“Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.”—Friedrich Nietzsche
My entry into the world of intelligence-gathering began in 1996 when I joined the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Before my retirement in 2014, most of my career was spent overseas as an operations officer in countries comprising the former Soviet Union.
Serving abroad in the CIA was a great way to increase my understanding of the world. As an operations officer, I was trained and charged to identify, develop, and recruit foreign nationals to provide information to me—which in turn was passed to the U.S. intelligence community (IC). The IC uses HUMINT (human intelligence gathered from live sources), in conjunction with SIGINT (signals intelligence) and other forms to aid United States policymakers in making clear-eyed decisions about matters of foreign policy.
This is the purpose of the IC. Regarding HUMINT, people’s reasons for spying against their own country are numerous. The motivations of money, ego, or ideology have been behind history’s most damaging spies. Compromise or coercion have also been important factors (most often used as tools against the West by hostile intelligence services).
Recruitment of foreign assets (agents, in CIA parlance) was and is the raison d’etre of my profession. In order to recruit effectively, a good working knowledge of human psychology was essential; understanding how emotions such as pride, jealousy, hatred, and shame can motivate individuals. This knowledge was the most important item in my “toolbox.” A good intelligence officer always views situations, actions, and people in this fashion. It is an excellent technique with which to understand why things are the way they are. For decades now, it is automatic for me to view much of the world and its interactions through this “operational lens.” Looking at history and current events is continually fascinating to me. An ops officer can (or should) divine the personal, institutional, and national motivations that are behind every event that occurs on the world stage.
I have long been fascinated by the subject of failure. It’s important to understand success—in business or politics—but failure is often the more common outcome. Businesses and governments, even individuals, can often learn more by examining cases of failure—what those organizations did wrong and the steps needed to avoid falling into similar traps—than studying success. Business leaders and academics are now studying the phenomenon of failure more closely, as it has become clear that there were many nuggets of wisdom within.
Failures in the intelligence community are some of the more dramatic types of institutional failure. If an intelligence service or a national government should fail in its understanding of a threat, possible national ruin is in the works. Throughout history, governments have fallen due to the insufficient redress of their security challenges. Many people ask, “How can these multi-billion-dollar agencies or governments fail when the stakes are so high?” The answer is because they are made up of fallible, error-prone human beings—the same as in any business or family unit. Emotions or mindsets such as ambition, hubris, jealousy, petulance, hatred, or irrational denial course through their veins as surely as through your own.
Bureaucracies have been designed to filter out, or at least mitigate, this “human factor.” Despite this, how many readers can recall having a problem at the DMV just because the bureaucrat they were dealing with had a fight with his wife at breakfast? Our institutions are thus very fallible.
There are two major factors contributing to intelligence failure:
- Mirror imaging
- Perception bias/willful blindness
Note: These factors can be as devastating to a business as to a government. I have used examples from both spheres to illustrate my point.
Mirror imaging has several symptoms, which can include:
- Examining information/evidence that is only consistent with one’s preconceptions. Example: Relying on sales figures that show strength, but ignoring factors liable to work against your business in the future.
- Inappropriate analogies. Example: Believing that the Iranian government operates along similar lines to Western governments.
- Stovepiping: Favoring one source/technique of information over another. Examples: Favoring one type of sales study that flatters your company. Choosing to believe the sales rep with whom you play golf rather than a recent consumer study.
- The rational actor hypothesis: Defining the other side’s rationality according to how one measures rationality in one’s own culture. Example: The other side may have a higher risk tolerance than your culture. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was willing to risk war with the West to maintain the fiction of weapons of mass destruction to prop up his regional stature.
- Proportionality bias: The belief that “small things” in one’s own culture are “small things” in another, distinct culture. Examples: Being on time in northwestern European culture versus more relaxed, southern cultures. An extreme example would be how a seemingly minor sexual indiscretion in a Western family might lead to an “honor” killing in an orthodox Muslim family.
To break out of the mirror imaging stranglehold, organizations/companies must make a concerted effort to take a step outside of themselves, leave their comfort zone, and methodically and unemotionally appraise “The Other,” be it a rival company or a rival nation state.
The four touchstones below can help:
- The “other side” is different. Example: The Pacific War. In 1941, it seemed inconceivable to U.S. leadership that the Japanese would be so foolish to attack the United States, whose resources so exceeded those of Japan, thus virtually guaranteeing the defeat of that island nation.
- The “other side” makes different assumptions regarding technology. Example: Nazi Germany, despite growing evidence to the contrary, refused to believe that their Enigma cipher system had been compromised. The cracking of Enigma assisted in winning World War II. The other side of the coin: 9/11. Who in the U.S. had considered that the billions spent on airport security and air defense would be defeated by a dozen Islamic terrorists armed with boxcutters?
- The “other side” doesn’t make decisions as you do. Example: Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh was willing to endure casualty ratios of more than 10-1 to ensure his dream of a communist Vietnam. Separately, Japanese culture prizes consensus decision-making over incisive, executive decision-making.
- The “other side” may be trying to confuse you. Example: Today, there are ongoing Russian cyber/TV propaganda campaigns which mirror traditional Soviet tactics to sow discord within the West. Also, North Korea historically swings between negotiation and abrupt nuclear saber-rattling with its neighbors.
Perception bias/willful blindness
In addition to the error of mirror imaging is the second half of intelligence failure, perception bias/willful blindness. This can be summarized as “one sees what one wants to see.”
A scientist named Leon Festinger coined the term cognitive dissonance to explain the mental stress experienced by an individual (or institution) confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. This cognitive dissonance is what leads individuals/organizations to fall under the sway of perception bias.
Simply put, humans strive for internal consistency. An individual who experiences inconsistency (dissonance) tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and is motivated to try to reduce this dissonance—as well as actively avoid situations and information likely to increase it. The homily “one sees what one wants to see” is true; humans are guilty of these behaviors in their business or personal lives. Some cognitive dissonance is inevitable—we are human, after all—but we must train ourselves and cast our institutions in a way to mitigate this tendency.
Examples of cognitive dissonance are numerous in the business world. Large, successful companies are often slow to recognize a threat to their way of doing business, and their lack of adaptation or flexibility can be costly. Leading executives, settled in their thinking, may be unwilling to change and adapt to a morphing marketplace. The Kodak Corporation, a one-time colossus that revolutionized the photography industry, ignored the threat of digital photography until the eleventh hour—too late to save the company. Similarly, Blockbuster Video was once approached by Netflix for a strategic partnership, and Netflix was rebuffed with a laugh.
There are even more tragic examples in the pages of history. Perhaps the most infamous was that, despite receiving more than a dozen separate warnings from several sources that Hitler’s Nazi Germany was planning a massive betrayal and invasion of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin refused to believe it. This led to the absolute carnage of Operation Barbarossa, almost knocking the Soviet Union out of the war within six months.
Despite fighting the 1967 War, the state of Israel went deeply into denial about the threats it faced. The result was total strategic surprise during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Had it not been for the sacrifice of their military, Israel would have been overwhelmed. British intelligence, due to class bias, ignored early warning signs that they were being dangerously compromised by Soviet agent penetrations until the full-on spy scandals of the 1960s (The Cambridge Five) engulfed them.
The reason why mirror imaging and perception bias/cognitive dissonance have led to countless intelligence failures that cut across centuries and cultures is because these behaviors are fundamental human flaws. It is no coincidence, however, that the most serious intelligence failures, particularly those in terms of human life, have been those involving dictatorships and totalitarian regimes. The inherent logic of “don’t displease Caesar/Mao/Stalin/Hitler” is clear. Regarding intel failures in liberal democracies such as the United States, Britain, and Israel, the intel failure problem occurs more often when the leadership is chained to a narrative or an ideology of its own.
To understand this problem as it exists today, let us first start with a look at the Soviet Union.
Throughout the “Spy Wars” of the Cold-War period, Soviet intel, more often than not, came out on top. (They did, after all, steal the plans for the A-Bomb from the West.) As far as stealing technology and information operations were concerned, Soviet intelligence was deadly effective. Despite this, the Soviets were poor at analyzing the more prosaic political, economic, and military intelligence they collected. The Soviets continually misinterpreted, misunderstood, or drew poor conclusions from their information.
The primary reason the Soviets were poor at analysis was because the Soviet Union and its leadership were ideologically biased. The foundation of the Soviet Union was predicated on a single ideology: Marxism/communism. This meant that their intelligence service was attached to an ideologically driven totalitarian state. Therefore, oftentimes reality had to be reshaped to conform to the narrative.
Ideologies (any ideology) are totalitarian in nature because their essence is to take a philosophy and say that on the basis of it (in this case, Marxism/communism), certain things must be true. In the Soviet’s case, their worldview was that (1) capitalism was evil, (2) they must be militarily expansionist by nature, and (3) they must be dedicated to the perpetual exploitation of the masses. Stalin was convinced that the West was bent on dominating the world and consistently underestimated the importance of public opinion to Western leaders. Of course, he was mirror-imaging. As an absolute dictator, Stalin could not believe the West had actual functioning democracies.
Since reality clearly was at odds with the worldview of Soviet ideology, reality had to be forbidden. Unfortunately for Russians, this extended to not just the intel world, but Soviet society as a whole. Soviet intel was not only afraid to give information to their leadership that went against the narrative, but Soviet citizens were daily victims of cognitive dissonance as well. The public was afraid to lend a voice to the obvious and were forced to chant catchphrases they knew were lies. Soviet citizens used to joke, “In the Soviet Union, the future is known; it is the past that is always changing.”
The term “political correctness” is, in fact, a Soviet term (politicheskaya pravil’nost). A Soviet had to be politically correct, stick to the party line, lest he run afoul of the authorities.
Which brings us to the West.
Western society’s intelligence challenges
There are increasing parallels between modern U.S./Western society and the Soviet society I studied and lived in for much of my life. First, the Soviet “disease” of political correctness is alive and well in the United States. It has taken root in our culture and in the intelligence community as well. For example, when was the last time the reader stopped himself/herself from saying something they knew to be true, for fear of being punished or criticized for saying it? That’s not just a talking point, it is a central problem with our national conversation and it is adversely affecting the efficiency of our intelligence agencies and government.
Due to this sometimes hostile current environment, I believe there has been a steady decrease in the effectiveness of the U.S. intelligence community. We can say the same about other government agencies. The Secret Service, FBI, NSA, Border Patrol, and the IRS have all seen recent scandals and have earned the increased ire of the American people.
Americans are losing faith in these institutions. Congress, of course, continues to scrape the bottom of the barrel in terms of popularity, but even the military is seeing a decrease in favorability as it toes the PC line. According to recent numerous surveys, the morale of our service members is also suffering, largely due to the prevalence of PC and its effect across the board. What we also see is that our intelligence community, and even our military, is increasingly being surprised and bamboozled by events. Either that, or they’re just plain not listened to by our policymakers.
The answer is simple: because never before in the history of this country has there been a more ideologically driven, willfully blind administration as the one we have today. Locked inside the narrative to which they are bound, the mistakes of this administration are a litany of repeated mirror-imaging, perception bias, willful blindness, and thus, intelligence/policy failures.
All agencies have their own internal tensions, and certainly the CIA has its share of mirror-imaging, perception bias, and willful blindness, but we must remember that government agencies march to the beat of the policymakers. For the CIA, intelligence priorities are set by the administration—and the CIA’s job is to advise the policymakers. The CIA does not make policy, their marching orders always come from the presidential administration.
When an administration is chained to an ideological narrative and is increasingly divorced from reality, is it surprising that it wishes not to receive intel information presenting any opposing view? As with the Soviet Union and other failed regimes, reality must now be reshaped to conform to the narrative.
The complete and utter failure in all phases of U.S. foreign policy is the bitter fruit of this administration’s misguided, politically correct ideology. Unfortunately, the American people will be paying for these errors long after the Obama presidency ends.
This administration has been unable to admit that ISIS is an Islamic extremist organization, and that it is, in fact, not a “JV team.” There are 13 dead in San Bernardino and 137 dead in Paris who might disagree with the president’s assessment. At the same time, this administration openly encourages illegal immigration despite the fact that it has been proven that ISIS has (and certainly will in the future) use this channel to spearhead attacks on the United States. How does this reckless disregard for the facts ensure U.S. security?
Also emblematic of the administration’s willful blindness, in 2015, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) endured repeated complaints by its 40 intel analysts that their ISIS reporting was being regularly doctored due to an administration hostile to their information. The Army Inspector General’s report specifically mentioned a “Stalinist environment” that shut down accurate reporting and honest analysis. Is this the multi-billion-dollar intelligence community of which the American people can be proud?
Perception bias and political correctness resulted in an administration moving headlong into a “Russian Reset,” which only served to empower a resurgent Putin to invade neighboring Ukraine, as well as reestablish a Russian foothold in the Middle East (which hasn’t existed in 25 years). Putin detected U.S. weakness and, ever the pragmatist (and an ex-intelligence officer), took advantage of the situation. The U.S. State Department, along with their equally hapless, politically correct Western-European colleagues, were doubtlessly shocked by Russia’s actions.
Mirror-imaging also produced the most ominous foreign debacle of all: a nuclear “deal” with Iran. A deal in which the US government releases $150 billion of frozen assets (frozen since 1979) as an “incentive” for Iran to curtail its ongoing nuclear weapons programs. By way of expressing thanks, in January of 2016, Iran launched missiles that directly broke its signed UN missile agreements. This administration has also reopened relations with Castro’s Cuba. In honor of this event, Castro was emboldened to jail several hundred more dissidents against his tyrannical regime.
And so it goes.
Despots and America’s enemies rejoice over America’s feckless leadership; the results are increasing dangers to Americans worldwide. It is obvious that in this environment, virtually all intelligence reporting on the above threats has been disregarded (and common sense abandoned) as this administration undertakes actions that would have been considered inconceivable only a few years ago. Unable to learn from its mistakes, the U.S. foreign-policy establishment leaps from debacle to debacle.
Like the trap that the Soviets, Maoist Chinese, North Koreans, and others have historically fallen into, this administration seems to believe its own alternate reality.
“When we lack the will to see things as they really are, there is nothing so mystifying as the obvious.”—Irving Kristol
Any presidential administration, sworn to uphold the nation’s laws and protect its security, owes it to the American people to view intelligence in the most clear-headed and pragmatic way possible, free from preconceived notions, ulterior motives, or irrational ideology. For the sake of our nation, come election day, more Americans need to honestly ask themselves, “When the phone rings at the White House at 3 a.m., who do we want to be there to answer it?”
Scott Uehlinger, a graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, is a retired CIA operations officer and Naval Reserve officer. He resides with his wife and daughter in the Lehigh Valley. Scott can be contacted via LinkedIn and has spoken widely at both Pennsylvania- and NYC-based universities on Russian and intelligence matters.