Ideology & Intelligence: A Recipe for Disaster

Part II Read Part I of Scott Uehlinger’s Ideology & Intelligence in the Spring 2016 issue of Network Magazine The homily “One Sees What One Wants to See” is true; humans are guilty of these behaviors in their business or personal lives.  Some Cognitive Dissonance is inevitable – we are human, after all – but we […]

Part II

Read Part I of Scott Uehlinger’s Ideology & Intelligence in the Spring 2016 issue of Network Magazine

The homily “One Sees What One Wants to See” is true; humans are guilty of these behaviors in their business or personal lives.  Some Cognitive Dissonance is inevitable – we are human, after all – but we must train ourselves and cast our institutions in a way to mitigate this tendency.

Examples of cognitive dissonance are numerous in the business world.  Large, successful companies are often slow to recognize a threat to their way of doing business – and their lack of adaptation or flexibility can be costly.  Leading executives settled in their thinking, which were unwilling to change and adapt to a morphing marketplace.

The Kodak Corporation, a one-time colossus that revolutionized the photography industry, ignored the threat of digital photography until the eleventh hour; too late to save the company.  Similarly, Blockbuster Video was once approached by Netflix for a strategic partnership – and Netflix was rebuffed with a laugh.

There are even more tragic examples in the pages of history.  Perhaps the most infamous was that despite receiving more than a dozen separate warnings from several sources that Hitler’s Nazi Germany was planning a massive betrayal and invasion of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin refused to believe it. This lead to the absolute carnage of Operation Barbarossa almost knocking the Soviet Union out of the war within 6 months.  Despite fighting the 1967 War, the State of Israel went deeply into denial about the threats it faced.

The result was total strategic surprise during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  Had it not been for the sacrifice of their military, Israel would have been overwhelmed. British Intelligence, due to class bias, ignored early warning signs that they were being dangerously compromised by Soviet agent penetrations until the full-on spy scandals of the 1960s (The Cambridge Five) engulfed them.

The reason why Mirror Imaging and Perception Bias/Cognitive Dissonance have leaded to countless Intelligence Failure that cut across centuries and cultures is because these behaviors are fundamental human flaws.    It is no coincidence, however, that the most serious intelligence failures, particularly those in terms of human life have been those involving dictatorships and totalitarian regimes. The inherent logic of “Don’t displease Caesar/Mao/Stalin/Hitler” is clear.  Regarding intel failures in liberal democracies such as The United States, Britain and Israel, the Intel Failure problem occurs more often when the leadership is chained to a narrative or an ideology of its own.

To understand this problem as it exists today, let us first start with a look at the Soviet Union. Throughout the “Spy Wars” of the Cold War period, Soviet Intel more often than not, came out on top. (They did, after all, steal the plans for the A-Bomb from the West.)  As far as stealing technology and disinformation operations were concerned, Soviet Intelligence was deadly effective.

Despite this, the Soviets were poor at analyzing the more prosaic political, economic and military intelligence they collected. The Soviets continually misinterpreted, misunderstood or drew poor conclusions from their information.


The primary reason the Soviets were poor at analysis was because the Soviet Union and its leadership were ideologically biased.  The foundation of the Soviet Union was predicated on a single ideology – Marxism/Communism.  This meant that their intelligence service was attached to an ideologically-driven totalitarian state.  Therefore, oftentimes
Reality had to be reshaped to conform to the narrative.

Ideologies (any ideology) are totalitarian in nature because their essence is to take a philosophy and say that on the basis of it (in this case Marxism-Communism), certain things must be true.  In the Soviet’s case, their worldview was that (1) capitalism was evil, (2) militarily expansionist by nature and (3) dedicated to the perpetual exploitation of the masses.  Stalin was convinced that the West was bent on dominating the world and consistently underestimated the importance of public opinion to Western leaders.  Of course, he was mirror-imaging.  As an absolute dictator, Stalin could not believe the West had actual functioning democracies.

Since reality clearly was at odds with the world view of Soviet ideology, reality had to be forbidden. Unfortunately for Russians, this extended to not just the intel world, but Soviet society as a whole. Soviet Intel was not only afraid to give information to their leadership that went against the narrative but Soviet citizens were daily victims of cognitive dissonance as well.  The public was afraid to lend a voice to the obvious and were forced to chant catchphrases they knew were lies.  Soviet citizens used to joke
“In the Soviet Union, the future is known; it is the past that is always changing.”
The term “Political Correctness” is in fact a Soviet term (politicheskaya pravil’nost’).  A Soviet had to be politically correct, to stick to the party line, lest he run afoul of the authorities.

Which Brings us to the West…

There are increasing parallels between modern US/Western society and the Soviet society I studied and live in for much of my life.  Firstly, the Soviet “disease” of Political Correctness is alive and well in the United States. It has taken root in our culture and in the Intelligence Community as well.

For example, when was the last time the reader stopped himself/herself from saying something they knew to be true, for fear of being punished or criticized for saying it?

That’s not just a talking point – it is a central problem with our national conversation and it is adversely affecting the efficiency of our intelligence agencies and government.

Due to this sometimes hostile current environment, I believe there has been a steady decrease in the effectiveness of the US Intelligence Community.  We can say the same about other Government Agencies.  The Secret Service, FBI, NSA, Border Patrol and the IRS have all seen recent scandals and have earned the increased ire of the American people.

Americans are losing faith in these institutions. Congress, of course, continues to scrape the bottom of the barrel in terms of popularity – but even the military is seeing a decrease in favorability as it tows the PC line.  According to recent numerous surveys, the morale of our service members is also suffering, largely due to the prevalence of PC and its affect across the board.   What we also see is that our intelligence community and even our military, is increasingly being surprised and bamboozled by events – or just plain not listened to by our policymakers.


The answer is simple; because never before in the history of this country has there been a more ideologically driven, willfully blind Administration as the one we have today.  Locked inside the narrative to which they are bound, the mistakes of this Administration are a litany of repeated Mirror Imaging, Perception Bias, Willful Blindness, and thus, intelligence/policy failures.

All agencies have their own internal tensions and certainly the CIA has its share of Mirror Imaging, Perception Bias and Willful Blindness – but we must remember that government agencies march to the beat of the policymakers.  For the CIA, intelligence priorities are set by the Administration – and the CIA’s job is to advise the policymakers.  The CIA does not make policy; their marching orders always come from the Presidential Administration.

When an Administration is chained to an ideological narrative and is increasingly divorced from reality, is it surprising that it wishes not to receive intel information which presents any opposing view?  As with the Soviet Union and other failed regimes.

Reality must now be reshaped to conform to the narrative.

The complete and utter failure in all phases of US Foreign Policy is the bitter fruit of this Administration’s misguided, politically correct ideology.   Unfortunately, the American people will be paying for these errors long after the Obama Presidency ends.

This Administration has been unable to admit that ISIS is an Islamic Extremist organization and that it is, in fact, not a “JV Team”. There are 13 dead in San Bernardino and 137 dead in Paris who might disagree with the President’s assessment.   At the same time, this Administration openly encourages illegal immigration despite the fact that it has been proven that ISIS has (and certainly will in the future) use this channel to spearhead attacks on The United States.   How does this reckless disregard for the facts ensure US security?
Also emblematic of the administration’s Willful Blindness is that in 2015, US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) endured repeated complaints by its 40 Intel Analysts that their ISIS reporting was being regularly doctored due to an Administration hostile to their information.  The Army Inspector General’s report specifically mentioned a “Stalinist environment” that shut down accurate reporting and honest analysis.   Is this the multi-billion dollar intelligence community of which the American people can be proud? Perception Bias and Political Correctness resulted in an Administration moving headlong into a “Russian Reset”, which only served to empower a resurgent Putin to invade neighboring Ukraine, as well as reestablish a Russian foothold in the Middle East (which hasn’t existed in 25 years).  Putin detected US weakness and ever the pragmatist (and an ex-Intelligence Officer), took advantage of the situation. The US State Department, along with their equally hapless, politically correct Western European colleagues, was doubtlessly shocked by Russia’s actions.

Mirror Imaging also produced the most ominous foreign debacle of all; a nuclear “deal” with Iran.  A deal in which the US government releases $150 billion of frozen assets (frozen since 1979) as an “incentive” for Iran to curtail its ongoing nuclear weapons programs.  By way of expressing thanks, in January of 2016, Iran launched missiles that directly broke its signed UN missile agreements.

This Administration has also re-opened relations with Castro’s Cuba.  In honor of this event, Castro was emboldened to jail several hundred more dissidents against his tyrannical regime.

And so it goes.

Despots and America’s enemies rejoice over America’s feckless leadership; the results are increasing dangers to Americans worldwide. It is obvious that in this environment, virtually all intelligence reporting on the above threats has been disregarded (and common sense abandoned) as this administration undertakes actions that would have been considered inconceivable only a few years ago.   Unable to learn from its mistakes, the US foreign policy establishment leaps from debacle to debacle.

Like the trap that the Soviets, Maoist Chinese, North Koreans and others had historically fallen into this Administration seems to believe its own alternate reality.

“When we lack the will to see things as they really are, there is nothing so mystifying as the obvious.”

Irving Kristol

Any Presidential administration, sworn to uphold the nation’s laws and protect its security, owes it to the American people to view intelligence in the most clear-headed and pragmatic way possible; free from pre-conceived notions, ulterior motives or irrational ideology.    For the sake of our nation, come Election Day, more Americans need to honestly ask themselves, “When the phone rings at the White House at 3 AM, who do they want to be there to answer it?”

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Ideology & Intelligence: A Recipe for Disaster

Part I My entry into the world of intelligence gathering began in 1996 when I joined the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  Before my retirement in 2014, most of my career was spent overseas as an Operations Officer in countries comprising the former Soviet Union. Serving abroad in the CIA was a great way to increase one’s […]

Part I

My entry into the world of intelligence gathering began in 1996 when I joined the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  Before my retirement in 2014, most of my career was spent overseas as an Operations Officer in countries comprising the former Soviet Union.

Serving abroad in the CIA was a great way to increase one’s understanding of the world. As an operations officer, I was trained and charged to identify, develop and recruit foreign nationals to provide information to me – which in turn was passed to the US Intelligence Community (IC).  The IC uses Humint (Human Intelligence gathered from live sources),  in conjunction with Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and other forms to aid United States policymakers in making clear-eyed decisions about matters of foreign policy.

This is the purpose of the IC.  Regarding Humint, people’s reasons for spying against their own country are numerous.  The motivations of money, ego or ideology have been behind history’s most damaging spies.  Compromise or coercion has also been important factors (most often used as tools against the West by hostile Intelligence services).

Recruitment of foreign assets (agents, in CIA parlance) was and is the raison d’etre of my profession.  In order to recruit effectively, a good working knowledge of human psychology was essential; understanding how emotions such as pride, jealousy, hatred and shame can motivate individuals.  This knowledge was the most important item in my “toolbox”.   A good intelligence officer always views situations, actions and people in this fashion. It is an excellent technique with which to understand why things are the way they are.   For decades now, it is automatic for me to view much of the world and its interactions through this “Operational Lens”.    Looking at history and current events is continually fascinating to me. An ops officer can (or should) divine the personal, institutional and national motivations that are behind every event that occurs on the world stage.

I have long been fascinated by the subject of failure.  It’s important to understand success – in business or politics – but failure is often the more common outcome.  Businesses and government, even individuals, can often learn more by examining cases of failure – what those organizations did wrong and the steps needed to avoid falling into similar traps – than studying success.  Business leaders and academics are now studying the phenomenon of failure more closely, as it became clear that there were many nuggets of wisdom within.

Failures in the Intelligence community are some of the more dramatic types of institutional failure.  If an intelligence service, or a national government, should fail in its understanding of a threat – possible national ruin is in the works.  Throughout history, governments have fallen due to the insufficient redress of their security challenges.   Many people ask, “How can these multi-billion dollar agencies or governments fail when the stakes are so high?” The answer is because they are made up of fallible, error-prone human beings – the same as in any business or family unit.  Emotions or mindsets such as ambition, hubris, jealousy, petulance, hatred or irrational denial course through their veins as surely as through your own.   Bureaucracies have been designed to filter out, or at least mitigate, this “human factor”.    Despite this, how many readers can recall having a problem at the DMV just because the bureaucrat they were dealing with had a fight with his wife at breakfast?  Our institutions are thus very fallible.

There are two major factors contributing to Intelligence Failure:

  1. Mirror Imaging
  2. Perception Bias/Willful Blindness

(These factors can be as devastating to a business as to a government.  I have used examples from both spheres to illustrate my point.)

Mirror Imaging has several symptoms, which can include:

  • Examining information/evidence that is only consistent with one’s preconceptions
    (examples:  Relying on Sales figures which show strength – but ignoring factors liable to work against your business in the future)
  • Inappropriate analogies (Believing that the Iranian government operates along similar lines to Western governments)
  • Stovepiping – Favoring one source/technique of Information over another.
    (Examples: favoring one type of sales study that flatters your company. Choose to believe the sales rep with whom you play golf rather than a recent consumer study.)
  • The Rational Actor Hypothesis – Defining the other sides’ rationality; according to how one may measure rationality in one’s own culture.
    (For example, the other side may have a higher risk tolerance than your culture.  Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was willing to risk war with the West to maintain the fiction of Weapons of Mass Destruction to prop up his regional stature)
  • Proportionality Bias – The belief that “small things” in one’s own culture are “small things” in another, distinct culture.
    (Examples may include being “on time” in the Northwestern European culture versus more relaxed, southern cultures.  An extreme example would be how a seemingly minor sexual indiscretion in a Western family might lead to an “honor” killing in an orthodox Muslim family)

To break out of the Mirror Imaging stranglehold, organizations/companies must make a concerted effort to take a step outside of themselves, leave their comfort zone and methodically and unemotionally appraise “The Other”, be it a rival company or a rival nation state.

The Below Four (1-4) Touchstones can help:

  1. The “other side” is different
    (The Pacific War: in 1941, it seemed inconceivable to US leadership that the Japanese would be so foolish to attack the United States whose resources so exceeded those of Japan, thus virtually guaranteeing the defeat of that island nation.)
  2. The “other side” makes different assumptions regarding technology.
    (Nazi Germany, despite growing evidence to the contrary, refused to believe that their Enigma cypher system had been compromised.  The cracking of Enigma assisted in winning World War 2 and the other side of the coin – 9/11.  Who in the US had considered that the billions spend on airport security and air defense would be defeated by a dozen Islamic terrorists armed with boxcutters?)
  3. The “other side” doesn’t make decisions as you do.
    (Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh was willing to endure casualty ratios of more than 10-1 to ensure his dream of a Communist Vietnam. Separately, Japanese culture prizes consensus decision-making over incisive, executive decision-making.
  4. The “other side” may be trying to confuse you.
    (Today, there are ongoing Russian cyber/TV propaganda campaigns which mirror traditional Soviet tactics to sow discord within the West.  Also, North Korea historically swings between negotiation and abrupt nuclear saber-rattling with its neighbors.)

In addition to the error of Mirror Imaging is the second half of Intelligence Failure – Perception Bias/Willful Blindness.

This can be summarized as:

One Sees What One Wants to See 

A scientist named Leon Festinger coined the term Cognitive Dissonance to explain the mental stress experienced by an individual (or institution) which is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.   This Cognitive Dissonance is what leads individuals/organizations to fall under the sway of Perception Bias.
Simply put, humans strive for internal consistency.  An individual who experiences inconsistency (dissonance) tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and is motivated to try to reduce this dissonance—as well as actively avoid situations and information likely to increase it.


Read Part II of Scott Uehlinger’s Ideology & Intelligence in the next issue of Network Magazine

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A Greek Tragedy

This is a true story. The red-haired middle-aged man who showed up in my office was highly distraught. I will call him Carl. He spoke with a British accent. He told me that he was a stockbroker who until recently lived in a beautiful condominium in Jersey City overlooking the NY City skyline, with his […]

This is a true story. The red-haired middle-aged man who showed up in my office was highly distraught. I will call him Carl. He spoke with a British accent. He told me that he was a stockbroker who until recently lived in a beautiful condominium in Jersey City overlooking the NY City skyline, with his wife and son, a six-year-old boy. His hands shook as he showed me a picture of him walking with his young son in the park and playing with action figures, Elmo and Thomas the train. He had not seen his son, Andrew in three months. The last time he saw him he had watched him eat his breakfast cereal before going to his job in New York City. His wife, Katerina, had said that she would take Andrew shopping that day. When he came home from work his son’s clothes and his wife’s clothes were gone as well as his wife’s personal items.

Carl had met Katerina, a beautiful Greek brunette on the internet and had traveled to Greece to marry her and eventually brought her to the United States. He paid for her to get her Associate’s Degree in Psychology and she had just gotten her degree when she disappeared. Katerina, he had found out, was prone to explosions of rage and had become obsessed with Wicca and the occult as well as Cabala. He held on, however, because of his love for his baby boy, Andrew who was his entire life.

Through hiring a detective in Greece, we found out that Katerina had taken the child to Greece and had moved in with her parents in Athens. We told Carl, who by this time was increasingly despondent and crushed by fearing that his son was losing touch with and forgetting his father. He missed him terribly, spending his days thinking about what they did together. He took a leave of absence from his job due to depression.

I took this case personally. I could not imagine not being with or seeing my kids for any such length of time. As the ABA Liaison to Greece and as a US and Greek lawyer, I had handled such cases before but never one with such emotion. Attempts to contact the mother both by our client and us were met with slammed doors and hung up phone calls. We decided that we needed to take action. We filed a Petition under The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction with the US Department of State, Office of Children’s issues. This Hague Convention basically says that a parent cannot take a child away from his habitual residence to another country. Any custody disputes must be determined by the court where the child was last living with both parents – in this case Jersey City. Our Petition was transmitted by the US State Department to the Greek Ministry of Justice which appointed a Ministry lawyer to commence proceedings in Greece against the mother.

We met with the Ministry lawyer in Athens, a wonderful and sympathetic woman, who explained that the Ministry lawyers’ role in these cases was formal and that the father’s lawyers would have to intervene in the case and actually try the case. We did this and I and my Greek legal partners began to prepare for the case. In the meantime, the Greek court ordered that our client, Carl, could see his son – which he did under the hateful glare of the mother and her family. He was devastated to discover that the child had started to forget him and had become fearful of him. Trial in Greece was set 4 months after our initial Hague Petition.

During this time, our client received anonymous, dire warnings, satanic messages, Wicca symbols and death threats. They warned him that if he proceeds in this course he would be ruined. We brought these to the attention of the court but there was no proof that Katerina sent them. (However, we saw that these pentagrams matched her earliest drawings). In the week before the trial, our client’s parents flew in from the UK to support their son and concerned that they would never be able to see their grandchild. Carl had been in Greece preparing with us for a week before the trial and had been a mess in his hotel room every time we saw him. We also heard that the wife’s father, a Greek General, would appear at the trial to intimidate us and perhaps influence the judge. We also heard that Katerina had retained a famous Greek “celebrity” lawyer – the “F. Lee Bailey” of Greece, as her attorney. She was determined to keep the child in Greece at all costs. We all realized, as did Carl reluctantly, that all along she had planned to use him to pay for her education in the US and that she never wanted to live in the US. We found out that she had been seeing a boyfriend in Greece for some time – maybe even during the marriage.

On the day of trial, tension ran high but we were prepared. Katerina claimed that Carl took drugs but we had blood tests and hair sample tests for several months previously showing he was drug free. She said he drank and was abusive but we had witnesses and affidavits that he did not drink. She said that the US home was unfit for living – but we had photographs of the beautiful condominium. She said he was a bad father but we had dozens of photographs of Carl with his son showing his obvious love for his son. We had Affidavits from friends and pre-school staff. She questioned that he supported the family properly but we had Affidavits from his employers that he had a promising career and a steady job. The General blustered that his daughter was intimidated and bullied by Carl and the Greek celebrity lawyer tried to impeach him (claiming that he had evicted his wife) but all these claims were proven to be lies.

One month after the Hearing, the Greek judge ruled in our favor ordering that the child had to be returned to Jersey City for a custody hearing there. We were overjoyed but a new problem surfaced. Under the former law the court constables and the police were authorized to break in and seize the child. The law had changed because this was deemed psychologically detrimental to the children. Therefore, enforcement proceedings had to be filed to impose contempt charges and fines on the offending parent who did not turn over the child. It was clear that the Greek legal bureaucracy was completely confused as to how to enforce this Order – as is often the case in Greece (and which legal bureaucracy had been a main cause in Greece’s financial problems).

Months passed while we tried to work out how to enforce the Athens Court order and actually take possession of the child. One ministry and government lawyer referred us to another lawyer for the police department. Then there were other lawyers involved for the civil court and another lawyer for the justice ministry and another lawyer for the constables.
One terrible morning, I walked into my US office to find my secretary looking pale and shocked. Carl’s parents had called. Carl had committed suicide. He was found suffocated, his head wrapped in a plastic bag. He could not wait anymore and his depression got the better of him. Perhaps the black magic of Katerina worked.

It has been years and I have not yet recovered. Justice delayed is indeed justice denied. This experience, more than any other, has led me to try to reform the Greek legal system so that predictable and efficient justice can be rendered. In today’s global economy and interconnected world stories such as Carl’s are becoming more common. International law is more critical than ever whether it be on terrorism or refugees or privacy. That, however, is another story. For now, I have to live with the fact that I was not able to get justice for Carl nor was I able to give Andrew the priceless gift of a great father.

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