How Literature Can Enhance Intelligence Analysis

Some months ago while watching a televised performance of the Scottish play, it occurred to me that dramaturgy would be an interesting potential to explore in relation to alternative intelligence analysis. Here was a staging of a whole host of issues that the intelligence analyst is confronted with on the job: early warning, denial and deception, human leadership profiling, and assassination to name but a few. From the very first scene of the three witches providing “early warning” and nature foreshadowing the impeding gloom and doom of the story to the self-reflections of a king (and queen) losing the power of their title to the subtle change in patterns of light vs. dark in all their metaphorical expressions, the play is full of lessons and analogies that the intelligence analyst could use as a prompt to boost his/her critical thinking skills.

What a pleasant surprise then, to discover last week a paper by Jeffrey White, “Shakespeare for Analysts: Literature and Intelligence”, published by the Joint Military Intelligence College. In this paper White makes a powerful argument for the value of reading literature both in terms of teaching new analysts ways to expand their imagination in order to be able to better discover patterns and make sound interpretations and also aiding seasoned analysts gain more multifaceted perspectives on human behavior in complex situations.

In Shakespeare’s historical and tragic plays, White finds a wealth of resources pertaining to human behavior that he claims is of enduring interest to intelligence analysis: conspiracy, treason, assassination, moral corruption, poisoning, civil war, inner-circle behavior, political relationships, the effects of asymmetry in culture, power, and personality, succession, rivalry and faction, loyalty, political violence, the analysis of motives, and the handling of ambiguity and uncertainty.

The paper is not only an intellectual reading exercise; it also provides concrete sets of questions that the author has developed through his reading of Shakespeare to aid the analyst frame the issue he/she is tasked to analyze.

Here is a crunched exerpt:

Questions to examine when looking at a leader in a position of great power
Source: Shakespeare’s Henry V

  • How did he prepare for his future role?
    How did he exercise leadership?
    Was he self-aware in doing this?
    How did others – allies, enemies and subordinates – see him?
    What was his response to the possibility of failure and defeat?
    How did he manage the uncertainty he faced?
    How did he weigh the responsibility that he had to carry?

Questions to examine when looking at a weak leader in a position of great power
Source: Shakespeare’s Henry II

  • What are the dimensions of leadership failure?
    What is it like to lose power?
    What is it like to believe yourself to be in charge, but to actually be failing?
    What is it like to see yourself as a failure, and know it’s your fault?
    What is it like to see your opponent win?
    How do your supporters see you as you lose?
    What is it like to usurp a crown?
    Is success ever final?

Questions to examine the pure exercise of force
Source: Shakespeare’s Richard III

  • What is it like to covet the throne?
    What is it like to be willing to do anything to win it?
    Can one enjoy oneself in the gaining of it?
    Can a person be evil and still have admirable qualities?
    What are the limits on the exercise of power and the use of force?
    What are the implications of evil at the pinnacle of leadership?

Questions to examine civil war
Source: Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy

  • What are the key dynamics of a civil war?
    How does violence expand?
    How does violence become personal?
    How does the use of violence evolve as a civil war emerges?
    How is violence justified, to the self and to the group?
    What kinds of behavior and actions does it produce?
    What do the leaders see as the civil war process begins and progresses?
    What do they do in response?

Questions to examine plotting a coup
Source: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

  • When is a coup justified?
    What rationalizations are employed?
    When is the right time?
    How do the plotters see one another?
    How does opposition arise?
    What are the internal dynamics?
    What is the range of behaviors among the principals?
    What are the consequences, intended and unintended?

Questions to examine family matters, the behavior of members of small groups or “inner circles” – could be particularly useful when looking at clans, tribes and some organized crime groups
Source: Shakespeare’s 3 Henry VI

  • Is “family” important in the politics of “tribal” or “lineal” societies?
    How do the relatives of leaders affect the political situation?
    Are family and political power inseparable in dynastic or traditional societies?
    What are the consequences of poor family political management?

Questions to examine the role of women in politics
Source: Shakespeare’s 3 Henry VI

  • Can women play important political roles in traditional societies?
    What are these roles and what are their limits?
    What tools and methods do women have available?
    How do they actually exert power and influence?
    Under what circumstances can they emerge as political players in their own right?
    Do women have any special advantages?

Questions to examine loyalty and honor
Source: Shakespeare’s King John

  • Are loyalty and honor absolute or contingent?
    What is the basis for loyalty to political leaders?
    How is loyalty won and kept?
    What are the boundaries of loyalty?
    Is anyone totally loyal or completely honorable?
    Why do people break oaths or change sides in a political contest?
    What justifications do they employ?
    What are the political and military consequences of dishonorable actions?

White concludes with the sound observation that literature, and the works of Shakespeare in particular, is a good starting point for examining political psychology. It helps the analyst with pattern recognition on a basic human level that transcends cultural differences. I find this argument particularly viable and would add that, the reading of myths has a similar power to evoke patterns that are universally applicable even if the particular mythological hero is associated with specific geo-cultural characteristics. There is a difference between how an individual and a group would react to particular circumstances. Where the group reaction might help define certain cultural peculiarities, the individual reaction to a situation of fear, power coveting, revenge, loyalty, etc., in my view, follows a more general line, one not specific to culture, ethnicity and/or religion, but specific to the “human condition”.

Finally, in terms of concrete application of literature to the process of intelligence analysis, I must fully voice my support for White’s argument that reading good literature contributes to the analyst’s ability to write better – a largely undervalued and underestimated skill in intelligence analysis. In White’s words:

“As we go down the road to “digital production” and “knowledge packets”, concepts that are fundamentally antithetical to story telling and sense making, it will be increasingly important that quality writing continue to be one of the essential elements by which we measure quality analysis. As his skills as a playwright matured, Shakespeare hardly wasted a word. ”

See here Perseus resources on Shakespeare.


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.

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’.