Tuesday, May 29, 2007

It's a Mystery

In the June 2007 issue of SMITHSONIAN magazine, Gregory R. Treverton, Director of the RAND Corporation’s Center for Global Risk and Security and formerly Vice Chairman of the National Intelligence Council (responsible for production of National Intelligence Estimates), describes the difference between a puzzle and a mystery – characterizing the former with the Cold War task of assessing the military capabilities of the Soviet Union by counting their missiles, calculating their various capabilities, and adding up the sums. Today’s challenge for the Pentagon analysts focused upon the terrorist threat is “to frame mysteries.” Treverton elaborates as follows:

“Puzzles can be solved; they have answers….But a mystery offers no such comfort. It poses a question that has no definitive answer because the answer is contingent; it depends on future interaction of many factors, known and unknown. A mystery cannot be answered; it can only be framed, by identifying the critical factors and applying some sense of how they have interacted in the past and might interact in the future. A mystery is an attempt to define ambiguities.”

I find Treverton’s thoughts interesting because I always want to hear from people who have practical experience that they are willing to share. However, my initial reaction is that he may be trying to make his point the hard way. By comparison, Donald Rumsfeld’s 2002 discussion of “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns” was transparently clear based upon my work during several assignments as an analyst in the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. There I had personal experience sorting intelligence reports and identifying the “known knowns,” the “known unknowns,” and the “unknown unknowns.”

Treverton’s example of Soviet military capabilities as a puzzle does not really make his point for me either. John Prados’ 1982 book “The Soviet Estimate” recounts how much difficulty the U.S. Intelligence Community had in measuring the USSR’s military expenditures. A series of faulty assumptions such as projecting our own costs and procedures onto the Soviet Union resulted in repeated miscalculations and overestimates of the USSR’s military strength. Treverton’s reduction of Soviet military capabilities to the level of a puzzle to be solved by means of mathematical exercises may accurately reflect the process, but as Prados’ book showed these calculations too often reflected false or erroneous assumptions.

Winston Churchill is reported to have said, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” This is a useful observation in this context because it brings up a point I have made in the past about how Pentagon analysts approached their task by focusing on capabilities and ignoring intentions. What I understand Treverton to be saying is that now the terrorist threat represents a mystery rather than a puzzle because the intelligence community must factor in the question of their intentions as well as their capabilities.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest to fool.”
Richard Feynman


rei ulysses said...
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rei ulysses said...

I've been looking for a blog like this. I'm enjoying your writing.

I recall reading an article a couple months ago discussing how we know the intentions of terrorists, but we don't know their capabilities; whereas during the Cold War, we knew (roughly) the capabilities of the USSR, but did not know its intentions. I know it's an issue in the intelligence community. This may give context to Treverton's article.