April 5, 2005


The Art of Intelligence (DAVID BROOKS, 4/02/05, NY Times)

The years between 1950 and 1965 were the golden age of American nonfiction. Writers like Jane Jacobs, Louis Hartz, Daniel Bell and David Riesman produced sweeping books on American society and global affairs. They relied on their knowledge of history, literature, philosophy and theology to recognize social patterns and grasp emerging trends.

But even as their books hit the stores, their method was being undermined. A different group rejected this generalist/humanist approach and sought to turn social analysis into a science. For example, the father of the U.S. intelligence community, Sherman Kent, argued that social science and intelligence analysis needed a systematic method, "much like the method of the physical sciences."

Social research - in urban planning, sociology and intelligence analysis - began to mimic the hard sciences.

A new paper by a Yale undergraduate, Sulmaan Wasif Khan, contrasts these two ways of looking at the world. Khan compares the C.I.A.'s 1960's-era National Intelligence Estimates on China, which have been recently declassified, with the work of generalist scholars like Donald Zagoria.

The C.I.A.'s intelligence estimates are what you'd expect: bloodless compilations of data by anonymous technicians. They do not draw patterns based on an understanding of Chinese history or make generalizations about the ethos of the Chinese elite.

Zagoria's approach was quite different. Relying on a deep understanding of Chinese history and society, he made novelistic judgments about the Chinese leadership's hopes and fears. He imagined how we must appear to the Chinese, and how different American moves would be interpreted.

The C.I.A. analysts concluded on Nov. 12, 1970, that there was little prospect of improvement in Sino-American relations. Zagoria said China would be open to a rapprochement.

Zagoria was right. Henry Kissinger was in China within months of the C.I.A. report.

But the scientific method used by the C.I.A., and its technical jargon, can seem to have more authority (used to justify bigger budgets). Academic analyses of society and world affairs are now often quantitative, jargon-laden and hyperspecialized. Historical works have gigantic titles and minuscule subjects - think "Power and Passion: Walloon Shovel Making, 1723-1724."

So we get decades of calamitous intelligence failures.

The CIA has old horse race bettor’s problem. The odds-on favorite to win is most likley to win and least likely to make you money. The way to make money is to bet against the crowd, but only when you are actually smarter than they are. The same is true in the stock market.

Politicians (now there is a group of outside-the-box-thinkers) are blaming the CIA for overestimating Saddam Hussein and for underestimating Osama. The CIA is like the crowd at the track. They pick the favorites. AND NO CONCEIVABLE GOVERNMENTAL BUREAUCRACY WILL EVER BE ANY DIFFERENT.

Neither bureacracy in the form of cabinet level officers, nor gimicks prediction markets, will solve the CIA problem, They can broaden the consensus, but it will still be a consensus. Case in point. The CIA consistently overestimated the economic and military strength of the Soviet Union. The only experts who saw a chink in the Soviet armor were demographers Murray Feshbach and Nicholas Eberstadt.

Cassandra was always right and no one ever believed her. If Cassandra had access to the NYSE, she could have retired rich, but she will never alter the consensus, which she will always oppose. Furthermore, the CIA or any similar bureaucracy will always spit her out because she opposes the consensus ("She is just not a team player”).

There you have it, a problem, not a solution. A contradiction in terms, a logical impossibility.

Posted by Robert Schwartz at April 5, 2005 1:26 PM

Team A. Team B. Maybe Team C. Season to taste with hopes and fears. Stir well. Let simmer. Top with common sense and intuition.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 5, 2005 1:49 PM

Nobody ever got fired for saying that Saddam had WMDs.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 5, 2005 2:28 PM

The only experts who saw a chink in the Soviet armor were demographers Murray Feshbach and Nicholas Eberstadt.

... and a fellow named Reagan.

Posted by: ras at April 5, 2005 3:23 PM

... and some guys named Possony, Pournelle, and Kane:

[In a retrospective footnote added after the demise of the Soviet Union:] The USSR was at that time spending far more of its national budget on weapons (hardly defense) than was admitted by the CIA or Department of State. Possony, Pournelle, and Kane, along with General Graham, continued to insist that the USSR was spending some 30% of GNP on weapons and military power. We privately suspected that it was more (and in fact it was), but official opposition to our 30% estimate was surprisingly hostile. The official US estimate was under 20%.
Posted by: Kirk Parker at April 5, 2005 4:49 PM

They always seem to be reacting to their last mistake. If this cycle is still going then at the moment threats are being underestimated.

Posted by: carter at April 5, 2005 5:06 PM


As an old horse-player (grew up in Del Mar where 'The Turf Meets the Surf'), I have a minor quibble with your racetrack analogy. Over the long run, betting favorites to win will make you more money than any other strategy. That said, your analysis is spot on by highlighting the herd mentality that drives supposedly 'objective' analysis. I tire of media political 'analysis' for the same reason. All of these self-annointed 'Beltway pundits' hang out at the same watering holes and Georgetown salons. Thus what passes for 'analysis' actually assumes a rather boring conventional-wisdom take on everything. To apply Brother Cohen's insight to the media, nobody at Time ever got fired for agreeing with Newsweek's analysis, and vice versa.

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at April 5, 2005 7:02 PM

Don't forget Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

By the way, and this is a sincere request, can someone provide the primary sources where Reagan said the USSR was weak and that an arms build up would break them?

My memory (and since I was a child this may not be accurate) tells a different story: Reagan warned the USSR was strong and expansionist and we needed the arms build up to deter them. Thus Reagan was right, but for the wrong reasons.

By primary sources, I mean speeches, articles, quotes, etc. from the relevant time period, say 1976-1983. Thanks!

Posted by: Chris Durnell at April 5, 2005 7:17 PM

Fred: If you consitently bet the favorites to win in a pari-mutuel pool, you should wind up getting your money back minus the vigorish. That much is implicit in the math of the pools, unless favorites are systematically avoided by other bettors.

I will defend Murray Feshbach and Nicholas Eberstadt. To my knowledge as a sometime student of Soviet affairs, their demographic research was the first to find evidence of systemic rot in the Soviet Union. They began publising it in the 1970s and at first everyone in Soviet studies thought they were crazy.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at April 6, 2005 12:23 PM


The rot was there but even rotten societies can cause problems. Nazi Germany was certainly unsustainable even without the war effort, but it still waged war against the rest of the civilized world fairly effectively. A rotten society with thousands of nukes is an even bigger problem.

Societies often conceal the rot by focusing attention on imperialistic adventurism. Argentina in 1983 is an example. One could certainly argue the same about Britain between the wars, when it was quite obviously bankrupt but maintained a ridiculous and retrograde empire that made no sense whatsoever.

Posted by: bart at April 7, 2005 10:43 AM