Ideology & Intelligence: A Recipe for Disaster

by Scott Uehlinger

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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