A highly classified intelligence report produced for the new director of national intelligence concludes that U.S. spy agencies failed to recognize several key military developments in China in the past decade, The Washington Times has learned.
The report was created by several current and former intelligence officials and concludes that U.S. agencies missed more than a dozen Chinese military developments, according to officials familiar with the report.
The report blames excessive secrecy on China's part for the failures, but critics say intelligence specialists are to blame for playing down or dismissing evidence of growing Chinese military capabilities.
That they didn't blame the analysts might be a case of not wanting to blame some of their own. But it is a fact that intelligence is not an exact science. Things are going to be missed because not everything can be seen or accessed. That is the nature of the beast and needs to be factored for.
There is another problem though and one that interests me from a thinking point of view. That problem is the fact that people do not tend to see what they don't expect to see. Put without the negatives, people tend to see what they expect to see. The point is that everyone sees the world through a construct of reality. And people tend to fit what they see into the context of that construct. The honest analysts will tell you that they use a template to understand the intelligence. That is the same sort of idea.
If the information coming in does not fit into that template/construct, it will be discarded out of hand. Why is that? Because it will be considered just so much static or, as the scientists say, a lot of anomalous data. (Kuhn would say that it does not support the paradigm so it is dismissed.)
Thomas Kuhn, in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, cites a study that shows this. The color of some of the suits on some cards of a deck were changed--a red six of spades and a black four of hearts for instance-- to make them different than what was expected, to make them anomalous. These cards were placed in a deck and shuffled. With some exposure, people identified all the cards with little effort but they identified the anomalous cards as being the regular unchanged card associated with the suit. Kuhn says, "Without any awareness of trouble, it was immediately fitted into one of the conceptual categories prepared by prior experience." (Kuhn p.63.) When they were exposed to the cards a longer time, the people began to be aware that something was wrong. Some would be exposed to the red six of spades, identify it as a six of spades but say that something was wrong with it like a red border or something. Increasing the exposure to the cards only increased the confusion until some sort of tipping point was reached for some. They would identify the problems with the anomalous cards and were able to do it for all the cards after having recognized the problem with one.
But some of the people could not make the shift. Even after repeated exposure they still could not identify what was the problem and experienced "acute personal distress. One of them exclaimed, 'I can't make the suit out, whatever it is. It didn't even look like a card that time. I don't know what color it is now or whether it's a spade or a heart. I'm not sure now what a spade looks like...'" (Kuhn pp. 63,64.)
The other problem is that that construct defines what is reasonable. If an analyst comes up with something that does not fit the construct, it is ipso facto unreasonable. No analyst will send up a report that does not sound reasonable. Could affect his job.
(These are the same problems that affect business information too. But that is for another time.)
What to do about both of these problems is the big issue. I think that their work product needs to be considered tentative--it's the best hypothesis that they can come up with under the circumstances. That means that contingency planning ought to be the rule, "if...then..." But no one I know in any organization wants to have their work considered tentative or a mere hypothesis. "We are professionals, thank you." They want people to rely on what they produce and not many of them would want to be secondguessed on any of it. And that means we might be stuck with this sort of thing.