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“A Failure of Imagination”

James Schlesinger, a former director of the CIA, makes a critical observation about the Iran National Intelligence Estimate in a Wall Street Journal op-ed today. The intelligence community, burned by the presence of speculation in some of its previous NIEs, stuck to the “hard facts” this time around. “Many in the intelligence community,” he writes, “embrace this as a return to virtue”:

Yet in itself it has severe drawbacks. As in this case, reading the key judgments may now require something akin to Cliffs Notes listing other relevant events and considerations that may be necessary in interpreting an Estimate limited to the hard evidence.

Exclusive reliance on hard evidence not infrequently results in deliberately blinding oneself to the most obvious explanation of what has occurred. The classic example of this failing occurred during the Vietnam War, when intelligence analysts stubbornly refused to accept that enemy supplies were pouring through Sihanoukville ostensibly on the grounds that there was no hard evidence. (Actually, there was an agent’s report that revealed the activity, but it was dismissed as insufficient.) Intelligence based on hard evidence requires supplementation by other forms of intelligence.

“Failures of imagination,” to which the 9-11 Commission referred, can come in a variety of modes.

Reading the entire op-ed requires a paid subscription to the Wall Street Journal site, which is a pity, since it is by far the liveliest and most informative editorial page going. For the sake of informing public opinion and avoiding future “failures of imagination,” let’s hope that reports are accurate that the new owner of the newspaper, Rupert Murdoch, plans to reverse course and offer content for free.



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