Imperial Secrets

I’ve just finished ‘Imperial Secrets:  Remapping the Mind of Empire’ by Patrick A. Kelley.  It’s available as a free download from the National Defense Intelligence College and well worth your time.  In fact, I’m inclined to say it’s one of the best books I’ve read about intelligence analysis in a very long time.  If Richards Heuer’s Psychology of Intelligence Analysis can be thought of as an examination of analysis from an internal perspective, then Kelley can be thought of examining the subject from the external.

Heuer examines how neurobiology, psychology and cognitive biases all influence how an analyst searches for information and interprets it once she has it.  Kelley, on the other hand, examines how the preferences and biases of an ‘empire’ (more on the definition of that in a moment) influence not only analysts but consumers of intelligence.  He identifies the purpose of his work as addressing three questions:

How do power and knowledge interact? How do marginal actors and slippery knowledge mediate this interaction? And is there a distinctly imperial way of knowing?  184

As you might guess from those questions, this is an epistemological study designed to look at the limits of what we can know, bounded within the limits of our circumstances.  As such, it is not filled with ‘practical’ tips for analysts (‘No more than 3 bullets per PowerPoint slide!  Don’t cross lines on your link chart!’) but rather it presents cases in which allow analysts today see those boundaries that restrict them and their customers.  Too often, those boundaries are so invisible to us that we don’t even realize they exist.  But they do and ignoring the information outside our universe of information is what puts us at risk of becoming victims of strategic surprise.

Empires are always at an information deficit—telling more than they hear—and the deficit over time becomes associated with a lost capacity to listen. That quality of listening is key to generating truly alternative analysis, if as we might guess it takes surprising approaches to anticipate surprise.

Kelley uses three historical examples which he says share some of the same challenges and circumstances as the United States does today:  Rome in the first two centuries of the Principate, the Ottoman Empire of the 16th to 18th centuries and the British Empire from the 18th to 20th centuries.  In explaining why the United States in the twenty first century should look back centuries to other nations to explain our current situation he says:

…our relation to the world has changed beyond that of a traditional nation-state—albeit a profoundly powerful one—our attempts at intelligence reform indicate our interest in answering traditional questions, just in a faster and more accurate fashion. Better interagency cooperation, sharing with partners, broader and more rapid dissemination will ultimately result in more “actionable intelligence.” Not surprisingly, the catch-phrase implies a specific type of action, especially for military audiences.

…there will never be a “VE” or “VJ” day when all the insurgents and terrorists are captured and killed; the letters of capitulation signed; and the vast war-time machines of actionable intelligence dismembered, dissolved and disbanded. Success, rather, will come with an open-ended enterprise to identify ideas, values, understandings and movements that threaten an international order built around a specific set of legal principles and economic interests. It is an intelligence challenge more akin to that facing Rome in 150 CE, Istanbul in 1600 or London in 1800, than it is to that confronting Washington, DC in 1941. (pg 2)

And here a word about his use of the word ‘empire’ or ‘imperial’.  While I was reading this, the one complaint I had was that I couldn’t find a definition to these terms put forth.  By the end of the book it’s clear that his intention all along and upon reflection I think that was a good choice.  I would argue that the term definition could be applied even more broadly than Kelley would have imagined when he wrote this.  So, allow me to present this chart and explanation of his in which he explains his theory of how entities interact with information.

As imperial formations and associated political power expand from the inchoate and fractured nomad condition, information availability increases with more of the world entering a single social space. It also becomes increasingly accessible as communities merge and morph, and individuals are able to circulate and contest definitions of identity. In short, power and knowledge grow together; they are mutually enhancing. At the apogee of imperial power, this hybrid and experimental condition begins to take on more of the formal attributes of the state. Information availability continues to increase, but it becomes progressively less accessible as only one frame of reference defines legitimacy, only one perspective constitutes truth, and only one network of transmission seeks to control the passage of information. In short, from this point on, power increasingly inhibits knowledge. pg 183

There’s no reason why this needs to be confined to actual empires…I suspect the same explanation could be applied to business, (non-empire) government or other organizations.  A company moving from small entrepreneurial to hot start up to cumbersome multinational following the same trajectory as the Romans or you can look at the newspaper industry which arguably can trace its decline to the inability to identify the value of ‘marginal actors’ and ‘slippery knowledge’ (via public media and information) or a way to monetize them.  I’d also argue that virtually all government entities in the U.S. are at the far right side of the graph within their sphere of influence as they attempt to bind their corner of the universe within their bureaucratic rules.

Knowledge is indeed power, but in a relation of mutual influence rather than direct equality. Power influences the kinds of questions asked and on what topics; it shapes the kinds of answers possible and how they are expressed. Knowledge, too, influences power; and philosophical issues about the nature of reality and understanding can shape how power is realized. pg 3

As the British empire in India expanded, it encompassed an increasing expanse of human and physical terrain which it did not fundamentally understand, prompting the series of “information panics” which characterized the British experience in the sub-continent. pg. 30

Information panics.  Think about how many of those we’ve had in the past, leaving aside the question of terrorism.  The RIAA has been an almost permanent freak out since the introduction of Napster.  Concerns about predators on the internet.  Youth sub cultures (goth, hip-hop, metal).  Immigrants.  Religion.  As all of these issues have been absorbed in our ‘imperial’ sphere of interest they’ve generally been ignored until some trigger (either real or contrived) caused them to leap to the public consciousness and lead to a bunch of flapping about, chicken little style.  Some of these are overblown and others (going back to terrorism – the rise of violent Islamism) aren’t but what these all have in common is that they generally weren’t within the scope of what the ‘imperial power’ considered to be valuable knowledge.

British attempts to rationalize Hindu and Islamic law in India, for example, fundamentally contorted the material at hand in order to make it intelligible for officials operating from an English common-law background. Their consequent understanding misread what their subjects experienced and expected, with far-reaching ramifications for Anglo-Indian relations and the experience of religiously defined identity in South Asia. pg 10

This is a concept I still don’t think we fundamentally understand.  Before the invasion of Iraq, conventional wisdom was that Saddam’s refusal to allow wide ranging weapons inspectors in was proof that he was hiding stockpiles of WMD.  It wasn’t until later that it became clear that at least part of his motivation in keeping the existence of a WMD program ambiguous was to deter Iranian hostility.  The mind boggles at the number of times we’ve made errors both tactical and strategic because we don’t understand that not everyone shares the same reality we do.  For Americans, I suspect that even the majority of them that claim to be religious don’t experience the concept of God in the same way that people might in the NWFP or in Ghana, for example.

My most recent posting provides a perfect example, as we moved operations to a new embassy complex shortly after my arrival. This facility—based on a standard model common to all new embassy construction worldwide—is modern, sanitary, safe from bombs and earthquakes, and plausibly attractive, depending on one’s aesthetic; all attributes we would presumably like associated with America. As a practical matter, however, its prominent fortress-like appearance at the top of the hill has inspired local rumors regarding the 800 Marines secretly sequestered inside and the CIA rendition facility in the basement, and prompted my driver and cook to ask “Why does America want to take over Nepal?” pg. 95

But that’s only one half of the equation.

The language and image of empire is universally visible and available to its nominal subjects, while the reverse is not usually the case. Josephus, a Jewish priest, can write a generally acceptable history and enter the informal canon of Roman literature. Moreover, discounting divine inspiration, his prophecy of Vespasian’s ascension suggests a savvy understanding of Roman politics. It is far less likely, were the attempt ever undertaken, that a Roman noble could enter the discourse of the Midrashim (various collections of Jewish commentary on Scripture, especially prevalent in the 2d Century CE). Similarly, Osama bin Laden and his ilk are far more ready and able to post videos to the Internet—to enter the imperial discourse—than are U.S. interlocutors suited to interact with restive tribes in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province via Urdu poetry.  pg. 157

In issues closer to home, think about activists (like the ad hoc ‘group’ that crushed Nestle recently).  These people were understand the information flowing from Nestle yet the company was clearly unable to process information coming the other way until it was too late and they had to take a road trip into Fail Land (here’s a presentation of the whole timeline which I normally wouldn’t link to but it was done on Prezi which I find to be an interesting alternative to linear presentation systems like PowerPoint).

In intelligence systems (regardless if its national, state or local) it’s still common practice to only value information obtained via traditional sources.  The idea of open source intelligence having real, practical value is not widely held even if it’s generally understood that you have to say it’s important.  But yet again, this is a problem of prioritizing the wrong things.

…modern intelligence analysis tends to attribute undue value to information obtained via “sensitive sources and methods”—i.e. the value of its degree of protection, its dearness to the seller—rather than information which meets purchaser requirements.  pg. 194

So, instead of how important the information is to address collection requirements we determine the value of the information on how hard it was to get.  Even when we’re talking about information others are attempting to hide, that doesn’t always translate into information we might need.

Here we need to expand upon the old cliche that we’re spending too much time on technical intelligence collection (IMINT, SIGINT, MASINT) and not enough on human intelligence.  But it might even be more than that.  Even if we hire a ton of additional agents and analysts and dedicate ourselves to finding out what’s going on in people’s heads will we get where we want?  Will be we able to get to, understand and pass along the importance of the ‘slippery knowledge’ if our people are all corn fed, middle Americans forced to operate in organizations which, like the Ottoman Empire, “privileged a certain world view and prioritized a certain kind of knowledge”. I’d remind you that in the wake of the Hasan shootings there were calls to forbid Muslims from serving in the military.  There are numerous stories of the difficulties in recruiting people with the cultural/ethnic/linguistic backgrounds which we might want because those same backgrounds don’t fit within the perception of what’s trusted or normal.  An agent who becomes fluent in Dari through extensive schooling is good.  One who grew up in Central Asia and not only knows the language but can effortlessly understand the cultural context of what goes on there is priceless.  And yet…try to do a background check of someone who grew up in Charikar (or places even further afield).

…this restriction in sense perception with the structural winnowing of imperial architecture both material and political, and the amount of information arriving at the policy-making end rapidly approaches nil.  Whether driven by considerations of status or force protection, the blinding and deafening effects of isolation are the same—…pg. 94

But, maybe even that doesn’t go far enough.  Kelley seems to argue that trying to capture ‘slippery knowledge’ within the guidelines of highly structured organizations may just not be possible.  Instead, what may be required is the reliance on other types of networks.

Truly alternative information networks—the places where surprises come from—may circulate among these “oppositional structures” and associations of more genuinely state-separated “civil society” like modern incarnations in the liberation theology movements of Latin America or the exploding Christian Pentecostal churches of sub-Saharan Africa in the 1980s. pg. 68

So, what are the characteristics of success?

Organizations that thrive will likely not be those that seek information dominance (a chimera if ever there was one), but those that provide innovative perspectives and connections. In practice, this means there is a place in strategic intelligence analysis for topics as apparently irrelevant as women’s literacy rates and rural access to irrigation systems.  193

The point is that frequently sound analysis isn’t about paring away the extraneous to reveal the “bottom line” or to identify the “center of gravity.” Rather, more fruitful results may oft en open up from exploring marginal aspects of context, picking a single stray thread and pulling until the fabric unravels, or tugging at a single weed until an entire underground network of roots emerges from the earth.  71

Really a superb read.  Check it out.

One Response to Imperial Secrets

  1. The character played by Donald Sutherland

    Certainly looks as if I’ll have to read this, if only to determine whether Kelley’s term “slippery knowledge” is at all equivalent to (someone else’s term) “tacit knowledge.”

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