The epistemology of intelligence

I have in the past discussed some of the epistemological challenges facing an intelligence agency – here and here.  I now see that I am not the only person to think about these matters, and that academic philosophers have started to write articles for learned journals on the topic, eg,  Herbert (2006) and Dreisbach (2011).
In essence, Herbert makes a standard argument from the philosophy of knowledge:  that knowledge (by someone of some proposition p) comprises three necessary elements:  belief by the someone in p, p being true, and a justification by the someone for his/her belief in p.  The first very obvious criticism of this approach, particularly in intelligence work, is that answering the question, Is p true? is surely the objective of any analysis, not its starting point.     A person (or an organization) may have numerous beliefs about which he (she or it) cannot say whether or not the propositions in question are true or not.  Any justification is an attempt to generate a judgement about whether or not the propositions should be believed, so saying that one can only know something when it is also true has everything pointing exactly in the wrong direction, putting the cart before the horse. This is defining knowledge to be something almost impossible to verify, and is akin to the conflict between constructivist and non-constructivist mathematicians.  How else can we know something is true except by some adequate process of justification,  so our only knowledge surely comprises justified belief, rather than justified true belief.   I think the essential problem here is that all knowledge, except perhaps some conclusions drawn using deduction, is uncertain, and this standard philosophical approach simply ignores uncertainty.
Dreisbach presents other criticisms (also long-standing) of the justified true belief model of knowledge, but both authors ignore a more fundamental  problem with this approach.   That is that much of intelligence activity aims to identify the intentions of other actors, be they states (such as the USSR or Iraq), or groups and individuals (such as potential terrorists).   Intentions, as any marketing researcher can tell you, are very slippery things:  Even a person having, or believed by others to have, an intention may not realize they have it, or may not understand themselves well enough to realize they have it, or may not be able to express to others that they have it, even when they do realize they have it.   Moreover, intentions about the non-immediate future are particularly slippery:  you can ask potential purchasers of some new gizmo all you want before the gizmo is for sale, and still learn nothing accurate about how those very same purchasers will actually react when they are able to finally purchase it.  In short, there is no fact of the matter with intentions, and thus it makes no sense to represent them as propositions.  Accordingly, we cannot evaluate whether or not p is true, so the justified true belief model collapses.  It would be better to ask (as good marketing researchers do):    Does the person in question have a strong tendency to act in future in a certain way, and if so, what factors will likely encourage or inhibit or preclude them to act that way?
However, a larger problem looms with both these papers, since both are written as if the respective author believes the primary purpose of intelligence analysis is to garner knowledge in a vacuum.      Knowledge is an intermediate objective of intelligence activity, but it is surely subordinate to the wider diplomatic, military or political objectives of the government or society the intelligence activity is part of.  CIA was not collecting information about the USSR, for example, because of a disinterested, ivory-tower-ish concern with the progress of socialism in one country, but because the USA and the USSR were engaged in a global conflict.    Accordingly, there are no neutral actions – every action, every policy, every statement, even every belief of each side may have consequences for the larger strategic interaction that the two sides are engaged in.   A rational and effective intelligence agency should not just be asking:
Is p true?
but also:

  • What are the consequences of us believing p to be true?
  • What are the consequences of us believing p not to be true?
  • What are the consequences of the other side believing that we believe p to be true?
  • What are the consequences of the other side believing that we do not believe p to be true?
  • What are the consequences of the other side believing that we are conflicted internally about the truth of p?
  • What are the consequences of the other side initially believing that we believe p to be true and then coming to believe that we do not believe p?
  • What are the consequences of the other side initially believing that we do not believe p to be true and then coming to believe that we do in fact believe p?
  • What are the consequences of the other side being conflicted about whether or not they should believe p?
  • What are the consequences of the other side being conflicted about whether or not we believe p?

and so on.   I give an example of the possible strategic interplay between a protagonist’s beliefs and his or her antagonist’s intentions here.
A decision to believe or not believe p may then become a strategic one, taken after analysis of these various consequences and their implications.   An effective intelligence agency, of course, will need to keep separate accounts for what it really believes and what it wants others to believe it believes.  This can result in all sorts of organizational schizophrenia, hidden agendas, and paranoia (Holzman 2008), with consequent challenges for those writing histories of espionage.  Call these mind-games if you wish, but such analyses helped the British manipulate and eventually control Nazi German remote intelligence efforts in British and other allied territory during World War II (through the famous XX system).
Likewise, many later intelligence efforts from all major participants in the Cold War were attempts –some successful, some not – to manipulate the beliefs of opponents.   The Nosenko case (Bagley 2007) is perhaps the most famous of these, but there were many.   In the context of the XX action, it is worth mentioning that the USA landed scores of teams of spies and saboteurs into the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) during the Second Indochinese War, only to have every single team either be captured and executed, or captured and turned; only the use of secret duress codes by some landed agents communicating back enabled the USA to infer that these agents were being played by their DRV captors.
Intelligence activities are about the larger strategic interaction between the relevant stakeholders as much (or more) than they are about the truth of propositions.  Neither Herbert nor Dreisbach seems to grasp this, which makes their analysis disappointingly impoverished.
Tennent H. Bagley [2007]:  Spy Wars.  New Haven, CT, USA:  Yale University Press.
Christopher Dreisbach [2011]:  The challenges facing an IC epistemologist-in-residence.  International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, 24: 757-792.
Matthew Herbert [2006]:  The intelligence analyst as epistemologist.  International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, 19:  666-684.
Michael Holzman [2008]:  James Jesus Angleton, the CIA and the Craft of Counterintelligence.  Boston, MA, USA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Husak Agonistes?

Posting recently following the death of Vaclav Havel, my mind returns to a question that has long pre-occupied me.  What did Havel’s predecessor as President of Czechoslovakia, Gustav Husak, think of communism and of his role in it?  What did he think he was doing, at the time and subsequently?
Husak was a leading Slovak communist from before WW II (taking part in the brief Slovak National Uprising in September 1944), and afterwards.    However he fell victim to the Stalinist purges and trials that took place across most of Eastern Europe of the early 1950s (some of which which I wrote about here), and he spent the years 1954-1960 in prison.   Although most of the purges in Czechoslovakia at that time had an anti-semitic aspect, I do not believe he was Jewish. What does such an experience do to a good communist?  Does he, like Koestler’s bolshevik, Rubashov, come to believe that the Party, possessor of objective truth and the imprimatur of history, must always be in the right, and that therefore he, despite the evidence of his own lying eyes, is in the wrong?  Or does he maintain his innocence, believing that some error of judicial process has been made?  Such a view may require courage in the face of injustice and evil, as shown by Husak’s compatriot, the very brave Milada Horakova.   Or does he reject his prior beliefs in communism altogether, turning apostate like Cristóvão Ferreira, Portuguese Jesuit-turned-Shintoist, and the subject of Shusaku Endo’s great novel, Silence?    Or does he become some Vicar of Bray character, sailing – cynically, opportunistically – in whatever direction the prevailing winds point, not really believing or disbelieving anything?   A man is rarely just one straight thing, and someone may be each of these at different times in his life, especially someone sitting in prison with lots of time to think.
Husak was subsequently rehabilitated by the KSC, and served as Deputy Premier of Czechoslovakia from April 1968.  Was he appointed then because the reformers around Alexander Dubcek considered him a reformer too? Perhaps he was viewed by them as akin to the Polish communist leader, Wladyslaw Gomulka, who had also been detained in the purges of the 1950s (although never tried or convicted, nor even, apparently, interrogated), and later rehabilitated and made leader.  If Husak was indeed a reformer in April 1968, then why did he adopt a collaborationist line after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August?  Was he, like the later Polish leaders, Wojciech Jaruzelski and Mieczyslaw Rakowski, convinced that collaboration was the only feasible and patriotic path for a national state inside the Soviet empire at the time.   General Jaruzelski still maintains this position regarding his imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981.  If, instead,  Husak was a not a reformer in April 1968, was he actively duplicitous, or merely some Vicar of Bray.
And after the fall, when the KSC-dominated Parliament of Czechoslovakia voted unanimously in December 1989 for Havel to be President, what then did Husak think?  That the winds had once again shifted, and that it was time once again for All-Change?  Or that, despite the revisionist winds, blowing this time from Moscow itself,  he had been right all along to be a communist, and that history, far from having ended in the present, would at some future point judge him so?
A Polish journalist, Teresa Toranska, published in the twilight days of Polish communism a series of interviews with leading communists who had led the party at its rise to power four decades before (Toranska 1988).  What was striking to me when I first read these interviews twenty-odd years ago was the variety of responses of those interviewed:  from regret and sadness, through to defiant recalcitrance.   Some begged forgiveness for what they had done or been complicit in.  Some had, apparently, subverted the system from within (for example, Stefan Staszewski secretly printing and distributing multiple unauthorized copies of Khrushchev’s secret speech to the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956).  Others thought only that mistakes had been made, although apparently not by them.   Still others, like the Bourbons, had learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.  I am intrigued by where Husak would have placed himself in this cabinet of wonders.
And, as always, how interesting it is that colonial empires so often collapse from the centre – France in 1958, Portugal in 1974, the USSR in 1989.
POSTSCRIPT [2012-01-21]:  Some of the diversity of views of Party members is shown in the first part of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1981 parallel-worlds film:  Przypadek  (Blind Chance).
POSTCRIPT [2012-04-08]:  And here is Margot Honecker, as obstinately recalcitrant as a rhodesian whenwe.
Shusaku Endo [1966]: Silence.
Arthur Koestler [1940]: Darkness at Noon.
Teresa Toranska [1988]:  Them:  Stalin’s Polish Puppets.  HarperCollins. Translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska.

Writing Shakespeare 2

I have previously argued that merely from a reading of the text of Shakespeare’s plays, it is clear that the author of the plays is William Shakespeare.  Only he has the regional, professional, religious and family background needed to have written the specific words we find there.  Garry Wills now has an interesting analysis in this vein, drawing particularly on the use of boy actors for women’s parts (required by the law at the time), and the constraints this created for playwrights.  I am reminded of the constraints that writers of TV soap-operas work under.

Those who doubt that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare are working, usually, from a false and modern premise. They are thinking of the modern playwright, a full-time literary fellow who writes a drama and then tries to find people who will put it on—an agent to shop it around, a producer to put up the money, a theater as its venue, a director, actors, designers of sets and costumes, musicians and dancers if the play calls for them, and so on. Sometimes a successful playwright sets up an arrangement with a particular company (Eugene O’Neill and the Province- town Players) or director (Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan), but the process still begins with the writer creating his script, before elements are fitted around it, depending on things like which directors or actors are available for and desirous of doing the play. Producers complain that it is almost impossible to assemble the ideal cast for all the roles as the author envisioned them in his isolated act of creation. The modern writer owns the play by copyright and can publish it on his or her own, whether produced or not. None of these things was true of dramatic production in Shakespeare’s time.
Continue reading ‘Writing Shakespeare 2’

Hamlet by the Moskva

The re-assignment last week of Vladislav Surkov, formerly Chief of Staff for the Russian President, following the opposition protests, reminded me of the fascinating profile of Mr Surkov in the London Review of Books by Peter Pomerantsev two months ago.  The profile ended with a sinister interpretation of Hamlet:

‘Life in Russia,’ the journalist told me in the democratic bar, ‘has got better but leaves a shitty aftertaste.’ We had a drink. ‘Have you noticed that Surkov never seems to get older? His face has no wrinkles.’ We had more drinks. We talked about Surkov’s obsession with Hamlet. My companion recalled an interpretation of the play suggested by a literature professor turned rock producer (a very Moscow trajectory).
‘Who’s the central figure in Hamlet?’ she asked. ‘Who’s the demiurge manipulating the whole situation?’
I said I didn’t know.
‘It’s Fortinbras, the crown prince of Norway, who takes over Denmark at the end. Horatio and the visiting players are in his employ: their mission is to tip Hamlet over the edge and foment conflict in Elsinore. Look at the play again. Hamlet’s father killed Fortinbras’s father, he has every motive for revenge. We know Hamlet’s father was a bad king, we’re told both Horatio and the players have been away for years: essentially they left to get away from Hamlet the father. Could they have been with Fortinbras in Norway? At the end of the play Horatio talks to Fortinbras like a spy delivering his end-of-mission report. Knowing young Hamlet’s unstable nature they hired the players to provoke him into a series of actions that will bring down Elsinore’s rulers. This is why everyone can see the ghost at the start. Then when only Hamlet sees him later he is hallucinating. To Muscovites it’s obvious. We’re so much closer to Shakespeare’s world here.’ On the map of civilisation, Moscow – with its cloak and dagger politics (designer cloak, diamond-studded dagger), its poisoned spies, baron-bureaucrats and exiled oligarchs who plan revolutions from abroad, its Cecil-Surkovs whispering into the ears of power, its Raleigh-Khodorkovskys imprisoned in the Tower – is somewhere near Elsinore.

Peter Pomerantsev [2011]:  Putin’s Rasputin. London Review of Books, 33 (20): 3-6 (2011-10-20).