potential role of academia in intelligence collection and analysis.


Cultural Revolution in Intelligence: From Government to Business Enterprise

Earlier this year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence published a document entitled Vision 2015: A Globally Networked and Integrated Intelligence Enterprise. The first part of this bold intelligence community statement begins with an evaluation of the “shifting strategic landscape,” the defining characteristic of which is said to be uncertainty:

“We live in a dynamic world in which pace, scope, and complexity of change are increasing. The continued march of globalization, the growing number of independent actors, and advancing technology have increased global connectivity, interdependence and complexity, creating greater uncertainties, systemic risk and a less predictable future.”

Uncertainty has become one of the trendier concepts over the past few years, and is currently used profusely in the jargon of a variety of disciplines from intelligence to complexity and network sciences to corporate and risk management. The intelligence community is not the trendsetter. Originally stemming from the physical and natural sciences, the emergence of the concept of uncertainty has been accompanied by the development of a homogenized lexicon to talk about “new risks” generated and driven by globalization and network growth to a point where domains previously falling outside the scope of intelligence and security have been securitized. These domains run the gamut from society and culture to demographics and health to economics and finance to innovation and technology to natural resources and the environment. Regardless the domain, we now talk about complex adaptive systems whether we are examining conceptual physical models, bio organisms, tribes and clans, financial markets, terrorist or organized crime networks, or corporate knowledge management.

The list of globalized mashed-up vocabulary is long. It would appear that whichever way we turn, we find researchers, analysts and managers trying to detect emergence patterns, spot uncertain and unstable environments, aggregate and mine various types of data, develop systemic and holistic strategies and approaches, build resilient models, integrate systems within systems, collaborate and share knowledge across domains, form strategic partnerships, build agile infrastructures, transform organizational cultures and mindsets, and win the war for talent.

So how, apart from adapting to a new vocabulary, is the intelligence community going to achieve the transformation it so vehemently advocates? How is a largely static government enterprise to turn into a dynamic business enterprise? What is actually happening in the process of transforming the culture and mindset of the intelligence community so it may accomplish its mission to create decision advantages? What kind of education is needed to kick start the transformation? Is descriptive qualitative analysis obsolete and should the intuition-led approach be substituted with formal structured methodologies?

Vision 2015 proposes that in order for the intelligence community to transform into an enterprise able to provide decision advantage to policymakers, it must transform from a government enterprise into a “globally networked and integrated intelligence enterprise.” In other words, the intelligence community must start thinking and acting like a business. How well does the business metaphor hold in the government/national security context?

Government, critics of the business analogy have argued, is not comparable to business because it cannot be responsive to market forces since it has a higher purpose: public welfare. These critics also see the competitive advantage of intelligence in the community’s ability to “steal secrets”, which further implies a stronger emphasis on collection over analysis. Such an argument epitomizes the mentality and culture that the new vision is trying to counter. It is a snapshot, a still life if you will, of the Cold War mindset as to what characterizes intelligence. This mindset envisages a centralized national customer, promotes the obsession with secrecy, places value on the finished intelligence product rather than the process of intelligence, and treats flexibility as a foreign word.

Applying a business metaphor to intelligence processes in the national security context is not only valid; it is highly desirable. What the market is to business, international relations is to government. Are we to believe that government should not pay attention to the forces driving the developments on the international arena and respond accordingly? With globalization, where once particular domains were immune to changes outside their immediate environment, and cause-effect analysis had a more linear dimension, the interconnectedness and resulting complexity of drivers cutting across disciplines, calls for non-linear approaches both in terms of collection and analysis.

For at least two decades now it has widely been acknowledged that the so-called intelligence cycle (the process of collection, analysis and dissemination) is an idealized Platonic model that is not only obsolete in today’s environment, but also dangerous and misleading. The first step toward transforming the intelligence community from a creeping and decrepit government apparatus to a dynamic enterprise is providing whatever education necessary to curb the old mindset. Business and national security intelligence share the same strategic objectives: avoid surprises, identify threats and opportunities, gain competitive advantage by decreasing reaction time, and improve long- and short-term planning. With this in mind, the intelligence community should most certainly be responsive to market forces. It should allow for the formation and dismantlement of processes on a need basis. If a process is recognized to be “unprofitable”, it should not be allowed let to drag on for decades because government institutions have a “higher calling”!

Vision 2015 recognizes that the most difficult part of implementing the envisaged transformation is cultural change:

“The first and most significant impediment to implementation is internal and cultural: we are challenging an operating model of this vision that worked, and proponents of that model will resist change on the basis that it is unnecessary, risky, or faddish.”

Yet the real challenge of transforming the culture lies neither at the top (the Cold War veterans of the intelligence community who by the sheer force of nature are on their way out) nor at the bottom (the fresh-off-college Generation Y recruits who may have the “right” attitude and ideas but too little real world experience to know how to best apply them). The challenge lies in the lack of mid-level leadership as this is the level at which bottom-up generated ideas are filtered to form strategic direction at the top and get the buy-in from the customer. Inability to recruit and sustain competent middle management will translate into either empty rhetoric and a hodge-podge of recycled vocabulary, or in stagnation, lack of flexibility, and death by a thousand paper cuts.

If the intelligence community is serious about winning “the war for talent” (an expression around which its human capital strategy  is fixed), it should aim at developing its mid-level capabilities. “Investing in our people” is a nice enough sounding cliché. This does not mean, however, ensuring competitive compensation and providing competitive benefits because in the war for talent, there will always be someone ready to offer bigger, better, more competitive compensation packages. Adequate compensation should not be a strategic human capital goal. It should be a given. Strategically speaking, investing in people should translate into offering them the opportunity to grow their potential through continuous learning, which in turn, will increase their sense of ownership and loyalty. True, one can change a culture by throwing money at it, but the resulting culture is hardly the type that is likely to stand up to the values set in Vision 2015: commitment, courage, and collaboration.

Winning the war for talent is not a silver bullet for a successful cultural transformation. If we think of information as the currency in the world of intelligence affairs, then surely we must observe fluctuations in this currency as the external environment changes. The relative scarcity of information during the Cold War era resulted in putting a high price tag on information. Not only was there a lot less information available in contrast to today’s web- and telecommunications-networked world, but this information was collected secretly by means of human intelligence (HUMINT). Hence the culture in which the intelligence community operated was one that first, placed far greater emphasis on collection than analysis; and second, created a glamourous, cult-like image of secrecy.

The “information tsunami” as information overload is figuratively referred to, together with proliferation of telecommunication and media technology, has clearly devaluated not only information as a currency, but also its attribute – “secret”, thereby creating a shift from the emphasis on collection to that of analysis. More value is now placed on sorting out relevant information from the ubiquitous noise, which has resulted in the creation of a grey area somewhere between collection and analysis, namely synthesis. Yet synthesis is no new fad. It is an analytic process that every person in academia, from a freshmen to a graduate researcher to an established professor engages in daily. While some more progressive elements of the intelligence community have supported “outsourcing” the synthesis of open source information (the most voluminous type of information) to knowledge workers outside the community, be that academic institutions, think tanks, or in some ultra-progressive cases – crowdsourcing, such initiatives are still in the single digit count.

There is some evidence of cultural change in the intelligence community of acknowledging the value of open source intelligence (OSINT) such as the creation of an Open Source Center at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the ODNI sponsored Open Source conferences in 2007 and 2008, which served as an outreach activity to bring together intelligence professionals, academic institutions, think tanks, private sector intelligence providers and the media. Nevertheless, a successful cultural transformation from obsession with classified information to a wider use (not just acknowledgement) of OSINT has not been achieved.

While one of the key design principles upon which Vision 2015 rests is adaptability and the document duly declares: “The keys to adaptability are active engagement and openness to outside ideas and influences.” The implementation plan fails to mention either OSINT exploitation or openness to collaboration and contribution by non-community members, such as think tanks and academia, where a large volume of vetted OSINT resides. Failure to take actionable steps in this regard will not serve the community well in its attempts at cultural transformation. Promoting ideas without an actionable plan is like taking one step forward and two steps back; worse – it creates a “cry-wolf” image.

All that said, it should be acknowledged that the United States is a pioneer in promoting the use of OSINT among intelligence professionals. The OSINT discussion at  the EU-level is lagging behind. As for countries with alternative understanding of democracy, transparency and accountability, such a discussion is not only non-existent, but very likely sends ripples of cynical laughter in the midst of planning the next black PR campaign.

Another due acknowledgement in this discussion should be the fact that cultural transformation rarely occurs with a swipe of a blade, but undergoes various phases over a period of time. Following a re-evaluation of the definition of intelligence in the post-Cold War environment, the type of human capital the community wants to attract and retain and a makeover of inward and outward-looking operation models, is a re-evaluation of what constitutes quality intelligence products and the development of quality benchmarks. In this respect, Vision 2015 provides a bullet point under the section of adaptability actions, which reads as follows:

• Build the organic capability to conduct exercises and modeling and simulations throughout our processes (e.g., analytics, collection, mission management, etc.) to innovate and test new concepts and technologies.

For the reader unfamiliar with the intelligence community’s internal debates, the above provision might sound somewhat surprising. What? Doesn’t the community already have such capabilities? Aren’t collection and analysis done according to structured methodologies? Stephen Marrin, a CIA analyst from 1996 to 2000, reveals a different picture. In an article for the American Intelligence Journal (Summer 2007), he clearly outlines what is known in the community as the “intuition vs. structured methods” debate:

“Even though there are over 200 analytic methods that intelligence analysts could choose from, the intelligence analysis process frequently involves intuition rather than structured methods. As someone who worked at the CIA from 1996 to 2000, I possess firsthand knowledge of the kind of analytic approaches used at the time. While I was there, the reigning analytic paradigm was based on generalized intuition; an analyst would read a lot, come up with some analytic judgment, and send that judgment up the line without much focus on either the process involved in coming to that judgment, or making that process transparent to others. No one I knew – except for maybe the economic analysts – used any form of structured analytic process that was transparent to others. No quantitative methods; no special software; no analysis of competing hypotheses; not even link charts.”

For the sake of clarity, it should be said that “intuition” is meant here not in the sense of some extrasensory paranormal activity. It simply refers to arriving at a judgment by means of extensive experience that cannot be clearly demonstrated. Another word commonly used to describe this process is heuristics, or a rule of thumb. The preference of old school intelligence analysts for using intuition rather than structured methodologies stems from the historical Cold War mindset that was described above, and the reasons for its perpetuation are to be found in…human nature.

During the Cold War, the intelligence community operated in an environment characterized by opposing ideologies, the bulk of analysis constituted political analysis: political situation assessments, profiling of political leaders, etc. To attempt to quantify such analysis would rightly be considered pseudo-science. Qualitative analysis, which is often based on intuition (that is opinion vs. fact) is suitable to such an environment and to the problems it is tasked to analyze. However, with the securitization of domains previously not on the agenda of national security professionals such as energy security, environmental issues, proliferation of networked non-state actors, qualitative analysis falls short in its ability to provide the type of rigorous analysis the new vision outlines. Perhaps even more importantly, in the aftermath of 11 September, analysis based on non-structured methodologies evades both the transparency of how the analytic judgment was formed and the ensuing accountability.

Significantly, a number of academic intelligence programs have sprung up during the past decade offering advanced education in the field of Intelligence Studies. It is interesting to note that most of the advanced degrees they offer are Master of Arts degrees rather than Master of Science degrees. This indicates that the debate whether intelligence is an art or a science persists. A cultural change will not follow until people in the community stop thinking along black and white lines. Intelligence is both an art and a science. Resistance to implement structured methodologies stems from habit, from “this is not the way we do things around here” mentality, from the numerical illiteracy inherent in the Humanities and many Social Sciences, and a “if it were so great, why do you have to always prove it to me” attitude. Countering such deeply ingrained habits will take time and there are no quick fixes to this problem other than investing in people’s learning on the job. The intelligence community’s return on investment will be nothing short of realizing its lofty vision.


Russian Foreign Policy toward the Balkans: A Situation Assessment


Here is the final version of my part of the project on Russia. I hope to be able to publish here the team’s final report, which includes an analysis of competing hypotheses on Russian Reorganization of the Civilian Nuclear Energy Sector, a cost benefit analysis of Russia – Ukraine energy security relations, and a social network analysis of Dmitry Medvedev’s Leadership Network. However, I’m waiting for the permission of the other team members and the instructor to do so.

A brief evaluation of the effectiveness of the technique in relation to the topic

Using situation assessment to analyze Russia’s foreign policy toward the Balkans has as both its principal advantage and disadvantage the flexibility and resulting breadth of scope it offers. On the positive side, this flexibility functions to fill deficiencies in more formalized methodologies, where restriction of sub-methods and limitations of scope can result in an exaggerated focus on the particular details, failing to detect an over-arching pattern or structure. On the negative side, the potentially limitless options this method offers to the analyst can result in either oversimplification through generalization, or a lack of focus altogether. One way to avoid losing the string would be to commission situation assessments not of individual analysts but of an inter-disciplinary team. I believe this would only add to the potential multi-faceted direction this method is open to, while at the same time, keep the more wild fancies on a leash of peer review.

The elements I chose to include in this situation assessment, which in retrospect were best suited to the topic were the various IR theories on power and regionalism. In this spirit, I would advocate the use of open source analyses by various think tanks, especially if the analyst is not an area specialist. The potential pitfall of arriving at politicized information could be safeguarded against by a thorough source reliability check, which would take an infinitely shorter time than self-education of the analyst on a broad theme under the duress of a deadline.

Finally, the informal, descriptive nature of a situation assessment is conducive to writing in a narrative style, which is less prone to jargon and offers the analyst the opportunity to engage and “talk” to his/her client/decision-maker as the analysis unfolds. Not only does this make the reading experience of a person tired of reading report after report with uninspiring technical and/or management, or worse, bureaucratic language, but has the potential to establish good rapport between the two sides, minimize misunderstandings hidden in vague and ambiguous language, and add a dialogue-element to the analyst’s otherwise rather lonely job.

Introduction to Situation Assessment on Russian Foreign Policy toward the Balkans

I’m having so much fun writing this! The final product should be ready by Wednesday. Last minute comments welcome as always.

Russian Foreign Policy toward the Balkans: A Situation Assessment


Situation assessment as a methodology aims to provide the context for strategic planning, decision-making and action. As such, it is primarily a descriptive methodology that examines events in the present and looks for patterns from the past. While the ultimate purpose of a situation assessment is future-oriented in that it serves as the starting point for generating hypotheses for alternative futures, the process of gathering and analyzing information that makes up a situation assessment does little in terms of logical speculation of the data by the analyst. This, at least, is the traditional approach of this methodology whether applied in the context of national security intelligence, business/competitive intelligence, assessment of military capabilities, or academic research of international relations and political science. Although the definition of situation assessment may vary slightly across disciplines – compare, for instance, Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis in business, Case Study in international relations and politics, and Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB) in military intelligence – the main characteristic of this methodology is its focus on providing a descriptive observational design.

The present situation assessment will try to demonstrate that a descriptive analytical method need not be confined to observational variables alone, but offers the analyst opportunities to present his/her decision-maker with a highly inferential, evaluative and nuanced assessment. I will argue that situation assessment is a particularly useful methodology for looking at complex, interconnected and interdependent environments, not only because it can provide simultaneously a detailed (microscopic) and big picture (telescopic) view, but also because it opens the possibility to distinguish between perception and reality.

One of the more important advantages of situation assessment as a method is its qualitative (open) rather than quantitative (restricted) selection of the variables – I prefer to call them elements – that constitute the observation. This allows the analyst the flexibility to adapt these elements as well as juxtapose them in different ways on the surface of the analytical landscape, with the gained benefit of exploring different perspectives, and by extension, make qualitative judgments about perception and reality, much in the same way one would analyze a picture.

This situation assessment begins with an introduction to why this particular methodology was chosen by the analyst to examine the topic of inquiry, namely, Russian foreign policy toward the Balkans. The first part is a discussion of the methodology itself, what elements and why they were chosen to constitute the situation assessment. In this section I examine the aptitude of applying a situation assessment technique to the study of a country’s foreign policy. Next, I attempt to determine the viability of analyzing a country’s foreign policy through international relations and political science theories by looking at both the epistemological (positivist and post-positivist) and constructivist camps. Given the distinctly regional dimension of the research topic, I focus in particular on theories with specific application to power distribution, balance of power and power transition. Having identified ‘energy’ as one of the two distinct means toward the end in Russian foreign policy toward the Balkans, I explore applications and implications of a theoretical model developed by Buzan and Weaver, known as Regional Security Complex Theory and its extension to energy security.

I then focus on Russia’s second regional power weapon – identity politics – through a descriptive analysis of historical, cultural linguistic and religious factors, with emphasis on the particularly Russian cultural ideology of Eurasianism as the counter-balancing ideology of the Anglo-Saxon “west”. This discussion concludes my traditional approach to the examination of a country’s foreign policy in a regional aspect, and I turn to alternative analysis as a complement to the more established methods of conducting a situation assessment.

Because I treat a situation assessment as a picture, i.e. as a snapshot frozen in time, or rather, in non-time, I introduce art history analysis as a possible analogy in looking at “the picture”. I believe a comparison of a situation assessment analytical landscape to 17th century Dutch still life is particularly appropriate in shedding light both on my original technique (cf.Greek ‘techne’ – art, craft) and topic for a number of reasons.

First, the significance of Dutch development and preoccupation with optic instruments such as the microscope and telescope in the 17th century bears a resemblance to current trends of strategic thinking, most notably the emphasis on “big picture”, holistic visions of reality. This offers a basis for comparison, especially where a situation assessment is concerned because its purpose is to piece together the details, so as to offer a bird-view (God-view?) of the situation. That said, I do not believe that this is entirely possible due to sheer cognitive limitations, so in my evaluation of the technique, I will argue that holistic analysis is an idealized ambition: it can open more doors, but it will not open all doors.

Second, still life as an artistic genre is comparable to a situation assessment in that it offers a picture of reality suspended in, what would appear to be the present moment, but could well be argued that it is a representation “out of time”. And third, the role of perspective and depth on the canvas is not unlike what various foreign policy tools aim to do in shaping both external perceptions of the state by other states, and creating self-perceptions of national identity. Hence, I believe, such alternative analogy could be useful to the intelligence analyst trying to distinguish between perception and reality by becoming aware of the deception inherent in the image.

Part I concludes with an evaluation of the technique in application to the particular topic.

Part II of this paper is where the technique comes “alive” in action to form the actual content of the situation assessment. It begins with an overview of Russian foreign policy, the traits and trends that define Russia’s role on the global scene. This overview borrows heavily from international relations and political science theories, and resembles what a political scientist might refer to as foreign policy analysis. This section is followed by a discussion of the soft and hard power tools available to the current administration in Moscow, and aims to answer three specific questions.

First: Is Russia aiming to regain its sphere of influence on the Balkans by building complex interdependencies among the countries in the region by means of securing bilateral pipeline deals? Second: How is Russia exploiting the issue of “common” identity in the region and why? Third: Assuming that no state on the Balkans currently holds regional leadership, can Russia fill this gap by transcending the geographical limits, which define the region and achieving political, economic and cultural hegemony on the Balkans?

The last section of the analysis uses an alternative technique, namely an art analogy, to look at the individual players on the Balkans as well as the region’s periphery (Turkey and Cyprus) as though we were looking at a still life painting. The contradiction in the title of this section, “A still life of Balkan regional dynamics” is intentional. It aims to show that while a situation assessment and a still life can be perceived as static representations out of time, each country’s perception of each other along a spatial and temporal perspective, as well as its relation to the “blank” surface, exhibits a dynamic that is not apparent from a static snapshot of the situation. Since the more traditional approach to a situation assessment is closer to a static image, I felt justified in exploring an alternative technique to supplement the assessment with a more dynamic representation of reality.

It is important for this exercise to distinguish between allegory and symbol. A detailed discussion on this topic is out of the scope of this paper; for our purposes, the Oxford English Dictionary definitions will suffice, and I hope, convincingly justify my preference for an allegorical over a symbolic representation for each country on the grounds that each has a story to tell on the still life canvas of our situation assessment, rather than function as an idealized symbol, which would doom the actor incapable of change.

Allegory – a story, play, poem, picture, etc. in which the meaning or message is represented symbolically

Symbol – a mark or character taken as the conventional sign of some object, idea, function, or process

Thus, through the process of allegory, Bulgaria, with its machinations to please and benefit from both its NATO/EU partnership and Russia, becomes Janus – the Roman god of the gate and door who looks both ways. Romania, with its long history of fending off vampires becomes the garlic that would help keep Russia away from breathing distance. Greece, with a stable record of adhering to its proverbial reputation – “don’t trust Greeks bearing gifts – becomes the Trojan horse. In the Western Balkans, Serbia’s vocal support of Russian cultural kinship and little hesitation to assert its cultural and historical claims on the region, becomes a Kalashnikov. Kosovo, with its ambition to proclaim its “otherness” has finally got its own flag to show for it if nothing else. And Bosnia and Herzegovina is sweetening its bitter wounds with a lethargically brewing Turkish coffee pot.

In the background, but gaining in proportion are the S300 missile Cyprus, loaded not only with Russian ammunition, but a fat Russian wallet, and Turkey – holding tight to its application for EU membership as sticky Turkish delight. Russia – emperor of the surface, the “blank” – space absorbs these unfolding dynamics with the anticipation of the Minotaur waiting for his royal breakfast of seven youths and maidens.

The alternative analysis section of the situation assessment draws no conclusions. As a complementing alternative technique, its aim is to raise awareness of different perspectives and “throw” the more traditional parts on their heads, so to speak. As such, it is an exercise in thinking, not a logical argument.

The paper concludes with some thoughts on methodology in intelligence analysis in general and a summary of the experience in preparing this paper.

Scenario Planning as Part of Strategy Development

In my daily work, I hear the phrase “strategic planning” with such frequency that it has become by now a signal for “switching off”, i.e. stop paying attention…here we go again…not another strategy…and not the same strategy with different words, please! What a relief to read something actually intelligently written, like Conway’s article “Scenario Planning: An Innovative Approach to Strategy Development“, in which he makes a distinction between strategic planning and strategic thinking. Sure, it’s a piece dense with “management-speak”, but given the quality of ideas, one doesn’t mind the odd “innovative approach” or “setting direction”, or “immersion in foresight concepts”.

Conway argues that traditional strategic planning, based on deductive reasoning falls short of being effective in a complex, interdependent and highly uncertain environment in that it focuses more on past experience, data and fact driven thought processes. I’d like to call this the microscope-focused approach. What he advocates instead, or rather, in addition to, is “strategic thinking” as part of the planning process, or in other words, the ability to develop foresight capacity, a “big picture” view that is less concerned with the here and now of the details and the particular but adjusts the aperture to provide a universal, telescopic view. Of course, he doesn’t say “universal” vs. “particular”, which is how a philosopher might phrase the concept; nor does he use the microscope-telescope analogy, which would be more at home in the fields of myth, anthropology and psychology. Writing for a corporate audience, global vs. local is what one might expect to hear.

I think an interesting conclusion can be drawn from this observation. I believe Conway himself reaches this conclusion even if he doesn’t explicitly say so. In an environment of growing complexity and interdependence, strategic thinking implies being able to see connections that one might not do if he/she adheres to linear logic, and what’s more, one might never see by him/herself without the contribution of others. The crisscrossing of concepts from traditionally different disciplines and the fusion of individual brains into one collective intelligence is what strategic thinking for the 21st century seems to be all about.

I concur with Conway’s take on scenario planning as a way of creating alternative future narratives, and was happy to see the Dave Snowden reference on page 12. Although Snowden has become in the past few years a household brand name in (knowledge) management and a quote by him adorns the annual or centennial  corporate strategy paper of every Tom, Dick and Harry organization that likes to talk about “innovative approaches”, Snowden does often provide food for thought. [In my capacity as CKO, I once attended a presentation of his, which sparked enough interest to add his Cognitive Edge website/blog to my RSS feeds and read a number of articles he provides there under a creative commons license.] Conway outlines Snowden’s thoughts on the irrationality of human decision processes as a way of stressing the influence of human agency in strategy development. However, the quote ends too quickly. Elsewhere, when discussing the assumption of rational choice, Snowden goes through great pains to distinguish between “objective” reality and perceptions of reality. He argues that understanding these different perceptions or perspectives of reality can lead to strategic advantages and he sees narrative techniques (scenarios for our purposes) as a way to gain greater exposure to different perspectives:

The assumption of rational choice
Relaxing this assumption means that context and perspective become as important as rationality. This is an important reason that the Cynefin framework is not about “objective” reality but about perception and understanding; it helps us to think about the ways in which different people might be perceiving the same situation. For example, there is an old folk tale from India in which a wise man decides that in order to escape an impossible royal demand, he will fake insanity in the king’s court. He is operating in complex space because he is using cultural shorthands to provoke predictable reactions but is gambling that his ruse will seed the pattern he wants to create. He knows that from the perspective of his audience, who are operating in the space where things are bound by tradition and thus known, he appears to be acting chaotically, because they can conceive of no other reason for him to act this way in front of the king (who would surely behead him if he was faking). Thus by proving that he cannot be faking, he pulls off the fake. Understanding not only that there are different perspectives on an event or situation, but that this understanding can be used to one’s advantage, is the strategic benefit of relaxing this assumption. Narrative techniques are particularly suited to increasing one’s exposure to many perspectives on a situation. In management, there is much to be gained by understanding that entrained patterns determine reactions. This realization has major implications for organizational change and for branding and marketing. Our own work on narrative as a patterning device is gaining presence in this and other areas. Speculating, one of the most significant possible applications of this understanding is a move away from incentive-based targets and formal budgeting processes—both of which, we contend, produce as much negative as positive behavior. It is a truism to say that any explicit system will always be open to “gaming.” Paradox and dialectical reasoning are key tools for managers in the un-ordered domains.

C. F. Kurtz, D. J. Snowden, IBM SYSTEMS JOURNAL, VOL 42, NO 3, 2003,

Back to Conway, the scenario planning process he outlines is the same as that of Project Horizon. I wonder if the people responsible for managing that project did so intentionally, following Conway’s model or it was more of a Snowdean serendipity moment. I also wonder if the Project Horizon team answered the model questions from the decision tree for scenario planning that Conway provides. I must confess, I put the tree to test in terms of my own work and found it extremely difficult to answer the questions with “yes” and “no”. The reason for this is that it is often impossible to speak about an organization with one voice. There are, individuals, teams, silos, middle management, senior management – all open to change and dialogue to different degrees. Should one engage in scenario planning if the staff are open to change and dialogue but management isn’t and vice versa? If I attempt to answer this question, another point Conway makes comes to mind: “The organization will need to focus its foresight work – is it about helping the organization develop its preferred future and documenting that in a plan, or is it about considering all potential futures, whether possible, plausible or probable.” (p.21) From the point of view of management, I would say the focus tends to be on the former – developing your preferred future. From the point of view of staff – considering all options. How feasible is it then to apply scenario planning in a government organization, where both planning and decisions are more likely than not to be strictly top down? It takes a certain entrepreneurial spirit, of which government institutions are devoid almost by default, to engage in this type of exercise. Strategic or visionary thinkers are hardly welcome in such environments. At best, their boldest big picture strategy is dismissed as day-dreaming; at worst, it is seen as a threat to the managing body. In this respect, I find it commendable of the US government to support a project such as Horizon and would be very curious to know at what stage the project is two years after publishing the preliminary report. In particular, it would be interesting to know the progress on the Global Hazards Planning and Response capability, the US Government Partnership framework and the Global Affairs Learning Consortium since all these are sub-projects I am also trying to pursue in my work.

Scenario planning and the national security issue I’m working on (Russia and the Balkans):

I had already considered using scenarios prior to reading Conway and the project Horizon report, however, I’m not sure if scenario planning is appropriate when developing a situation assessment, which is the overarching analytical technique I’m applying to my project. In my view, a situation assessment should be limited to objective capabilities rather than alternative futures. I don’t think a situation assessment is or should be concerned with forecasting; rather it should be based on what Conway refers to as “traditional strategic planning” – deductive not inductive.

Still, had I chosen the same topic but a different method, I would apply scenario planning to examine potential “new” alliance formations on the Balkans. Bulgaria is a particularly interesting case due to its membership in both NATO and the EU, and its historical ties to Russia. Alternative scenarios could throw light on what role the country is going to play in terms of energy security in Europe. With four planned major pipeline routes transiting the country – 2 Russian projects and 2 EU/US-sponsored ones, it would be interesting to develop a scenario exercise to determine if Bulgaria will choose to “bandwagon” to the EU/US greater powers or become a Trojan horse by strengthening its ties with Russia. Other countries in the region (Romania and Serbia for instance) are less problematic because they have expressively stronger affinities to one camp or the other, hence the relatively low uncertainty would not merit the use of scenario planning. Greece could be another potential wild card despite its long history of NATO/EU membership. Dissatisfaction with some EU policies and a prospect of becoming a regional energy power through closer alliance with Russia, Greece’s behavior will be anything but predictable. Throw in Turkey’s contested EU application and the event that it actually succeeds, and a reshuffle of alliances and spheres of influence is sure to experience some major shifts. Cyprus, for one, will open its arms toward Russia even wider than it currently does.

To sum up, I would not apply scenario planning to my national security issue as long as I’m doing a situation assessment. However, I do believe scenario planning as a technique could be a valuable addition to long-term strategic analysis, especially when used to challenge assumptions about rational choice whether on an individual or a collective level.



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’.


Fantastic OSINT Wiki on Non-State Actors in Sub-Saharan Africa

I’m doing some OSINT collection on Sub-Saharan Africa for work and came across a wiki project on Kris Wheaton’s blog on sources and methods in intelligence.

It’s an OSINT wiki project developed by Mercyhurst students on Sub-Saharan Africa. I take my hat off not only to the students but to everyone behind the Mercyhurst intelligence studies program! Talk about revolution in intelligence analysis! Seeing examples of this kind fills me with optimism for the future generation of intel analysts and at the same time overwhelms me with a feeling of lament how far Europe is lagging behind.

Of further interest to wiki enthusiasts will be a paper Kris Wheaton presented at this year’s ISA convention. In it, he discusses lessons learned from using a web-based collaborative tool, commonly referred to as a wiki, to create custom intelligence products for decisionmakers in national security, law enforcement and business. He argues that analysts are massively and consistently more productive using a wiki and observes that the reduction in time spent accomplishing administrative duties, while modest in individual terms, quickly add up giving the teams more time to spend analyzing the data and less time sorting it our or sending it around to other team members. This result is better, more nuanced, analysis no matter how difficult the problem or how successful the team ultimately is in examining the topic under discussion.


Can structured methodology reduce intelligence failure?

If there is one single common “concept” that occupies the minds of all four authors, Jervis, Betts, Marrin and Clemente, this “concept” would be uncertainty. All four authors present their views on uncertainty applied to intelligence analysis, with varying degrees of optimism, pessimism and fatalism. It seems that uncertainty has become quite a fashionable concept, and is currently used profusely in a variety of disciplines from complexity to intelligence to military strategy to corporate management to the social sciences.

The temporal aspect of this fascination with uncertainty has striked me as rather exaggerated in that it is hardly specific to modernity. The examples from history from the 19th c. Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz (I take this as an arbitrary starting point; any other one would do as well) to as far back as the Delphic oracle are pertinent illustrations of mankind’s preoccupation with uncertainty and the desire to eliminate the latter, be it by military force or strategy (>Gr. Strategos, ‘general’) or by means of spiritual evocation of an intermediary oracle to interpret – call it what you will – God’s, fate’s, Chance’s “intentions”.

The negative aspects that all four authors attribute to uncertainty and particularly Betts’ fatalistic approach, are precisely a result of our modern obsession with certainty, security and risk elimination. In my view, uncertainty is not only not an obstacle but the very heart of opportunity, which in turn is more a source of optimism than of pessimism. The statement “failure is inevitable” (substitute failure with success or any other noun) sounds little more than a false truism. It is reminiscent of the type of Parmedian philosophy which asserts that all is one and change is impossible. I would go as far as to argue that this type of reasoning is a product of conscious and/or subconscious Christian rhetoric of the type that burns scientists and philosophers at the stake.

Being better at ease in Herakletian water, I would argue that nothing is inevitable because everything is in a flux. This flux, which is often ambiguous, uncertain, now visible, now not, sometimes linear, more often not, is precisely the strategic place of opportunity, the forking of the path, and the place where the potential for great leadership can emerge. To go back to Clausewitz, it is precisely in times of great uncertainty that great leaders are born, he argued.

All that said, there are a number of points that Betts raises, with which I concur. First of all, the idea that intelligence reform, whether procedural or product-oriented is based on trade offs, seems to me a logical observation in a world view that is based on polarities. What’s more important (Betts makes a mere mention of this but Marrin takes the argument a few steps further) is how, or rather where, such trade offs can be optimally utilized when the binary system of polarities assumes a more complex and amorphous form through the injection of sub-polar categories, i.e. when we are presented with additional “circumstantial evidence” that dilutes the black and white picture.

This place and agent of change is, I believe, correctly identified by all four authors as the margin, or the periphery. It is particularly fitting to think of strategy in spatial, not only temporal terms. The periphery, not the center, is often the space of pragmatic change. The center of gravity, to use a military term, represents not only the strength of a system but also its vulnerability. Again, history is rich with precedents of the shifting dynamics between the center and the periphery. Bolko von Oetinger, a strategist for Boston Consulting, argues in “Constructing Strategic Spaces”(Nov 2006) that “Strategy requires regular visits to the periphery in order to explore and learn” precisely because the center does not always remain the center and because “outsiders on the periphery are happy to traverse the distance to the center and conquer it.” He provides a fitting example of a center-periphery dynamic, with consequences the center could not have anticipated at the time. He takes 31 October 1517 as a temporal indicator of radical spatial change and asks (rhetorically): could Pope Leo X in Rome have anticipated that the 95 Theses Marthin Luther nailed to a church door in Wittenberg (the periphery’s ends by Roman standards) on that day would eventually result in Rome’s loosing its privileged position as the center of Christianity?

Going back to Betts article, I found his descriptions of patterned behavior in the face of strategic surprise well thought of and instructional to an intelligence analysis student. I agree with his evaluation of the difficulties and ultimate small benefit of applying worst-case scenario methods as particularly ineffective in terms of operations. Further, if multiple advocacy increases rather than decreases ambiguity and uncertainty, I would argue that this method should only be used in cases where decision-making and good leadership go hand-in-hand, i.e. when political leadership is synonymous with intellectual rigor, courage, and a dose of entrepreneurship.

The Devil’s Advocacy method is to me an intellectual exercise, which should be limited to academia. While guilty of the pleasure of playing this game myself, I believe it does little else than encourage mistrust among the “wrong people” (decision-makers) at the “wrong time” (time for decisive action rather than intellectual speculation).

Jervis identifies more or less the same intelligence failure causes – uncertainty, ambiguity and deception – and offers valuable practical examples for improvement of the intelligence processes and products. One thing that struck me as rather unique in his paper was his emphasis on human resources. In my professional function as chief knowledge officer, I’m confronted with similar HR issues that shape the internal environment. Particularly worthy of note were the sections on multidisciplinary training and the vertical-horizontal organizational structures, and how the former inhibits quality analysis/performance at the expense of organizational politics.

With regard to Perrow’s “error-inducing system”, which Jervis chooses to support through what he calls “informal norms and incentives of the intelligence community”, my response is the same as with Betts’ argument. Providing alternative competing hypotheses should be done with caution, depending on the customer. Further, the idea that intelligence analysis should borrow academic method of testing hypotheses by drawing predictions, is theoretically sound, and perhaps even applicable to long-term strategic analysis (or, on a second thought, maybe not as the more distant the future, the harder to make accurate predictions, except in Black Swan cases, where prediction becomes irrelevant), but has the operational trade offs of time and money. Therefore, I don’t think that any analytic method on its own can improve the analytic product. As Jervis argues himself, interlocking and supporting factors must reflect the requirements imposed by appropriate style: length of the analysis according to the consumer’s requirements, peer review processes among the analysts, and a horizontal hierarchical structure, to name but a few.

Another point that struck me as particularly apt was Marrin’s observation that: “The CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence – the home of analysts – appears to operate according to a culture that rewards service to policy makers but does little to distinguish between information and conceptual products.” Jervis expresses a similar opinion when he criticizes analysts for producing political reporting rather than political analysis. My personal opinion here is that this shortcoming is due to a certain type of an educational system that promotes knowledge over learning; the statement format over the question format. If I’m correcting in thinking so, it would take a long time to overhaul the fundamental principles that form our didactic processes. Another explanation could be a cognitive one, i.e. it takes less mental effort to produce a statement than to come up with a question. And, finally, it could be psychological: reporting facts is largely an anonymous activity that more people would be comfortable with than making a prediction or asking a question, which is an expression of individualism, and by extension more open to criticism.

In this light, I read the final Marrin and Clemente article with great enthusiasm because the medical analogy is a comparative method I’ve spent some time musing over myself in its application to religion, philosophy, writing, and memory. My only concern with this method is that it would attract a certain breed of human, be it an academic dilettante  or professional, whose passion for comparative analysis (of any type), would be the emphasis of theory over practice. And while I think a certain amount of theory can be beneficial to intelligence, its main purpose is and should remain actionable.

The analogy provided by Marrin and Clemente between the process of arriving at a medical diagnosis by medical professionals and articulating an intelligence analysis assessment by intelligence professionals provides an alternative way of looking at the discipline of intelligence analysis, and it is for the most part, useful.

First, the authors identify parallels between the two disciplines. In terms of collection practices, they draw attention to the similarities of employed techniques to gather information upon which different hypotheses can be identified. They compare the medical history questionnaire a doctor first compiles in the diagnostic process to what can be roughly summarized as a situation assessment in intelligence, i.e. any known historical precedents or patterns of events and relationships between actors.

Second, the “review of systems”, i.e. the assessment of specific organs, can be viewed as similar to the individual steps in a country profile assessment, including foreign policy, domestic policy, politicians and political leadership, diplomatic relations, cultural, socio-economic relations, etc. Marrin and Clemente claim that the stage involving the physical examination itself is least conducive to analogy, except in the form of overseas visits aiming at gathering first-hand knowledge of the area, or alternatively, cables from government representatives stationed in the given area.

Finally, additional information provided by various technological systems, such as MRI and IMINT respectively, further reinforces the analogy.

What was interesting to note was the observation that “90% of all diagnoses are made by clinical history alone, 9% by the physical exam, and 1% by laboratory tests and imaging studies such as CT and MRI scans.” (p.710) This finding has interesting implications for at least two reasons. First, if we extend this analogy to the intelligence field, it would seem that in the science vs.intuition debate, intuition is the clear winner in practice. Secondly, the finding poses a serious concern regarding collection requirements, needs and spending. If a situation assessment will be the core component of the final intelligence product, and most of the data can be obtained by open sources, this would necessarily minimize requirements and costs. Further, as Marrin and Clemente observe, the human element, i.e. the experience and the developed intuitive capabilities of a professional from either field, will be indispensable in interpreting the raw data gathered from MRIs, IMINT, SIGINT, and other technical subfields.

In the analytical process, there seems to be a strong argument in favor of comparing how a medical doctor arrives at a diagnosis by examining alternative hypotheses and the way an intelligence analyst might employ Heuer’s method of analysis of competing hypotheses (ACH) .

Parallels also exist in the examination of causes of inaccurate diagnosis vs. intelligence failure: inevitable limitations in the collection and analysis; cognitive limitations of the practitioner/analyst, such as biases, stereotypes, etc; and failure in the application and implementation of scientific methods.

Marrin and Clemente also identify limitations to the proposed analogy between medicin and intelligence. Three key differences are worth acknowledging here. First, medicine has an advantage as a scientific discipline over intelligence in the sheer length in existence of the field, which offers medical practitioners a much wider empirical and theoretical knowledge base. Second, the difference in degrees of denial and deception are also noteworthy of the medical field’s advantage in that, only rarely, do patients conceal or deliberately manipulate their ailing symptoms, whereas in the intelligence field, denial and deception is standard practice. Finally, the doctor-patient relationship does not sustain a parallel to the intelligence analyst-decision/policymaker relationship in that “National security decisionmakers, however, do not make decisions only after receiving finished intelligence analysis (i.e. what a doctor would do prior to initiating treatment), in many cases they are their own analysts, and they have entirely separate sources of information.” (p.722)

The lack of trust between intelligence professionals and decision/policymakers, and the inadequate feedback mechanisms are a well known problem, which makes the doctor-patient relationship closer to a symbiotic one while leaving the latter incomplete at best, parasitic at worst, or even self-destructive.