Analysis Paralysis: the Intelligence-Policy Divide, Revisited

The National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 was released earlier this year (you can find it here).  In that context, it is worth mentioning an important point that Wikistrat‘s Thomas P.M. Barnett made earlier about previous NIC’s forecasts in his 2005 book, The Pentagon’s New Map.  Barnett’s key point in the book for our purposes is that the US Intelligence Community believes that it must only do analysis, and never engage in “advocacy” of any particular policy.  This epistemologically naive point of departure poses a number of problems.

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These problems were recognized early.  Back in 1949, the nascent CIA’s famous Kent-Kendall debate was precisely about the so-called “intelligence-policy divide“. Sherman Kent, founding father of the CIA’s analytic arm, advocated a bright and stark line  between the analyst and the policy maker in order for the former to retain analytic objectivity.  Willmoore Kendall, his colleague, argued the contrary view, that only by being closely involved in the policy making process could the analyst really usefully contribute.  But from the distance the argument seems a bit abstract and one of the merits of Barnett’s reminder is to give a concrete example of the problem created by a purely analytic approach to intelligence.

The CIA's Sherman Kent (L) and  Willmoore Kendall (R)

The CIA’s Sherman Kent (L) and Willmoore Kendall (R)

First, such pretended intellectual virginity weakens analysis, because it compels analysts to describe what every other country in the world will do in response to an unfolding series of events while essentially keeping the United States itself static.  Only if analysts are allowed to imagine possible US moves – and this can only be done with policy makers – can a really dynamic approach to analysis be achieved.  Clearly, in the midst of this one could come close to advocacy, Kent school’s greatest heresy.

Your Holiness, call me a heretic, but I cannot analyze without advocacy!

Your Holiness, call me a heretic, but I cannot analyze without advocacy!

Second, and more subtly, according to Barnett, all things being equal an illusory intelligence-policy divide leads analysts to imagine the future as a straight continuation of the present. But clearly, all other things are not equal, and analysis should not just be about projecting the trends but about evaluating the possible strategic interplay between policymakers and the objects of their policies.

In the end, Barnett advocates a different approach to thinking about the future, one that is more about shaping than predicting. Whereas most analysts define their professional environment as “futures to be avoided,” he prefers to focus on a future “worth creating”.   He concludes “What I want to do is embrace that future and shape it from within”.

This approach is something Milo and I have also long advocated in this blog and in our teaching:  let’s largely move away from prediction – it doesn’t work anyway – and focus on what we can change.  With their deterministic view and impression of ineluctable trends, forecasting exercises really can be the enemy of human action. Far from enlightening us about possible futures, predictions can cloud our thinking and limit our action. The fact that in most human spheres they almost invariably end up horribly off the mark is an additional reason not to even bother reading them. Instead of predicting, put your energy into shaping.  And should you decide to do extensive analysis first, don’t kid yourself that you’re not embedding advocacy in very line.

Barnett’s note can be found here, it is worth reading. The Kent-Kendall debate is described in Jack Davis’ excellent article available here. On forecasting, see our article “We have met the enemy and he is, er, forecasting.”

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4 responses to “Analysis Paralysis: the Intelligence-Policy Divide, Revisited

  1. I agree in general with the arguments made but I would highlight, and maybe I’m extrapolating too much from what was said above, that some level of forecasting / prediction is necessary to help with scenario / contigency planning. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

    Also, diversity of viewpoints is key. If the analysis will contain advocacy then best to listen to more than one argument, however disinclined one might be to do so. Similar to the opinion pages of some periodicals.

    Would you agree?

  2. Dear Phillipe, Thanks for raising this important issue of the problematic relationship between intelligence analysts and policy makers. Unfortunately, the trend in the last 20 years or so in western countries, not only the US, is for closer relationship contrary to what Sherman Kent advocated. I’m aware how complicated is the role of intelligence analysts and based on twenty five tears of strategic intelligence experience and 10 more years in the academia and in business, when I look into this matter from the outside, I much preferred the “old” situation that went on for many years. One of my best teachers on intelligence, the late head of the Israeli military intelligence, General and Professor Yehoshfat Harkabi, was warning against the new trend of closer relationship, but most intelligence experts are ignoring this important matter and let this trend go on. I believe close relationship is damaging intelligence analysis deeply. Both in strategic and business intelligence. Forecasting is another matter, which needs further discussion.

  3. Once you step over the line into advocacy, you stop producing intelligence and start producing propaganda.

  4. I am reminded of the distinction Ashwin Parameswaran noted over at his blog:

    “Crucial question for Western Philosophy:

    “What is the truth?” i.e. how to look before you leap.

    Crucial question for Chinese Philosophy:

    “Where is the Way?” i.e. how to leap without looking.

    via A.C. Graham on page 3 of the ‘Disputers of the Tao’ who notes that
    the crucial question for [Chinese philosophers] is not the Western philosopher’s ‘What is the truth?’ but ‘Where is the Way?’

    It seems Kendall might have had some ChineseThink in him.

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