The U.S. intelligence community's traditional model is similarly threatened by these transformations, but like so many other besieged industries, the IC is hesitant to deviate from it. In general terms, the IC's model is a secret "collection-centric
" one that:
- prizes classified data, with classification often directly correlated to value and significance;
- is driven by data availability, while analytical requirements remain secondary;
- is context-minimal, with analysis staying close to the collected data and in narrow account "lanes";
- is current-oriented, since there are no collectable facts about the future;
- is warning-focused, emphasizing alarm-ringing;
- is product-centered, measuring success relative to the "finished intelligence" product provided to policymakers, rather than its utility or service.
This model ends up being highly "reductionist," since secret collection leads to classification, compartmentalization and, inevitably, reduced distribution. Such a system, in which everything is constantly subdivided, was designed for the "complicated" -- but not really "complex" -- strategic environment of the Cold War. In that more linear environment, it was possible to know exactly where to look -- namely, the USSR; access was severely restricted, making secret collection vital; the context of hostile intent and opposing alliances was well-understood; and the benefits of being forewarned, especially of imminent military action, was paramount.
Today's complex strategic environment is vastly different. Now, there is no single focal point, as a threat or opportunity can emerge from almost anywhere; access is largely unrestricted, since the world is wide-open and information-rich; and context is much more ambiguous, because intent and relationships are fluid. In this more dynamic, non-linear strategic environment, reductionist approaches are, by themselves, a veritable recipe for systemic (i.e., strategic) surprise.
In practical terms, this means that it is no longer sufficient to just reactively collect data on how certain parts of the international system are acting in order to extrapolate discrete predictions. Rather, it's crucial that such reductionist approaches be complemented by more "synthetic" approaches
that proactively think about how the various parts of the larger system could interact, and consider how the synthesized range of possible threats and opportunities might be respectively averted or fostered. In other words, it is no longer enough to just monitor already identified issues. It is also necessary to envision potentially emergent ones. In short, it is time for the IC to use its imagination.
For that, a new intelligence model is needed. This new "cognition-centric" model, by prioritizing sound thinking ahead of secret collection, would help moderate the imagination-crushing reductionism that the traditional model reinforces. The new model would still value secret collection and the associated critical/reductionist thinking (i.e., analysis) that the traditional model demands. However, it would balance that excessively analytic perspective by promoting the type of creative/imaginative thinking (i.e., synthesis) that, although key to making sense of complex systems, the traditional model disdains.
More specifically, the new model would truly value unclassified information and emphasize its use in the creation of contextual, interdisciplinary, "sense-making" perspectives. It would encourage analysts to openly interact with outside experts and to build broader and deeper knowledge than the collection system permits. It would promote imaginative hypothesizing that goes beyond evidence-citing reportage. And finally, it would encourage a process-centered approach in which analysts would work closely with policymakers in partner-client -- and not provider-customer -- relationships.
Fundamentally, this new model would acknowledge that when it comes to helping policymakers think and act strategically (i.e., holistically) in a globalized world, creativity -- "intelligence synthesis," as it were -- trumps mere secrets. Indeed, the adoption of such a model would also make clear that the IC finally recognizes an essential truth: It is impossible to understand a complex world via excessively reductionist approaches.
However tentative the IC may be in adapting to this truth, the broader national security community is increasingly coming to terms with it. Recently, the National Security Council was reorganized into a much more holistic and contextually sensitive body. Moreover, even the Pentagon -- long a temple of linear, hard-power theology -- is now acknowledging that the contextual ambiguities and uncertainty of an increasingly complex world require a much broader conception of national power and security.
All told, only change that decisively breaks with the traditional model and its associated reductionist imperatives will ensure that the IC maintains its strategic relevance and does not default to a niche role of operational, tactical and technical support. No matter how complex the world may be, what's at stake for the IC really is that simple.
**Josh Kerbel is a 14-year veteran of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC). The views expressed in this article are his own and do not imply endorsement by the IC, any element thereof, or any other U.S. government agency.