The Unthinking of American Intelligence

Why is the American civilian and military intelligence community so pathetic and ineffective? There are myriad reasons ranging from the natural entropy in large organizational dynamics, lack of vertical and horizontal integration and plain-vanilla incompetence. I'm indebted to Jim Grichar for his intensive and comprehensive treatment of intelligence problems on LRC and would urge everyone to read his entire archive for a terrific treatment of the subject. I'd like to touch on the one area I feel has been overlooked in the entire debate on intelligence efficacy — critical thinking skills.

The US intelligence community used to be staffed by Ivy League graduates and top-drawer intellects during World War III (also known as the Cold War) whose colleges and even the government institutions for which they worked had a respect for the employment of logic. Although the cracks were starting to show in the 1960's when CIA and national security analysts were using economic performance data published by the Soviet Union to prove the coming ascendancy of centrally planned economies overwhelming the West. They must have read too much Paul Samuelson in college. Now the lethal combination of a federally funded university system and the leviathan state has devalued education to such a degree that a liberal education is now only available at a handful of universities in the US and even those pale in comparison to the rigor of the early twentieth century (much less the classical tradition in Western academe in the 19th century). Today, anyone can graduate from college and have no more viable an intellectual tool chest than they entered with. Logic, like the classics, is on the endangered species list in the American academy. When Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren published How to Read a Book in 1940, many were amused by the irony of the publication but it does not detract from its value. One could issue a book to the intelligence community titled "How to Think Your Way Out of a Paper Sack" and offer a service unprecedented among the heavy intellectual lifters of America's elite intelligence community. I would challenge anyone to examine the US intelligence machine in the last three decades and discern the employment of rigorous logic and reason. It would be amusing to find any vindicated predictive analysis that was not an accident.

No one doubts America's technological edge and the ability to vacuum up unprecedented data in mammoth quantities stored in countless different media (including tape reels, decaying microfiche and five and a quarter inch diskettes) for our skilled archivists to warehouse. Guess what? We don't know how to digest it. Grab any CIA or NSA analyst by the lapels and administer a test in formal and symbolic logic and they will fail. They could not identify fallacies to escape the confines of the grocery bags they're trapped in. All the information in the world is at their fingertips and they seem incapable of asking the right question or framing the right data for the problem they're approaching. As Richard Mitchell has pointed out, reading doesn't begin until you take your eyes off the page. You can receive all the information you want, but if you are incapable of processing it and establishing patterns and relationships from disparate sources, you may as well be a librarian. Couple this with the Political Correctness that is strangling intelligent discourse by fencing off forbidden knowledge and you set the stage for the trillion dollar "defense/intelligence" apparatus to be caught off-guard on 9/11. (Memo to all FBI field agents: you will be subject to prosecution if you interfere with the religious freedom of resident aliens to carry on their mandated jihad against perceived infidels. Sensitivity training to be scheduled at a later date. . .)

Bin Laden has remained afield despite the best efforts and countless tax dollars shoveled into the coffers of our esteemed intelligence community. This gaping maw of a black hole will gladly continue to devour national treasure and not deliver a scintilla of protection because it cannot analyze but it can archive. Are they amassing this vast store of information hoping that one or two analysts may come along to make sense of it all? The nature of the bureaucracy lends itself to perpetuation of a comfortable niche versus solution as von Mises demonstrated. Legend has it that the Indian nuclear tests in the late nineties were a surprise because the Clinton worthies sent a team to Delhi complete with satellite photos demonstrating we knew they had the capability to conduct both underground and aerial testing. The US delegation showed the photos to the Indians who correctly ascertained satellite vector reconnaissance paths and timed the preparation and detonation of their nuclear tests when our overhead reconnaissance birds would be out of range. This is the kind of incompetence that makes you gasp for air.

When I attended the US Army Military Intelligence Officer Advanced Course training for nearly eight months at Fort Huachuca, Arizona nary an hour was spent on formal logic or identification of fallacies. After leaving the school and serving in various capacities in the US Army around the globe, I have yet to meet anyone from any service or civilian intelligence arm who was exposed to critical thinking in a formal fashion.

Is there a difference between information and intelligence? The latter should be a refined distillate of the former precisely focused and able to answer critical questions to inform decisions for action. This seems a mouthful but it captures the importance of being able to discern the accurate from the fallacious. Simply put, if an analyst cannot effectively use a methodology that acts as a filter for poor or false information, he cannot deliver actionable intelligence outside the rules of chance. The WMD fiasco in Iraq illustrates perfectly the gullibility of undiscerning analysts who substitute the whims of their rulers for clear thinking. We haven't even touched on the lost intellectual endeavor of examining possible second and third consequences of actions, but that is fodder for another article.

October 18, 2003