Policy Papers

Intelligence analysis needs to look backwards before looking forward

Christopher Andrew |

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Executive Summary

  • As Winston Churchill said 'The further backwards you look, the further forward you can see'. In a political culture increasingly dominated by Historical Attention Span Deficit Disorder (HASDD), the Intelligence Community today needs to heed Churchill's advice.
  • Four historical methodologies of proven value offer an antidote to HASDD: the 'lessons identified' approach to significant events; full-scale intelligence histories; the retrospective analysis of our own previous intelligence assessments of enemies; and their evaluation of our intelligence systems.
  • Such historical awareness would have forewarned the west that intelligence agencies in authoritarian regimes, especially those in one-party states, invariably tell their rulers what they want to hear. In Saddam Hussein's Iraq, as in the Soviet Union, they thus act as a mechanism for reinforcing the regime's misconceptions of the outside world.
  • History has a long-term familiarity with the supposedly 'new' threat of a terrorism which is far more concerned to kill than to terrify, and identifies fanaticism as its core component. What makes the 21st century a less dangerous place so far than the 20th century is that fanaticism is no longer in control of any of the world's major powers. But if the political power of fanaticism has declined, its destructive power over the next generation will be enormously increased by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
  • History also shows that fanaticism is so dangerous because it often combines obsessional conspiracy theories about its opponents with great tactical and operational skill, a combination which intelligence analysts have traditionally found difficult to comprehend. Bin Laden and his fellow-travellers are so dangerous precisely because they are like Hitler and Stalin in this respect. A valuable addition to the 21st-century US national intelligence community would be a National Intelligence Officer for Fanaticism and Conspiracy Theory.


Twenty-nine years ago, as the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, Pol Pot announced the beginning of Year Zero, insisting that Cambodia must disown its past and start again from scratch. There are nowadays some eminent voices in the United States who appear to tell us that Intelligence, too, must declare its Year Zero. To quote Brent Scowcroft:

This is a very new world, to which none of the structures or habits of thought established within the intelligence agencies are geared.

Mr Scowcroft does not say simply that some changes are needed but that all existing intelligence structures and habits of thought are out of date. Though he has a remarkably distinguished record and is an improbable candidate for a US Pol Pot, his message for the future pays too little attention to the past.

Those who prophesy the future have tended to fall into one of two categories, both of them mistaken: those who say we have seen it all before, that there is nothing new under the sun; and those who say the world is entirely new, we have to start completely afresh. Today's false prophets fall far more into the second category than the first. Most have been seduced by short-termism, the distinguishing intellectual vice of the late 20th and early 21st century. For the first time in recorded history, there is nowadays a widespread conviction that the experience of all previous generations save our own is irrelevant to present and future policy and intelligence analysis. Our political culture is dominated by an unprecedented malady: Historical Attention Span Deficit Disorder or HASDD (the only medical term and the only acronym I have ever invented).

Disrespect for the long-term past produces two serious intellectual disorders. First, the delusion that what is newest is necessarily most advanced-not a proposition which anyone with even an outline knowledge of the thousand years which followed the fall of the Roman Empire would take seriously. It took about fifteen hundred years before western plumbing and bathrooms, for example, got back to the standards set by the Romans. And second, the belief that interpreting the present and forecasting the future require an understanding only of the recent past. Little of real importance about future trends, however, can be deduced from the study of a mere generation of human experience. This kind of intellectual parochialism has, for example, led to the common belief that globalisation is an off-shoot of late 20th century American capitalism rather than the product of a long and complex interaction between the West and other cultures. For intelligence analysts, the most effective antidote to Historical Attention Span Deficit Disorder is to follow Winston Churchill's celebrated (though nowadays neglected) advice: 'The further backwards you look, the further forward you can see'

Failure to heed the lessons of long-term past experience has done at least as much damage to intelligence analysis as the failure to realise how much the world has changed. Those who showed the most understanding of the threat of transnational terrorism before 9/11 were those who took Churchill's advice. Those who got it most wrong were those who ignored it. That is not simply being wise after the event but an argument which I put forward some years before 9/11. Thus, in a paper to a conference at Priverno in February 2001 I argued that:

The nature of the current terrorist threat has been widely misunderstood because it has been seen in too short-term a perspective. For the past generation the conventional wisdom has been that the terrorist's prime objective is publicity rather than victims, to terrify rather than to kill.... This [late twentieth-century variety of terrorism, however,] is simply a short-term deviation from a much more dangerous longer-term terrorist tradition which is now reasserting itself. As Bruce Hoffman has argued, historically most terrorism has been far more concerned to kill than terrify. Until the nineteenth century terrorism was essentially Holy Terror... Over the last 20 years there has been a resurgence of traditional religious and cult-based terrorism, whose aims are epitomised by words of the former Hezbollah leader, Hussein Massawi: "We are not fighting so the enemy will offer us something. We are fighting to wipe out the enemy". That was the ideology of the religious wars in early modern Europe. That is also the ideology of, among others, Usama bin Laden.... If...bin Laden...possessed WMD [weapons of mass destruction], [he] would probably already have used them. Indeed bin Laden declared in 1998 that acquiring WMD is a 'religious duty'.

In the quarter-century before 9/11 much academic research actually lessened our understanding of terrorism by extrapolating from short-term late-20th trends, as embodied for example by the IRA, rather than the long-term threat posed by holy terror and other fanatical, ideologically-based terrorism, which seeks to destroy its enemies rather than bomb them to the negotiating table. During that quarter-century, for example, only three issues of the generally excellent Journal of Strategic Studies, the premier British journal in the field, included articles on terrorism, presumably because it did not regard transnational terrorism as a problem of major strategic significance. Even more remarkably, during the decade before 9/11, International Security contained no article on terrorism at all.

Case studies and official histories

In fact four proven methodologies already exist for learning from longer-term intelligence experience. The first is what is known in the United States as the 'lessons learned' approach-which derives from the after-action reports following military operations which seek to identify what went right, what went wrong and why. What Americans call 'lessons learned' are known in Britain as 'lessons identified'-in the, to my mind, correct belief that lessons identified are sometimes ignored rather than embodied in future practice. So far as I am aware, the most sophisticated and promising 'lessons learned' or 'identified' programme is that recently developed by the CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence (CSI), which brings together the Center's historians with analysts, operations and other intelligence officers to analyse past as well as recent operations. In the spring of 2004 the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States identified as one of the weaknesses of the US intelligence community before 9/11 the lack of a 'lessons learned' programme of the kind now run by the CSI:

...The Community had not institutionalized a process for learning from its successes and failures. We did not find any after-action reviews sponsored by the Intelligence Community after surprise terrorist attacks such as the Embassy bombings of August 1998 or the U.S.S. Cole attack of October 2000. The Community participated in Inspector General inquiries conducted by individual agencies, but these reviews were perceived as fault-finding, without enough constructive emphasis on learning lessons and discovering best practices. What we did not find was anything between the extremes of no investigation at all, and an adversarial inquiry triggered by a public outcry.

However, the limitation of this case-study approach is its tendency to miss long-term trends. For that reason it needs to be complemented by the second methodology, full-scale histories, which analyse all stages of the intelligence cycle. Over the last quarter-century the development of intelligence history has transformed the once narrow agenda of in-house histories of intelligence agencies, most of which appear to have resembled regimental histories concerned with the minutiae of operations and organisation. Though unofficial historians will continue to have a major role to play, the nature of the intelligence archive will always make it impossible for any but official historians to have full access to sources and methods. Official histories of intelligence should, in my view, fulfil three criteria:

(i) They should be based on full access to the files. Though the need to protect sources and methods necessarily limits what can be published, the conclusions of official histories must be based on access to all relevant evidence.

(ii) Official historians must have complete freedom to reach whatever conclusions they believe are consistent with the evidence. Just as intelligence chiefs have to be able to tell policymakers what they do not want to know, so official historians have to be free, on occasion, to tell intelligence agencies uncomfortable truths.

(iii) Official histories of intelligence should not be simply internal histories but should deal with the whole of the intelligence cycle, including the interaction with policymakers. Basic questions about the attitude of most twentieth-century world leaders to intelligence have yet to be asked, let alone answered. It is high time they were. We cannot learn the lessons of experience until we know what that experience consists of.

Our opponents and ourselves

The third methodology necessary to identify our long-term strengths and weaknesses is the retrospective analysis of our assessment of the opposition. We cannot possibly assess our performance against the KGB during the Cold War, for example, without comparing what we know now about the KGB with what we said at the time. The same, more recently, applies to Saddam Hussein's Iraq. So, very briefly, I want to give some indication of what I think we can learn from those two examples.

Thanks to Vasili Mitrokhin and Oleg Gordievsky, I have been fortunate to have privileged access to some of the still-classified contents of the KGB archives, as well to material which has been officially released. A comparison of that material with US and British intelligence assessments of the Soviet Union seems to me to reveal a recurrent failure to grasp the frequently huge gulf between Soviet intelligence collection and Soviet intelligence assessment. That failure was due first and foremost to a failure to situate Soviet intelligence assessment within its long-term context. The previous history of all authoritarian regimes should have been sufficient to demonstrate that Soviet political intelligence assessment was bound to be bad. Intelligence agencies in authoritarian regimes, especially those in one-party states, invariably tell their rulers what they want to hear. In the Soviet Union, as in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, they thus act as a mechanism for reinforcing the regime's misconceptions of the outside world.

Though the Soviet leadership never really understood the West until the closing years of the Cold War, it would have been outraged to have its misunderstandings challenged by intelligence reports. As one Line PR (political intelligence) officer later admitted, 'In order to please our superiors we sent in biased information, acting on the principle "Blame everything on the Americans, and everything will be OK".' Even on the eve of the Gorbachev era, KGB assessments of the world situation continued to emphasise the supposedly insoluble international contradictions which beset western capitalism, but tactfully refrained from mentioning the far more serious problems of the Soviet economy. In 1984 the KGB foreign intelligence chief, Vladimir Kryuchkov (later KGB Chairman), reported that 'deepening economic and social crisis' was leading Western imperialists to consider war against the Soviet Union as a possible way out of their insoluble problems.

The damaging effects of political correctness were made worse by the KGB's recurrent tendency to conspiracy theory, which in times of crisis escalated into a paranoid tendency. Looking back on the Cold War, Sir Percy Cradock, former Chairman of the British Joint Intelligence Committee and Margaret Thatcher's Foreign Policy Advisor, is surely right to identify 'the main source of weakness' in the Soviet intelligence system as 'the attempt to force an excellent supply of information from the multifaceted West into an oversimplified framework of hostility and conspiracy theory'. We now know from documents in the KGB archives that on at least two occasions, in the early 1960s and the early 1980s, the KGB reported to the Politburo--with horrendous inaccuracy--that the United States was planning a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union. On 29 June 1960 the KGB Chairman, Aleksandr Shelepin, hand-delivered to Khrushchev an alarmist and wholly unfounded report that 'the Pentagon is convinced of the need to initiate [nuclear] war with the Soviet Union "as soon as possible".' In March 1962 the GRU claimed that in September 1961 the United States had actually taken the decision to launch a nuclear first-strike but had been deterred at the last moment by Soviet nuclear tests which indicated a greater capacity to retaliate than had been expected.

Had CIA analysts in the early 1980s been aware of the terrifyingly mistaken KGB and GRU assessments of twenty years earlier, they would doubtless have been quicker to credit the intelligence which convinced their British colleagues that both the KGB and GRU were engaged in a vast intelligence operation designed to detect the non-existent plans of the Reagan administration for a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union. But the analysts' fundamental difficulty was in grasping that intelligence analysts and policymakers in Moscow were capable of crediting such an improbable conspiracy theory. A longer-term understanding of the mind-sets of authoritarian regimes would have made that possibility seem far less surprising.

Meanwhile, the remarkable amount of material from Iraqi intelligence files which has become publicly available since the Gulf War at the beginning of the 1990s has attracted surprisingly little attention. The several million Iraqi intelligence documents captured in 1991, chiefly by the Kurds, despite their limited operational usefulness once the war was over, were-or should have been-of central importance in understanding the mindset of the Saddam Hussein regime. Like the documents captured after the 2003 Iraq War, they provide an opportunity to identify the strengths and weaknesses of Western intelligence assessment. Both sets of documents provide vivid evidence of the way in which, once again, the intelligence services of a one-party state acted as a mechanism for reinforcing the regime's misconceptions of the outside world. Ibrahim al-Marashi, who has made a detailed study of many thousands of the Iraqi intelligence documents captured in 1991, has found a level of sycophancy towards the political leadership reminiscent of the Soviet era. The documents also go into extraordinary detail about Iraq weaponry. One file, for example, on an Iraqi soldier who deserted to Saudi Arabia even records the number of bullets which remained in his Kalashnikov.

Had the importance of the intelligence documents captured after the Gulf War been fully grasped, the capture of similar documents would presumably have had a higher priority for the allies during the 2003 war in Iraq-particularly given their likely relevance to the search for evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. And yet for thirteen days after the fall of Baghdad Iraqi intelligence headquarters and the Foreign Ministry were not secured. During that period looters went in and out of the buildings. So did the Western media, sometimes bringing out remarkably interesting documents. The captured documents so far released show how Saddam's distorted understanding of his opponents was reinforced by woefully skewed intelligence reports, leading him first to believe that the United States and its allies would not go ahead with an invasion, then even after hostilities had begun to delude himself into believing that he held the upper hand and could clinch a negotiated settlement through French and Russian mediation.

The fourth methodology available is, as Robert Burns recommended, to try 'to see ourselves as others see us'. Intelligence communities have generally been slow to follow this advice. The Brown-Aspin commission on the role and capability of the US intelligence community, for example, had a wonderful opportunity to ask former opponents, such as the KGB defectors and exiles in the US, what they thought the strengths and weaknesses of US intelligence were. It did not, however, occur to the Commission to do so.

'Secrets' and 'mysteries'

Long-term study of the strengths and weaknesses of Western intelligence, based on the methodologies that already exist, has already begun to provide answers which go beyond anything that analysis of only the recent past can provide. To follow the conventional distinction between 'secrets' and 'mysteries', during the twentieth century we were frequently very good at discovering our opponents' secrets when it mattered most but more confused than we should have been by the mysteries of what they intended to do.

The American and British success in discovering the capability and deployment of enemy armed forces shortened the Second World War, stabilised a Cold War which might otherwise have turned into hot war, and has since helped to make possible a series of breathtakingly rapid military victories. The importance of intelligence reports on military strengths and capabilities went far beyond the data they provided. Studies of the Cold War frequently forget the truth of Eisenhower's dictum that intelligence on 'what the Soviets did not have' was often as important as information on what they did. Shortage of reliable intelligence in the early 1950s generated the destabilising American myths of the 'bomber gap' and the 'missile gap'-the delusion that the Soviet Union was increasingly out-producing the United States in both long-range bombers and ICBMs. In 1955 US Air Force intelligence estimates calculated that by the end of the decade the Soviet Long-Range Air Force would be more powerful than U.S Strategic Air Command, whose head, General Curtis Le May, became dangerously attracted by the idea of a pre-emptive strike to prevent the Soviet Union achieving nuclear superiority. The introduction of the U-2 spy-plane in 1956, followed four years later by the first imagery intelligence (IMINT) from spy satellites, provided proof that the Soviet nuclear strike force was not overtaking that of the United States. The U-2 missions, wrote Eisenhower, 'provided proof that the horrors of the alleged "bomber gap" and "missile gap" were nothing more than the imaginative creations of irresponsibility'. Without the IMINT revolution, US policy to the Soviet Union would doubtless have continued to be confused by other destabilising myths about the extent of the Soviet nuclear strike force. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the National Technical Means (NTMs) and the analytical tools devised to interpret them, chiefly by US intelligence, to Western policy during the Cold War. According to Robert Gates, DCI from 1991 to 1993:

The great continuing strength and success of the analysts of CIA and the intelligence community was in describing with amazing accuracy from the late 1960s until the Soviet collapse the actual military strength and capabilities of the Soviet Union.... And these numbers and capabilities would be relied upon, with confidence, by the Executive Branch (including the Defense Department), the Congress, and our allies both in arms control negotiations and in military planning.

The undoubted weaknesses of Western intelligence during the Cold War should not lead us to underestimate its unprecedented strengths.

Of the 'mysteries' which confused us during the Second World War and the Cold War, the one we were worst at unravelling was the mindset of our opponents-in particular, the understanding of fanaticism. That remains a serious problem because of one fundamental, largely unnoticed continuity between the threats that faced us in the 20th century and those that face us in the 21st One of the very few to draw attention to that continuity has been Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate, holocaust survivor and human rights activist. Several years before 9/11 Wiesel said this: 'The principal challenge of the 21st century is going to be exactly the same as the principal challenge of the 20th century: How do we deal with fanaticism armed with power?' Wiesel is surely right. Locating and analysing the threat from 'fanaticism armed with power' is, for the foreseeable future, the greatest challenge facing strategic intelligence. All those who did most damage in the 20th century were fanatics armed with power: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot chief among them. Those who are likely to do most damage in the 21st century-Usama bin Laden, for example - will also be fanatics armed with power, though we may have to deal with a different kind of fanatic. Fanaticism, like other disorders, evolves over time.

What makes the 21st century so far a less dangerous place than the 20th century is that fanaticism is not in control of any of the world's major powers. The more democracy and prosperity increase, the fewer the opportunities for fanatics to achieve the positions of immense power which they occupied in the last century. Today's most dangerous fanatics are on the margins of the international system rather than at its centre - rogue regimes and terrorist groups. But if the political power of fanaticism has declined, its destructive power over the next generation will be enormously increased by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Fanaticism, like the terrorism which it generates, needs to be interpreted in a long-term perspective. Short-term analysis of fanaticism commonly arrives at one of two misinterpretations. The fanatic is a rational actor. His (rarely her) aims are rational even if we do not always recognise their underlying logic. The fanatic is a madman. The British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, calls bin Laden 'obviously psychotic and paranoid as well'. Seen in long-term perspective, fanaticism looks rather different. The most dangerous fanatics have always had, and will doubtless continue to have, two distinguishing characteristics. First, all fanatics are necessarily conspiracy theorists. Their extreme hatred of the enemies they have sought to destroy over the last millennium (among them heretics, witches, Jews, Trotskyists and the United States) can only be justified by substituting demonic, conspiratorial myth-images for reality. As Voltaire warned us two and a half centuries ago, 'Those who believe absurdities will commit atrocities'. Conspiracy theory is the only ideology which-as in the case of earlier fanatics--all the, otherwise disparate, most dangerous terrorists of the last decade (the first World Trade Center bombers, Aum Shinrikyo, Timothy McVeigh and Al-Qaeda) have in common. Second, however, at an operational level, the most dangerous fanatics, despite their conspiracy theories, are calculating and often dangerously effective-as on 11 September 2001.

The fanaticism which is at the heart of today's transnational terrorism can only be understood if both of these points are taken into account. The historical record shows, however, that analysts have found it very difficult to grasp that those who threaten us have been both at the same time. That has been true of our response to Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and-at least initially-Usama bin Laden.

Because Hitler could, when he chose, play the role of a skilful international statesman, pre-Second World War Western assessments of his intentions simply could not credit the fanaticism with which he pursued his ultimate aims of a huge slave empire in Eastern Europe and the 'final solution' of the Jewish question. Though Hitler was obsessed by the preposterous conspiracy theory of a Jewish plot for world mastery, he was none the less shrewd and calculating enough to out-negotiate Western statesmen before WW2 and to drive his generals to achieve during the first two years of the war the most spectacular sequence of rapid military victories since Alexander the Great. While British intelligence knew an unprecedented amount about Hitler's military operations, caught every one of his spies in Britain and used them as the basis of the stunningly successful Double Cross deception, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) understood very little indeed about how his mind worked-so little that it recruited two astrologers and a water-diviner. As Paul Winter has shown, until 1942 the JIC paid more attention to the astrologers than to the conspiracy theories of Mein Kampf. One of the reasons why the JIC predicted that Hitler was likely to choose a date soon after 19 October 1940 for Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain, was that 'Hitler's horoscope, a sign to which he was reported to pay considerable attention, was favourable for this period'.

Understanding Stalin proved equally difficult. Stalin was, as Khrushchev described him, 'sickly suspicious': 'Everywhere and in everything he saw "enemies", "double-dealers" and "spies"'. At different stages of his career he was obsessed by huge and mostly non-existent conspiracies by Trotskyists, Titoists, Zionists and homicidal Jewish doctors. The vast majority of the millions of 'enemies of the people' who were shot or perished in the gulag were, in reality, enemies neither of Stalin nor of the Soviet system. Yet, because Stalin was also a skilful negotiator who got the better of both Roosevelt and Churchill, Western analysts found it impossible to grasp the centrality of conspiracy theory in his world-view. Some still do. I have been struck by the fact that some of those most resistant to the idea of bin Laden as an obsessional conspiracy theorist misunderstand Stalin in much the same way.

Bin Laden and his fellow-travellers are so dangerous precisely because, like Hitler and Stalin, they combine obsessional conspiracy theories about their opponents with great tactical and operational skill. Among other conspiracy theories, they believe in the Jewish world conspiracy supposedly revealed in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and in what bin Laden calls the United States' 'subordination to the Jews'. We cannot understand what al-Qaeda think they are fighting against and what they mean by 'Jews and Crusaders' unless we explore their conspiracy theories. The description of Stalin by the British diplomat, R A Sykes, as 'a curious mixture of shrewdness and nonsense' also applies to bin Laden and his chief lieutenants. A valuable addition to the 21st-century US national intelligence community would be a National Intelligence Officer for Fanaticism and Conspiracy Theory.


Let me return briefly to the Scowcroft mission statement with which I began:

This is a very new world, to which none of the structures or habits of thought established within the intelligence agencies are geared

To respond to the challenges of that 'very new world', here is a visionary statement of what a 21st century intelligence service should be like:

All the members of the staff. ...being intelligent people are treated as such; they are invited to make any suggestions which occur to them for the improvement of the machinery of the office and they are made to feel that they have an important and personal share in the work. So much is this the case that many of the important improvements that have been from time to time adopted, have been suggested by members of the staff. ... Every effort is made to allot to [staff] the work they like best and can do best. The rule is that while the interests of the work must come first those of the worker must by no means be overlooked.

That visionary statement of the new work culture of a 21st century intelligence agency is actually almost ninety years old. It was a description produced in 1916 of the work culture of MI5, which did indeed produce some 'successful results'-among them the capture of every German agent who landed in Britain during the First World War.

We should be foolish at the beginning of the 21st century not to attempt to learn from our past successes as well as our past failures.

Further Reading

Ibrahim al-Marashi, 'An Insight into the Mindset of Iraq's Security Apparatus', Intelligence and National Security, vol.18 (2003), no.3.

Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, KGB: The Inside Story of its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev (London: Hodder & Stoughton; New York: Harper & Row, 1990).

Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, Instructions from The Centre: Top Secret Files on KGB Foreign Operations, 1975-1985 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1991); published in USA as Comrade Kryuchkov's Instructions (Stanford U.P., 1993).

Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, More Instructions from The Centre: Top Secret Files on KGB Global Operations 1975-1985 (London/USA: Frank Cass, 1992).

Christopher Andrew, For The President's Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush (London/New York: HarperCollins, 1995).

Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive, Vol.1: The KGB in Europe and the West (London/New York: Penguin/Basic Books, 1999).

National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, 'The Performance of the Intelligence Community', Staff Statement No.11 [Spring 2004].

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