The game is changing rapidly. Can Washington’s intelligence community keep up?
National Interest, 15 May 2014
Josh Kerbel is the Chief Analytic Methodologist at the Defense Intelligence Agency. He writes often and openly on the intersection of government (especially intelligence) and globalization. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not imply endorsement by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense or the US Government.
In 2012, the once-mighty Eastman-Kodak company declared bankruptcy. It was an event that should have reverberated strongly with the United States Intelligence Community (IC)—and not just due to the obvious connection between imaging and spying. Rather, it should have resonated because in Kodak the IC could have glimpsed a reflection of itself: an organization so captivated by its past that it was too slow in changing along with its environment.
To understand the IC’s similar captivation and lethargy—to remain focused on classified collection in an era of increasingly ubiquitous, useful and unclassified data—one must first understand the type of problem around which the modern IC business model remains designed: the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was fundamentally a collection problem. That is to say, it was a closed system (i.e., a discrete entity) with clear edges and a hierarchical governance structure. Given that nature, knowing what was happening in the Soviet Union required the use of classified means of collection—most of which the IC alone possessed.
Today, however, the IC no longer has the luxury of watching a single discrete entity that demands classified collection in order to obtain relevant data. There is a much more expansive range of interconnected and complex challenges. These challenges—economic contagion, viral political and social instability, resource competition, migration, climate change, transnational organized crime, pandemics, proliferation, cyber security, terrorism, etc.—are interdependent phenomena, not discrete ”things.” As such, they are less collection issues than cognitive ones. To put it differently: relevant data about all these issues is widely available—the real challenge is to make sense of it.
This, of course, is a very different world for the IC, one in which it has little experience. Consequently, the IC—unfortunately, but not surprisingly—does what it knows; it grafts its own legacy experience and expertise—classified collection—onto the new challenges that loom. Accordingly, terrorism (a broad phenomenon that needs to be thought about contextually) becomes—mistakenly—about terrorists (distinct things that need to be targeted for collection). Indeed, the whole slew of complex issues mentioned above get artificially and erroneously reduced to discrete chunks. Not only is this dangerously simplistic, it effectively puts the IC on a divergent path from the increasingly complex world it is tasked to understand.
To finally address this ever-growing divergence, the IC will need to reshape at least eight legacy characteristics:
Cognitive: Intelligence analysts must be capable of thinking creatively—holistically and synthetically across traditional boundaries. The long-held emphasis on reductive thinking that breaks issues into discrete pieces—reinforced by the compartmentalization associated with classified information—is no longer sufficient.
Organizational: Analytic organizations need to be much flatter and more dynamically networked. The traditional fixed and compartmentalized hierarchies—often rooted in secrecy-driven compartmentalism—are not agile and impede holistic thinking. It takes a networked organization to understand a networked world.
Behavioral: Analysts must get to know who they are trying to support and what those policy makers are trying to accomplish. They need to think in terms of clients, not customers; and service, not production. They can no longer just assume relevance based on access to unique, secret information and just “toss” products at policy makers.
Methodological: Analysts must increase their use of synthetic methodologies (wargaming, complex modeling, simulation, etc.) that help make sense of aggregate, often-unclassified knowledge. The ability to “say something” cannot remain beholden to the ability to collect and cite specific—usually secret—information.
Technological: Analysts need to think of and use technology as a cognitive aid and not just as a tool for data management and communication. In particular, they must recognize that visualization technology is a crucial aid to thinking holistically and understanding complex issues.
Linguistic: Analysts must use language that accurately captures and reflects the uncertainty inherent in complex issues. Since language is intricately tied to mindset, the continued misapplication of linear mechanical metaphors (i.e., inertia, momentum, trajectory, leverage, tension, etc.) that promote the illusion of certainty must be abated.
Evaluative: Analytic organizations need to measure their “value-added” to the policy process and its desired outcomes. The traditional metrics—which focused on how much output (i.e., “product”) was churned out, vice the relative utility of work to policy makers—will no longer suffice.
Informational: Analysts need to get past their “secrecy bias”—the notion that classified information is almost always better than open-source. In an open world, this simply cannot remain a fundamental premise.
In the aggregate, changing these eight characteristics amounts to nothing less than a new business model. Of course, such paradigmatic change—from a classified collection model to a cognition (sense-making) model—is scary. Not surprisingly, the IC tends to approach it the way so many organizations do—it takes incremental steps whereby it effectively just nibbles at the list.
The IC has tried—and continues—to experiment with bits and pieces of the above-described model. Unfortunately, these various initiatives—a new organizational construct here, a new technological “tool” there—are often disjointed and usually only supported to the extent that they don’t prove “disruptive” to the prevailing model. The result is an additive approach to change that is unlikely to allow the IC to close the gap with a world that is becoming exponentially more complex by the day.
While incrementalism is an affliction of all sorts of organizations confronting the need to change, there is another—more unique—factor contributing to the IC’s hesitancy. That factor is the belief amongst many intelligence officers that there is little, if anything, in the above-outlined model that only the IC can provide. This, however, is where the IC’s secrecy ethos usefully comes into play.
For one thing, the IC can still distinctively inform its analyses with classified information, if and when it is appropriate. But even more importantly, it can constructively reshape that ethos so that it emphasizes the protection of policy makers’ policy deliberations as much as its own classified collection methods. By doing so, the IC can uniquely promote policy success by routinely providing policy makers a secure, well-informed and policy-agnostic environment in which policy options and potential outcomes can be proactively floated and explored without those options being prematurely disclosed and, thus, undermined. Indeed, that is a valuable and relevant service—one built more on the IC’s ability to keep secrets than to collect them—that only the IC could readily provide.
All told, it now appears that the IC is staring at its own “Kodak Moment.” It can choose to maintain its focus on the collection of secrets and hope beyond reason that those secrets—seasoned with a dusting of open source—will provide profound insight into an increasingly open and interconnected world. Or, it can opt to dive into change along the lines described above and finally—if twenty years late—have a business model that lets it once again provide truly unique and substantial value.
To choose the latter is to have a viable path to helping policy makers better anticipate and understand the complex phenomena inherent in a globalized world. But to choose the former? Well, let’s just say the IC might want to take a good, hard look at Kodak.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
ROBERT STEELE: Josh Kerbel has produced a lovely overview, no doubt aided by General Flynn being an advocate for change before General Flynn was himself marginalized to make way for the balance of Clapper’s aides to move into the highest positions. Below is my graphic from 1990, along with my general intelligence reform list and a couple of recent reflections. It just absolutely kills me as a loyal dissident who nailed it 25 years ago, to see that we have wasted 1.2 trillion dollars on technical collection while destroying what we had and failing to further develop human and open sources, counterintelligence, secure open source information technology, and of course deep holistic analysis leavened with true cost economics. The crap that comes out of the National Intelligence Council is an embrassmment. As Tony Zinni has pointed out, the secret world provides “at best” 4% of what serious people at the highest levels need, and NOTHING for everyone else.
If President Obama wants to leave on a high note, he might wish to eliminate the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and also the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, while demanding that John Brennan, as the restored Director of Central Intelligence, get his act together and start paying attention to those who consider INTEGRITY to be the foundation of intelligence professionalism — CIA as the National Collection Agency, NSA as the National Processing Agency, DIA as the National Analysis Agency, eradicate the NRO, merge NGA with USGS and cut them by two thirds, and unleash the FBI and military counterintelligence against real traitors. The Open Source Agency would — as I told Clapper in 2007 — set the gold standard for ethical evidence-based decision-support and force the classified disciplines to demonstrate value-added beyond that (this is evidently Clapper’s worst nightmare, he clearly wants to spend money and not be held accountable for actually doing anything useful — the lies being told to the President and Congress notwithstanding). The OSA would enable Whole of Government decision support including shared decision-support with Congressional oversight committees that receive no intelligence today of any sort, and the rapid reduction of the DoD budget by 30% while still achieving a 450-ship Navy, a long-haul Air Force, and an air-mobile Army. By the by, Congress — and the White House — can be assured that I have learned one hard lesson from the National Security Act of 1992. I am absolutely certain that both intelligence and defense reform can be job and revenue neutral district by district and state by state. I know how to do this. The President and the Vice President as well as the Secretaries of State and Defense are being carefully shielded from any possible understanding of the ethical effective alternatives to the mess we have now. The very people who have the most to gain from intelligence reform are themselves captives, their correspondence controlled, their perceptions managed, in betrayal of the public interst.
Recent Related Posts:
See Especially (Historic):
1989 Al Gray (US) on Global Intelligence Challenges
1990 Intelligence in the 1990′s – Six Challenges
1991 MCG Intelligence Support for Expeditionary Planners
1992 AIJ Fall ‘New Paradigm” and Avoiding Future Failures
1992 AIJ OSS Steele’s Original Vision
2000 ON INTELLIGENCE: Spies and Secrecy in an Open World
2002 THE NEW CRAFT OF INTELLIGENCE: Personal, Public, & Political
2014 Robert Steele & Anonymous: Most Analysis Software Sucks — And Story of How Steele Correctly Called BSA Not Being Signed in Afghanistan
2014 Robert Steele: Appraisal of Analytic Foundations
2014 Robert Steele: Online Review Books on Education, Intelligence, Research
2014 Reflections: Seven Steps to US Intelligence Reform [Search: how can the intelligence community remain relevant in the 21st century]
2014 Robert Steele – An Open Letter
2013 Robert Steele Reflections on NATO 4.0 — Key Challenges AND Solutions
2012 Robert Steele: Reflections on the US Military — Redirection Essential — and a Prerequisite to Creating a 450-Ship Navy, a Long-Haul Air Force, and an Air-Liftable Army
See Also (Current):
2015 Steele’s New Book
2014 Beyond OSA
2014 PhD Proposal
2014 Steele’s Open Letter
2014 UN @ Phi Beta Iota
2013 Intelligence Future
2012 Academy Briefing
1989+ Intelligence Reform
1976+ Intelligence Models 2.1
1957+ Decision Support Story