- - Monday, December 22, 2014


By Wilhelm Agrell and Gregory F. Treverton
Oxford University Press, $35, 240 pages

In our increasingly turbulent and dangerous world where threats are not only physical in the form of terrorist attacks but cyber (as in the massive hacking of Sony Pictures), can intelligence agencies employ the massive amounts of automated data at their disposal to produce accurate and timely forecasts about attacks, thereby decreasing risk? Can intelligence analysis approximate scientific and medical research in producing solutions to complex threats, or should intelligence forecasts about likely threats be perceived as comparable to weather forecasts, in which errors in predicting heavy rain or snow are taken for granted? As the authors of this important book write, “[W]e are better off with sometimes inaccurate forecasts than with no forecasts at all.”

Wilhelm Agrell is professor of intelligence analysis at Lund University and visiting professor at the Swedish Defense College, Stockholm, and Gregory F. Treverton is chairman of the United States National Intelligence Council. At the time of the book’s writing, Mr. Treverton was also visiting scholar at the Swedish National Defense College. As leading intelligence analysts, they are aware that highly publicized failures by intelligence agencies, such as the failures to anticipate and prevent al Qaeda’s horrific attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, or Anders Breivik’s lone wolf attacks in Norway in July 2011 (both of which are extensively discussed in the book), result in “the awkward dilemma between expectations and uncertainty, and the disastrous consequences of loss of trust among the public.” Forecasts in events such as these are inevitably complicated by “the complex and fragmented nature of the threats.”

The authors believe that forecasts can be rooted in science and argue that while science and intelligence constitute “similar and interlinked domains of knowledge production,” they nevertheless are “separated by a deep political, cultural, and epistemological [i.e., the study of human knowledge] divide.” Thus, scientific, medical or mathematical investigations may succeed in addressing the spread of infectious diseases and provide statistical solutions to wartime challenges. In this regard, they discuss uncovering Germany’s World War II’s Enigma’s cryptologic codes and the development of the atomic bomb in special programs such as the Manhattan Project.

Intelligence investigations are limited, however, in “estimating potential military threats, assessing the risk of armed conflicts, and warning of imminent attacks” because these events take place in highly uncertain environments, such as hostile foreign territories, where reliable data are difficult to obtain through legal methods, often requiring clandestine and “unlawful” means to acquire them. Moreover, unlike the scientific method, intelligence analysts need to address the needs of their government customers who are often busy decision-makers who either must make quick decisions on urgent policy matters or (in some cases) have their own political agendas that might differ from what intelligence analysts are producing in their reports.

In order to improve the capability of intelligence analysis to come as close as possible to the level of scientific or medical investigations, the authors focus on the puzzles and patterns of likely scenarios. After an interesting discussion about significant controversies in intelligence analysis (such as the Bush administration’s estimate of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction program prior to the March 2003 intervention in Iraq, or the CIA’s 2007 National Intelligence Estimate of Iran’s nuclear weapons program), as well as pointing out controversies in scientific investigations (such as the later discredited quasi-scientific biological research conducted by T.D. Lysenko, a Russian agronomist, from the 1930s to the 1960s), the authors shift gears and propose a series of solutions to upgrade the forecasting capabilities of intelligence analysts in their interaction with their government policymaking “clients.”

In an innovative section on “New Tools, New Collaboration — Including with ‘Clients,’” the authors discuss the usefulness of information technology, particularly social media, in revolutionizing intelligence analysis. Intelligence analysts can mine the external social media in the form of Twitter, Facebook and chat rooms and analyze patterns of threats and the activities of individuals deemed suspicious, such as through the postings of Western foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. They also can use the internal components of social media within their own clandestine organizations, such as wikis and chat rooms, to overcome bureaucratic hurdles and collaborate in a more informal manner with one another. As traditional media are being transformed by our fast-paced news cycle into news bulletins that are transmitted almost instantaneously to a newspaper’s Internet readers, the authors wonder whether this also will affect the carefully processed “delivery mode” of intelligence reports as “documents of record” to the government “clients.” With more informal reporting mechanisms, such as the transmission of reports to policymakers’ iPads, these technologies are cutting “across how most intelligence services do their business.”

The authors also shed light on what is known as activity-based intelligence, in which automated data-mining technologies are used to analyze and collect information “on the activity and transactions associated with an entity, population, or area of interest.” This algorithmic technology, according to the authors, offers hope for “locating the unknown unknowns” and even highlighting “answers [that] may appear before the question is formulated.”

With such insights on the practice of intelligence analysis and where it is heading, Mr. Agrell and Mr. Treverton’s “National Intelligence and Science” is an important contribution to the field of intelligence studies.

Joshua Sinai is director of analytics and business intelligence at the Resilient Corp. in Alexandria, Virginia.

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