Mark Bowden has an interesting article about drones in the September issue of the Atlantic. Specifically, I’d like to recommend the portion of the article that talks about target selection and approval.
I want to write about one brief, almost innocuous, passage in that portion of he article and how it applies to the intelligence process more broadly. In talking about the effectiveness of drones (and other means) to kill al-Qaida leadership, Bowden makes the point that drone strikes have declined in numbers. Quoting a ‘senior White House official’ he writes:
The reduction in strikes is “something that the president directed. We don’t need a top-20 list. We don’t need to find 20 if there are only 10. We’ve gotten out of the business of maintaining a number as an end in itself, so therefore that number has gone done.
I remain both amused and concerned at the number of times I see or hear about ‘top 10′ lists. I get it we’re a base ten species. But really, do we need to treat our counter-terrorism efforts the same way we treat a David Letterman monologue or a Buzzfeed article? The fact that we rely so heavily on the idea of ‘top ten’ can seriously distort our understanding of the environment.
For several years I used to work on assessments of criminal street gangs and I would often get requests for the ‘top ten’ gang threats. Sometimes the two or three ‘most serious’ gang threats (those that were the largest or most prone to violent activity, for example) would so eclipse the others that it just made no sense to include others in the same list. The whole process was unhelpful, especially since few people would spend much time on anything other than whatever was #1 on the list.
And take counter-terrorism. A reliance on something like ‘top 10′ threats to the U.S. implies that there are 10 threats to the country that deserve consideration. Maybe there are 4…maybe there are 14. It seems to me that the rational thing to do is determine criteria for what’s important and then figure out how many (or few) subjects fit that criteria. An alternate way to go would be to identify how many threats you have the resources to address (‘We can conduct 3 investigations simultaneously.’) and then determine criteria that will identify the three most important subjects.
If we assume that threat is made up of intent plus capability what shouldn’t our priorities include the same components? Our intent may be to eliminate all terrorism from the face of the Earth but our capabilities are far should of that so…bring them in line and get on with it.
In any case, arbitrarily asking for ‘top 10′ lists doesn’t do much of anything. It doesn’t even give us a workable number to evaluate priorities if cognitive science to be believed. In the Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, Richards Heuer asserts that the human mind can only juggle between seven and nine facts or bits of information at one time. There’s been some research that indicates that was a very optimistic estimate and the real number is half that.
Top 10 lists are intellectual crutches that allow someone (the tasker…the analyst…whoever) to avoid making decisions about what’s important. Rather than determining criteria for inclusion or exclusion, we just punt and say ‘Give the the top 10′. And what do we do with that top 10? How much consideration does #7 get? Don’t most customers really spend their time looking at number 1 or 2?
So, what’s an analyst to do when asked to put together some sort of top 10 list? Well, I think there are two ways to go about tackling this. The first would be to develop ‘inclusion criteria’ of what it would take to make it on any list and run that by whomever created the tasking…without telling them that this might mean that more or fewer entities might make the cut. My experience is that if you introduce that possibility too early the response you’ll get is something along the lines of ‘That’s great…but you’re going to end up with 10, right?”
You’ll want to wait until the project is well along…ideally close to being completed before introducing the possibility that your list might not hit upon that nice, round number that everyone seems to love.
Once you’ve got your criteria, the entities you’ve determined are worthy of consideration will (probably) either be less then or greater than the magic number you were assigned to cram into a list. If it’s less and you’re still *ahem* encouraged to beef up your list to a magical number, I’d recommend using images and language throughout your document to make it clear which items on your list are not worth consideration. Images can be quite effective in this regard and hopefully, even your overlord will, upon review, realize that including extraneous entities undermines the credibility of your project.
If you have more entities than the magic number you may be encouraged to arbitrarily create some cut off mark. You could try to retrofit your criteria in order to do so, which may be your safest bet since it will allow you point out what is being eliminated and allowing your overlords to have the queasy feeling of wondering if eliminating terrorist group B from the list is a good idea just because they feel a bit short of their annual funding goal.
The bottom line is intelligence is about telling your customer (whether that’s a patrol cop of the President of the U.S.) what they need to know, regardless of if what they need to know if 2 or 22 things. Don’t get sucked into cultural idioms if they don’t advance the goal of providing clear, concise, relevant information in a timely manner.