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Boundaries, not Failures

Former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden makes a valid point when he refers to the predictability of the current crisis in Egypt, suggesting that tagging the unfolding events an “intelligence ‘failure’ miss[es] the mark and betray[s] a lack of understanding of what intelligence can and cannot do”. According to him, solid intelligence tradecraft excels at uncovering secrets, not mysteries. So what may policymakers (who define the respective requirements) reasonably expect from intelligence?

First of all, they should hear intelligence describe its own boundaries.

In his recent book, “Challenges in Intelligence Analysis“, Mercyhurst professor Timothy Walton underlines just that. It is worth applying some common sense to expectations: any given event (or cause) has a number of possible, more or less plausible outcomes (or effects). At the same time, one and the same effect might have different causes. This also means that things are not necessarily destined to happen the way they do, just take into account the principle of double effect in war theory. What is important though, is trying to detect the path between events as well as the triggering event, the one major cause for a certain effect – if there is one at all.

jertis@flickr, CC by-nc-nd 2.0

jertis@flickr, CC by-nc-nd 2.0

In Egypt, according to Hayden, there was, namely “the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit merchant 1,300 miles to the west of Cairo”. Hayden, of course, acknowledges that the course of events that followed was not at all inevitable nor was it forseeable. The triggering event often is just that: a triggering event, but not the underlying root cause of, in this case, Egypt’s unrest to boil over.

While there is no doubt that one thing leads to another, there rarely is a direct route. It is not primarily about connecting the “dots”, as I quoted Carl Ford in this blog, for dots are not the answer to a sound intelligence question. There is much more to analysis than “low probability shots” and educated guesses. And the only proper way for intelligence to help political decision making is to make those who define the requirements understand how judgments and recommendations are worked out, strictly speaking on the basis of uncertainty.

Nevertheless, Walton says, this uncertainty, that requires intelligence professionals to be very aware of their limited capabilities, is a strength. It provides options, not only for events to evolve, but also for analysis and decision-making, and those options can ultimately influence events. So after all, intelligence is, in any case, better than “consulting an oracle, trusting fate, or ignoring the problem”.

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  1. “Two senior Russian anti-terrorism officials have been sacked for failing to prevent a deadly terrorist attack on Moscow’s busiest airport last month.”

    One of those FSB guys was named Aladin, but even that didn’t help…

    Tuesday, February 8, 2011 at 19:31 | Permalink
  2. The CIA needs “better collection when it comes to the triggers that ignite these conditions.”

    Thursday, February 10, 2011 at 19:12 | Permalink

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