Constructing Cassandra: Reframing Intelligence Failure at the CIA, 1947-2001

Constructing Cassandra: Reframing Intelligence Failure at the CIA, 1947-2001

Constructing Cassandra: Reframing Intelligence Failure at the CIA, 1947-2001

Constructing Cassandra: Reframing Intelligence Failure at the CIA, 1947-2001


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Constructing Cassandra analyzes the intelligence failures at the CIA that resulted in four key strategic surprises experienced by the US: the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the Iranian revolution of 1978, the collapse of the USSR in 1991, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks—surprises still play out today in U.S. policy. Although there has been no shortage of studies exploring how intelligence failures can happen, none of them have been able to provide a unified understanding of the phenomenon.

To correct that omission, this book brings culture and identity to the foreground to present a unified model of strategic surprise; one that focuses on the internal make-up the CIA, and takes seriously those Cassandras who offered warnings, but were ignored. This systematic exploration of the sources of the CIA's intelligence failures points to ways to prevent future strategic surprises.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804785808
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 08/21/2013
Pages: 392
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Milo Jones is Managing Director of a consulting firm and teaches geopolitics and strategy as a Visiting Professor at IE Business School in Madrid, Spain. Philippe Silberzahn is Professor of Strategy at EMLyon Business School in France and a Research Fellow at Ecole Polytechnique in France.

Read an Excerpt

Constructing Cassandra


By Milo Jones, Philippe Silberzahn

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-8580-8



THIS CHAPTER HAS FOUR SECTIONS. The first section makes the case that intelligence is a social problem, a recognition that has significant implications for the work of the CIA. The second section introduces the theoretical viewpoint, social constructivism, and explains why it is well suited to investigate the CIA's work. In sum, this is because intelligence work happens not merely in the minds of individual analysts but in a distinctive community, the CIA. This section also spends time illuminating the details of exactly what is meant by "intelligence work," especially "intelligence analysis," to demonstrate its essentially social nature. The third section introduces a crucial distinction between two types of strategic surprises, secrets and mysteries. The fourth and final section introduces the intelligence cycle, a model that we use to examine the impact of the CIA's identity and culture on its work.


Explicit recognition of the social nature of intelligence analysis has emerged only in the last few years. In the following pages, however, we examine the actual process of intelligence analysis in detail and expose it as an almost entirely social process and therefore one well suited to a social constructivist examination. Time spent laboring over the social nature of intelligence analysis in this section illuminates an activity that those outside the world of intelligence have difficulty picturing precisely. A close look at the actual processes of analysis here also introduces documentary material that Chapter 2 draws on to elucidate the social mechanisms that create and maintain the agency's identity.

Anecdotal accounts of both intelligence analysis and of specific strategic surprises have always contained accounts of social interactions, but scholars and practitioners have explicitly recognized the essentially social nature of intelligence analysis only in the last few years. The literature targeting improved analysis has usually consisted either of collections of practical analytic techniques for the individual analyst (essentially, what an individual "should do") or descriptions of the various psychological traps to which individual analysts are prone (essentially, what an individual "should not do"). One can observe this social void in both CIA publications about intelligence analysis and in external sources.

The slighting of the essentially social basis of U.S. intelligence analysis began at its birth. Sherman Kent, in Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy, describes a seven-step process of intelligence analysis. None of Kent's analytical steps overtly recognizes the social nature of analysis. Quite the contrary: Step One of Kent's process of analysis reads, "1. The appearance of a problem requiring the attention of a strategic intelligence staff." Note a peculiar thing about this step: The problem to be analyzed simply "appears"—the analyst and the agency as a whole are unproblematically presented by the exogenous environment with this problem; they do not participate in its definition or creation.

This uncritical, deus ex machina introduction of a discrete intelligence problem is even more peculiar considering Step Two of Kent's process: "2. Analysis of this problem to discover which facets of it are of actual importance to the U.S., and which of several lines of approach are most likely to be useful to its governmental consumers." Clearly, Kent is describing an essentially social process as unproblematically as if intelligence issues were atomic particles.

For the readers of his book, Kent's positivistic approach is not a surprise. In the preceding paragraphs (by the man, one may note, called "the godfather of National Intelligence Estimates," after whom the CIA's school for analysts is named, and whose "Principles of Intelligence Analysis" analysts still use in training), Kent says:

A medieval philosopher would have been content to get his truth by extrapolating from Holy Writ, an African chieftain by consultation with his witch doctor, or a mystic like Hitler from communion with his intuitive self. But we insist, and have insisted for generations, that truth is to be approached, if not attained, through research guided by a systematic method. In the social sciences which largely constitute the subject matter of strategic intelligence, there is such a method. It is much like the method of the physical sciences. It is not the same method but it is a method none the less.

Kent then elucidates in a footnote the qualification to this naked positivism made in the final sentence quoted above: namely, that in the social science there is "enormous difficulty" in "running controlled and repetitive experiments." This idea, while true, does not reveal any appreciation by Kent for the distinction between natural and social facts or any insight into the social nature of analysis.

One might object that Kent's book is a 1950s relic. As far as its attitudes to social facts are concerned, it is not. To offer but one example, Abram Shulsky and Gary Schmitt's Silent Warfare: Understanding the World of Intelligence, a 2002 book still widely respected among analysts and used in many courses on intelligence, says:

Analysis refers to the process of transforming bits and pieces of information that are collected in whatever fashion into something that is usable by policy makers and military commanders. The result, or "intelligence product," can take the form of short memorandums, elaborate formal reports, briefings, or any other means of presenting information.

Silent Warfare then goes on to describe cryptanalysis, telemetry analysis, photo interpretation, and the production of scientific and technical intelligence, military intelligence, political intelligence, and economic and (even) "social" intelligence (sic) without addressing the social aspects of the analytical process. The closest that the authors come to acknowledging that the analytical process is a social process is through such asides as, "In some cases, such as the production of economic and political intelligence, the techniques [of analysis] are not distinguishable from those of the corresponding social sciences" (p. 52). Such asides hardly go to the heart of the epistemological problems raised by the approach described in the preceding paragraphs.

In the same way, one of the CIA's attempts to improve analysis, the oft-cited volume Richards Heuer's The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis pulls together articles written in the Directorate of Intelligence's in-house journal, written between 1978 and 1986. Here, too, the focus is almost entirely on the internal cognitive challenges to the individual analyst, at one point comparing the analyst to a "chess master." The analyst exists in splendid, endogenous isolation, handed discrete, exogenous "problems" from on high. The analyst works in isolation: The second sentence of chapter 1 of Heuer's magnum opus begins with "Intelligence analysis is fundamentally a mental process ..."

The single (partial) exception to that generalization is in itself revealing. In the final section, "Improving Intelligence Analysis," Heuer acknowledges the need for CIA personnel to have "exposure to alternative mind-sets." He writes:

The realities of bureaucratic life produce strong pressures for conformity. Management needs to make a conscious effort to ensure that well-reasoned competing views have the opportunity to surface within the Intelligence Community. Analysts need to enjoy a sense of security, so that partially developed new ideas may be expressed and bounced off others as sounding boards with minimal fear of criticism for deviating from established orthodoxy ... [Management should promote] the kinds of activities that confront analysts with alternative perspectives—consultation with outside experts, analytical debates, competitive analysis, devil's advocates, gaming, and interdisciplinary brainstorming.

These measures seem like an implicit acknowledgment that intelligence analysis is a social activity. One must realize, however, that Heuer's remarks aim to aid individual analysts to keep an "open mind." Observe in this passage that management needs to make this effort and that only "well-reasoned" competing views should have the opportunity to surface to challenge "orthodoxy." Observe too that it is the "sense of security" of the individual analyst that needs nurturing and that it is individual analysts who need "confronting" with "alternative viewpoints." One can conclude, therefore, that the essentially dynamic, social aspects of analysis are ignored, and recommendations are made to improve the analytical performance of individual CIA "chess players," who are conceived in isolation from the chess board, pieces, or rules.

In the same manner, in Anticipating Surprise: Analysis for Strategic Warning, a 1970s manual for training analysts at the CIA (called "mandatory reading for intelligence analysts whose job it was to forecast threats to the United States" during the Cold War) also largely ignores the social nature of intelligence analysis. In it, the social nature of the analytical process gets a nod but little more, and the focus remains on individual judgments made (seemingly) in a social void.

A change comes in Robert Clark's Intelligence Analysis: A Target-Centric Approach, published in 2004. This work is mostly a toolbox of analytical techniques written by a veteran CIA analyst and executive in the Directorate of Intelligence. It does not raise larger issues of problem formation and definition in analysis, but at least it dwells on the activity's social aspects: Three sections clearly address the "ideal" analyst's social attributes, or "interpersonal skills." These are the "analyst as team player," the "analyst as advocate," and the "analyst as communicator." The description offered of ideal individual analysts, for example, states that:

They are persuasive. They enjoy interacting with people and teaching others how the analytical game is played. They choose their words with care, and when they speak, customers listen and respect their opinions. They are highly regarded by their peers and can organize and work with a team on analysis. But they have the courage to stand alone in their judgments. They are good, and they know it. Their self-confidence, like that of the Israeli intelligence analyst who spotted the oncoming Yom Kippur attack, tends to perturb their superiors.

Note that this description ends with these social traits in an analyst underscored as a factor in preventing a strategic surprise! Clark goes on to state: "The process of getting an answer, especially on complex intelligence problems, is fundamentally a social one." Unfortunately, however, the hypothesis is not pursued further!

The following year (2005), in the beginning of his pathbreaking anthropological study of intelligence analysis, Dr. Rob Johnston (a Director of Central Intelligence postdoctoral research fellow at the CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence), finally defined intelligence analysis in a social manner: "Intelligence analysis is the application of individual and collective cognitive methods to weigh data and test hypotheses within a secret socio-cultural context." He did so while introducing the results of a two-year study to "investigate analytic culture, methodology, error and failure within the Intelligence Community," in the course of which he conducted 489 interviews, "direct participant observations," and focus groups. Johnston concludes his introduction to the analysis process thus: "My work during this study convinced me of the importance of making explicit something that is not well described in the literature, namely, the very interactive, dynamic, and social nature of intelligence analysis."

Johnston's volume offers abundant evidence to confirm the essentially social nature not just of intelligence work generally but of intelligence analysis at the CIA. In fact, Johnston says, "Despite the seemingly private and psychological nature of analysis as defined in the literature, what I found was a great deal of informal, yet purposeful collaboration during which individuals began to make sense of raw data by negotiating meaning among the historical record, their peers, and their supervisors." He then offers even more detail by describing a typical description of the analytic process in the words of a CIA analyst:

When a request comes in from a consumer to answer some question, the first thing I do is read up on the analytic line. [I] check the previous publications and the data. Then, I read through the question again and find where there are links to previous products. When I think I have an answer, I get together with my group and ask them what they think. We talk about it for a while and come to some consensus on its meaning and the best way to answer the consumer's questions. I write it up, pass it around here, and send it out for review.

This description neatly brings us to further evidence that intelligence analysis is essentially social: the "review process." The review process—so key to the CIA's analytical work—is clearly social, not merely individual and cerebral. Both for that reason and because of its centrality to the CIA's work as a whole, the review process is worth understanding in detail.

Evidence of the Social Nature of Analysis: The Review Process

Martin Petersen opens his 2005 Studies in Intelligence article, "Making the Analytic Review Process Work," with the words, "If there is a first principle in producing written intelligence, it is that finished intelligence is a corporate product, not a personal one." This article provides rich fodder for a social constructivist analysis of strategic surprise because it further exposes the social nature of the CIA's analytical work.

Petersen begins by reminding his CIA audience that the review process in intelligence analysis is not mere bureaucratic pettifogging, and it is more than editing: "Editing is NOT review. Editing is a mechanical task that should be accomplished by the first-level reviewer or by a staff. Review is about thinking, about questioning evidence and judgments. It focuses on the soundness of the analytic points that are being made and the quality of the supporting evidence." In this view, "review" in intelligence might resemble review of a physics problem by a more experienced physicist. After an analysis is finished, for example, "The drafter's supervisor is almost always the first-level reviewer"; this supervisor "bears the greatest responsibility—after the author—for the substantive accuracy of the piece." Use of the words supervisor and responsibility implies a culture recognizes that hierarchy, but so far it remains at least debatable whether review is purely social.

A second level of review of the analysis then occurs, and this level of review is more clearly social: We not only have further mentions of responsibility, but a relationship—closeness to the policy maker—is cited as a virtue (the greater significance of which is explored in Chapter 2). In addition, Petersen continues, one of the key questions that the second-level reviewer must ask is about consistency: "Is this piece consistent not only with previous work on this topic but also with other analysis being done in the issue group?" Such a question foregrounds the social nature of intelligence analysis, as it strongly implies that consistency with other, past analysis is a screen through which an analytical piece must pass to get to the next level. Natural sciences, however, recognize neither "arguments from authority" nor a majority consensus to settle disputes—those are usually used to settle social, not scientific questions. Next, Petersen explains the third level of review:

The third-level review should be done by the office director or the staff of a senior officer in the organization. On a particularly sensitive piece, both may weigh in ... Like earlier reviews, the third level needs to ponder core tradecraft questions: is it clear what is known and not known and what the level of confidence is? What assumptions underpin the analysis? And does the piece address policymaker concerns? ... is it consistent with other work being done in the organization? ... The third-level reviewer should focus most on whether the right questions have been asked and what the key variables are.

Excerpted from Constructing Cassandra by Milo Jones, Philippe Silberzahn. Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press.
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Table of Contents


Preface and Acknowledgments....................     vii     

Abbreviations....................     ix     

Introduction....................     1     

1 The Work of Intelligence....................     17     

2 How the CIA Is Made....................     38     

3 The Iranian Revolution....................     80     

4 The Collapse of the USSR....................     102     

5 The Cuban Missile Crisis....................     135     

6 The Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001....................     192     

7 The CIA and the Future of Intelligence....................     234     

Notes....................     255     

Bibliography....................     335     

Index....................     361     

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