Unintentional Human Error Led to Airstrikes on Syrian Troops, Pentagon Says: Greater Care Is Required in Many Areas


The US Central Command (CENTCOM) Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar (above). It is comprised of a joint US military and Coalition team that executes day-by-day combined air and space operations and provides rapid reaction, positive control, coordination, and deconfliction of weapons systems. On September 17, 2016, CAOC was monitoring a Coalition airstrike over Deir Ezzor when Russian Federation forces informed it that the attack was hitting a Syrian military position. The attack impacted a US diplomatic effort with Russia on Syria.

According to a November 29, 2016 New York Times article entitled, “Unintentional Human Error Led to Airstrikes on Syrian Troops, Pentagon Says,” the US Department of Defense identified “unintentional” human mistakes as the causality for the US-led airstrikes that killed dozens of Syrian government troops in September 17, 2016. The strikes occurred as a deal to ease hostilities in Syria, brokered by the US and Russia, was unraveling. They particularly undercut US Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to coordinate the US and Russian air campaigns over Syria. Russian Federation military units, which were working closely with the forces of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad to fight ISIS and other rebels, said the attack had killed 62 Syrian troops and wounded more than 100. The attack marked the first time the US had engaged the Syrian military since it began targeting the ISIS in Syria and Iraq two years ago. It was determined as result of the investigation, led by US Air Force Brigadier General Richard Coe, that the attack was conducted under the “good-faith belief” that the targets were ISIS militants. It also concluded that the strikes did not violate the law of armed conflict or the rules for the US military. Danish, British and Australian forces also participated in the airstrike. Coe said, “In my opinion, these were a number of people all doing their best to do a good job.”

As Kerry was engaged in a crucial effort to persuade Russia to coordinate its air campaign in Syria with similar US efforts when the airstrike occurred, greatcharlie has been fogged-in over why the risky attack was ever ordered. In a previous post, greatcharlie stated that Russian Federation military commanders could benefit greatly from working alongside US air commanders and planners. It was also suggested that the US might provide a demonstration of its targeting and operational capabilities to encourage Russia’s cooperation. However, the errant attack was certainly not the sort of demonstration greatcharlie had in mind. On better days, US air commanders and planners have demonstrated a practically unmatched acumen in using air assets of the US-led coalition’s anti-ISIS air campaign to shape events on the ground in support of the goals of US civilian leaders. US air commanders and planners have very successfully conducted No-Fly Zones and sustained air campaigns over the past three decades, in Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Kosovo, where political goals endured, and in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

Those experienced enough in life fully understand that it has its promises and disappointments. Whether events go well or negatively for one, an authentic truth is revealed in the outcome from which valuable, edifying lessons as well as new ideas can be extrapolated. The errant bombing of September 17, 2016 and findings of the investigation of it have come late in the administration of US President Barack Obama. Too little time is really available for lessons from the incident to influence any remaining decisions that the administration might make on Syria or military coordination and cooperation with Russia. The subsequent collapse of the negotiations on military coordination may have assured such decisions would not be required. Yet, for the incoming US administration, they may offer some useful hints on negotiating military coordination and cooperation with Russia on Syria or other countries on other issues if the opportunity arises. A few of those lessons are presented here with the hope they might mitigate the potential of an unfortunate military incident as witnessed in Syria that might also derail a crucial diplomatic effort. The overall hope is that the next administration will be tended by an honorable peace. Quidquid ages, prudenter agas et respice finem! (Whatever you do, do cautiously, and look to the end!)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry leave after their bilateral meeting at the APEC Ministers Summit in Lima

The airstrike undercut US Secretary of State John Kerry’s (right) diplomatic effort with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) to coordinate the US and Russian air campaigns over Syria. Bringing Russia over to the US view was already dicey. A few days before the incident, the US and Russia exchanged charges of noncompliance with a ceasefire agreement reached on September 12th in Geneva.

This Was Not the Demonstration of US Capabilities Imagined

The Obama administration may not have actually been enthused about working with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin on Syria, but it recognized that Russia, with its considerable military investment in Syria, can play an important role in ending the war. To that extent, it sought to have Putin agree to have agreement crafted by Kerry and Lavrov to cooperate militarily. The agreement called for formation of a US-Russia Joint Implementation Center to coordinate strikes against ISIS as well as Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic militant forces after there had been seven consecutive days of reduced violence in the civil war and humanitarian aid had begun to flow to besieged communities in Syria. Bringing Russia over to the US view was already dicey enough. A few days before the incident, the US and Russia exchanged charges of noncompliance with the ceasefire agreement that Kerry and Lavrov reached on September 12, 2016 in Geneva.

On August 20, 2016, greatcharlie suggested the US could increase the value of its assistance through an actual demonstration of US capabilities to further encourage a change in Putin’s perspective on Kerry’s proposal on military cooperation. Included among recommendations was providing Putin with a complete US military analysis of the setbacks Russia and its allies have faced in Syria, and the relative strengths and weakness versus their Islamic militant opponents. The exact manner in which intelligence resources the US proposed to share with Russia and US military resources would have been of value to Russia could have been demonstrated by targeting and destroying a number battle positions of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria. Where possible, US airstrikes could have disrupted and destroyed developing attacks and counterattacks against Russia’s allies. Through a video of the attacks, Putin could have been shown how the unique capabilities of US weapons systems could enhance the quality of Russian airstrikes. He might also have been provided with US military assessments of those attacks.

The US Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees US military operations in the Middle East, told the Russians in advance about the planned strike on an airfield in Deir Ezzor Province, calling it a “professional courtesy.” A senior US official said the Russians had acknowledged the message, thereby assuring they would the audience for the US attack. However, after the attack, the Russians had no reason to express appreciation or compliments to CENTCOM. The strike began in the early evening of the next day. According to Russia, two A-10s, two F-16 fighters, and drones of the US-led Coalition were deployed to attack the airfield. They began hitting tanks and armored vehicles. In all, 34 precision guided missiles were erroneously fired on a Syrian Arab Army unit. The attack went on for about 20 minutes, with the planes destroying the vehicles and gunning down dozens of people in the open desert, the official said. Then, an urgent call came into CENTCOM’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which provides command and control of air power throughout Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and 17 other nations.  The Russians relayed to the CAOC the disappointing news that the US strike was hitting Syrian forces. Four minutes later, the strikes were halted.


A “bombed up” A-10 Thunderbolt II fighter (above). In the early evening of September 17, 2016, two pairs of Coalition A-10 and F-16 fighters along with drones were deployed to attack an airfield in Deir Ezzor. They began hitting tanks and armored vehicles. In all, 34 precision guided missiles were erroneously fired on a Syrian Arab Army position. The attack lasted about 20 minutes, with the fighters destroying the vehicles and gunning down dozens of Syrian troops in the open desert. If not halted, the entire Syrian unit might have been wiped out.

In Syria over 95 percent of Russian Federation Air Force sorties are flown at 15,000 to 20,000 feet primarily to evade enemy air defenses. As aircrews cannot identify targets, bombs are dropped in areas where air intelligence reports the enemy is located. In attacking urban centers, that can result in collateral damage in the form of civilian deaths and injuries and the destruction of nonmilitary structures. US Permanent Representative to the UN, Samantha Power pointed to the issue of targetting by Russian Federation Air Force and Syrian Arab Air Force jets.  On September 17, 2016, Power stated the Syrian government, assisted by Russia, has tortured and bombed its people. She added, “And, yet, in the face of none of these atrocities has Russia expressed outrage, nor has it demanded investigations, nor has it ever called for . . . an emergency meeting of the Security Council” on a Saturday night or any other night.

Air intelligence provides commanders with information on enemy targets to the extent that visual searches of enemy targets is no longer required. Given the speed of fighters and the need to protect aircrews and aircraft from anti-aircraft weapons and other arms, flying at lower altitudes with the goal of identifying targets by visual search is no longer feasible. Even friendly forces are often required to mark targets with flags or smoke for their own safety. US air commanders ordered the attack in the proximity of Syrian forces, calculating that the conclusions of air intelligence about the target were accurate. Informing aircrews that they would be operating in close proximity to Syrian troops did not create any requirement for them to engage in a time consuming, very hazardous, visual search of the target before going into their attack. Nevertheless, as US Air Force Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, the commander of US Air Forces and Combined Forces Air Component in CENTCOM aptly explained, “In this instance, we did not rise to the high standard we hold ourselves to, and we must do better than this each and every time.”


The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services use their intelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of air commanders and planners. However, over 95 percent of Russian Federation Air Force sorties in Syria are flown at 15,000 to 20,000 feet primarily to evade air defenses. Bombs are dropped where air intelligence reports state the enemy is located. Attacks in urban centers have resulted in civilian deaths and injuries and the destruction of nonmilitary structures.

Intelligence Analysts Erred

The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services proudly use their own intelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of commanders and planners. Russian Federation commanders and planners would certainly like to believe that by intensifying their own intelligence gathering activities, they can achieve success without US assistance. However, the summer of 2016 proved to be particularly difficult for Russian Federation forces and their allies as progress eastward toward Raqqa and Deir Ezzor was slowed. ISIS was able to apply pressure, infiltrating into areas retaken by the allies and launching counterattacks. The fight for Aleppo became a greater strain than anticipated. Beyond human intelligence collection–spies, the US gathers continuous signal and geospatial intelligence over Syria. Those multiple streams of intelligence could assist Russian Federation commanders and planners in pinpointing ISIS and other Islamic militant groups on the ground even if they are dispersed. Air assets of the Russian Federation and its allies could destroy them, disrupt their attacks, and support ground maneuver to defeat them. In support of the proposal, Kerry and Lavrov already agreed that a map could be drawn up indicating where Islamic militant forces are positioned. They also agreed that US and Russian military personnel working in the same tactical room would jointly analyze the intelligence and select targets for airstrikes.

Reportedly, US surveillance aircraft had been watching the erroneously-labelled Syrian unit for several days. According to a redacted copy of a report that summarized the investigation, a drone examined an area near an airfield in Deir Ezzor Province in eastern Syria on September 16, 2016, identifying a tunnel entrance, two tents and 10 men. The investigation found that those forces were not wearing recognizable military uniforms or identification flags, and there were no other signs of their ties to the Syrian government. On September 17, 2016, a CENTCOM official, who at the time requested anonymity because the incident was still being investigated, said military intelligence had already identified a cluster of vehicles, which included at least one tank, as belonging to ISIS. Coe stated, “In many ways, these forces looked and acted like the Daesh forces the coalition has been targeting for the last two years,” using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

In a statement on the investigation of the incident, CENTCOM outlined a number of factors that distorted the intelligence picture for the airstrike. Included among them were “human factors” such as “confirmation bias”; “improper labelling”; and invalid assumptions. The Syrian Arab Army unit observed at Deir Ezzor was wrongly identified or labelled as ISIS early in the analytical process. CENTCOM’s statement indicated that incorrect labelling colored later analysis and resulted in the continued misidentification of the Syrian unit on the ground as ISIS. Further, the statement laid out a series of changes to the targeting process that the Defense Department has already made to include more information-sharing among analysts. The US Air Force has independently placed its process for identifying targets under review.

Qui modeste paret, videtur qui aliquando imperet dignus esse. (The one who obeys with modesty appears worthy of being some day a commander.) What appears to have been needed at the time beyond issues concerning tactics, techniques, procedures and methods for conducting air operations was better coordination of its own diplomatic and military activities regarding Syria. As a sensible precaution, US air commanders and planners should have been informed that operations conducted at that time could have considerable positive or negative impact on US diplomatic efforts in Syria. (The publicized record of the investigation does not touch on this point.) The delicate nature of diplomacy would have been factored into planning, not shrugged off. Interference by civilian leaders in military units’ tactical operations is surely not desired by commanders. Yet, by failing to call attention to the unique political and diplomatic environment in which they were operating over Syria, the matter was left open to chance.


MQ-1 Predator drone (above). Reportedly, US surveillance aircraft had been watching the erroneously-labelled Syrian military position for several days. A drone examined an area near an airfield in Deir Ezzor Province on September 16, 2016, identifying a tunnel entrance, two tents and 10 men. The investigation found that those forces were not wearing recognizable military uniforms or identification flags, and there were no other signs of their ties to the Syrian government.

Confirmation Bias and Hormones: Decisionmaking on the Airstrikes

Decipimur specte recti. (We are deceived by the appearance of right.) In the conclusions of the US Defense Department’s investigation, causality for the incident was found to be in part the thinking of US air commanders and planners. It was determined to have been a bit off-kilter and confirmation bias was pointed to specifically. Confirmation bias is a result of the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When individuals desire a certain idea or concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are driven by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to cease collecting information when the evidence gathered at a certain point confirms the prejudices one would like to be true. After an individual has developed a view, the individual embraces any information that confirms it while ignoring, or rejecting, information that makes it unlikely. Confirmation bias suggests that individuals do not perceive circumstances objectively. An individual extrapolates bits of data that are satisfying because they confirm the individual’s prejudices. Therefore, one becomes a prisoner of one’s assumptions. The Roman dictator Gaius Julius Caesar has been quoted as saying “Fene libenter homines id quod volunt credunt,” which means, “Men readily believe what they want to believe.” Under confirmation bias, this is exactly the case.  Attempting to confirm beliefs comes naturally to most individuals, while conversely it feels less desirable and counterintuitive for them to seek out evidence that contradicts their beliefs. This explains why opinions survive and spread. Disconfirming instances must be far more powerful in establishing truth. Disconfirmation requires searching for evidence to disprove a firmly held opinion.

Cogitationem sobrii hominis punctum temporis suscipe. (Take for a moment the reasoning of a quiet man.) For the intelligence analyst, appropriately verifying one’s conclusions is paramount. One approach is to postulate facts and then consider instances to prove they are incorrect. This has been pointed to as a true manifestation of self-confidence: the ability to look at the world without the need to look for instances that pleases one’s ego. For group decision-making, one can serve a hypothesis and then gather information from each member in a way that allows the expression of independent assessments. A good example can found in police procedure. In order to derive the most reliable information from multiple witnesses to a crime, witnesses are not allowed to discuss it prior to giving their testimony. The goal is to prevent unbiased witnesses from influencing each other. US President Abraham Lincoln intentionally filled his cabinet with rival politicians who had extremely different ideologies. At decision points, Lincoln encouraged passionate debate and discussion.

At the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, research is being done to better understand the biological basis for decisionmaking using lab experiments and biological data. Some of the findings of research scientist, Gideon Nave, who came to Wharton from the university’s neuroscience department, prove as relevant to this case as much as confirmation bias. Nave explains that the process of decision-making is influenced by their biological state. Factors that can influence that biological state naturally include hunger, sleep deprivation and stress. However, Nave is also looking deeper at the influence of hormones on decision-making. In dominant situations, different hormones fluctuate in people. For example, stress creates a clearly measurable biological stress response that consists of elevation of several hormones in our body. Nave has focused on noradrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol specifically affects decisionmaking.

In examining decisionmaking, Nave recognizes that people trade-off by people accuracy and speed when making decisions. Cortisol, Nave has found, influences people’s will to give the simple heuristic, or “gut answer” faster, as if they were under time pressure. There is a simple test Nave uses through which one can observe their own responses. It come in the form of a math word problem. There is a bat and a ball for the US sport baseball. Together, they cost $1.10. Now, the bat costs a dollar more than the ball. What’s the price of the ball? More often than not, individuals tested will give their intuitive answer. Indeed, as the ball is 10 cents, and the bat is $1 more, they typically believe it means that the bat is $1.10, so together the bat and ball would be $1.20. However, that would be incorrect. The correct answer is 5 cents and $1.05. When the answer 10 cents is given, it usually has not been thought through. There is no time limit set for providing an answer. There is no incentive offered by the tester for answering with speed. It seems the only real pressure is the desire of an adult, who may be paid for being correct at his or her job, and may be achievement oriented, to correctly answer what is an elementary school-level math woth word problem with speed and confidence.

In analysis at the tactical level, target identification can require splitting-hairs. Much as a bank teller dispensing cash, a mistake by an intelligence can lead to a crisis. Doubt and uncertainty can be mitigated with sufficient, timely redundant assessments. In a sensitive political and diplomatic environment as the one faced in Syria, the slightest uncertainty should have been cause enough to deliberate and think through a target’s identification. While normally action-oriented, in a sensitive political and diplomatic environment, the commander, for that brief period, could order unit commanders and planners exercising caution in targeting and launching attacks.


In anew initial statement (above), CENTCOM, still uncertain, recognized the possibility that Syrian forces were hit in Deir Ezzor. For the intelligence analyst, verifying one’s conclusions is paramount. One approach is to postulate facts and then consider instances to prove they are incorrect. It requires the ability to look at the world without the need to look for instances that pleases one’s ego. For group decision-making, one can set a hypothesis and gather information from each member, allowing for the expression of independent assessments.

Ensuring the Right-hand and the Left-hand Know What the Head Wants

Perhaps civilian leaders in the Obama administration failed to fully consider or comprehend issues concerning measures used to identify and decide upon targets. Perhaps they were unaware that it was more important in that period of intense negotiations with Russia to minimize or simply avoid attacks on targets in close proximity to the forces of Russia and its allies. Under ordinary circumstances, the matter could reasonably be left for Russia commanders in the field to handle without concern for any implications in doing so. If in the future, an effort is made to demonstrate to Russia the best aspects of US capabilities and the benefits enjoyed by US-led Coalition partners in operations against ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic militant forces, some guidance regarding urgent political goals for that period, and the need for enhanced diligence and perhaps restraint in the conduct of operations must be issued. It was either determined or no thought was given to reviewing and approving relevant procedures and initiatives at a time when crucial diplomatic efforts needed to be, and should have been, supported.

Historia magistra vitae et testis temporum. (History is the teacher and witness of times.) During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, civilian leaders recognized the need for enhanced diligence and perhaps restraint in the conduct of a Naval blockade of Cuba. The effort US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to inform US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral George Anderson of that resulted in a renowned angry exchange between them. The sources on which Graham Allison relied upon in the original edition of his seminal work on the crisis, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (Little, Brown and Company,1971), claimed that the US Navy failed to implement the President John Kennedy’s orders to draw the blockade like we closer to Cuba ostensibly to give the Soviet Union’s calculating Chairman of the Council of Ministers, Nikita Khrushchev, more time to decide to half Soviet ships, and that Anderson resisted explaining to McNamara what procedures the Navy would use when intercepting the first Soviet ship to approach the line.

According to Allison’s account of the confrontation between McNamara and Anderson, US President John Kennedy was worried that the US Navy, already restive over the controls imposed on how the blockade of Cuba was to be executed, might “blunder into an incident.” McNamara was closely attuned to Kennedy’s worries and resolved to press the Navy leadership for additional information on its modus operandi. Confronting Anderson, McNamara minced no words: “Precisely what would the Navy do when the first interception occurred?” Anderson told him that he had already covered that same ground before the National Security Council, and the further explanation was unnecessary. This answer angered McNamara, proceeded to lecture Anderson on the political realities: “It was not the President’s design to shoot Russians but rather to deliver a political signal to Chairman Khrushchev. He did not want to push the Soviet leader into a corner; he did not want to humiliate him; he did not want to risk provoking him into a nuclear reprisal. Executing the blockade is a an act of war, one that involved the risk of sinking a Soviet vessel. The sole purpose of taking such a risk would be to achieve a political objective. But rather than let it come to that extreme end, we must persuade Chairman Khrushchev to pull back. He must not be ‘goaded into retaliation’.” Getting the feeling that his lecture did not sink in, McNamara resumed his detailed questioning. Whereupon Anderson, picked up the Manual of Naval Regulations, waved it in McNamara face and shouted, “It’s all in there!” McNamara retorted, “I don’t give a damn what John Paul Jones would have done. I want to know what you are going to do, now!”

Other sources that Allison utilized claimed that civilian leaders believed US antisubmarine warfare operations included using depth charges to force Soviet submarines to surface, raising the risk of inadvertent war. According to Richard Betts in American Force: Dangers, Delusions and Dilemmas in National Security (Columbia University Press, 2011). Subsequent research indicated that these stories were false. Indeed, Joseph Bouchard explains in Command in Crisis: Four Case Studies (Columbia University Press, 1991) that McNamara actually ordered antisubmarine procedures that were more aggressive than those standard in peacetime. Harried civilian leaders may not have fully comprehended the implications of all these technical measures, or may have had second thoughts. Nevertheless, the relevant procedures and initiatives did not escape their review and approval.


US President John Kennedy (left) with US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (right). During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, civilian leaders recognized the need for enhanced diligence in the conduct of a Naval blockade of Cuba. McNamara’s effort to inform the US Navy of that resulted in a renowned exchange between himself and the Chief of Naval Operations, US Navy Admiral George Anderson. Well before the errant Syria airstrike, civilian leaders should have told US air commanders and planners of their operations’ potential to impact crucial, ongoing US diplomatic efforts.

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s comedy, The Tempest, Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, although forced to take refuge on an island for twelve years after his brother Antonio seized his title and property, refused to use his extraordinary powers, magic, to take revenge when the opportunity presented itself.  Prosperous remarks, “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.” The best definitions of virtue can be found among teachings of various religions. However, to avoid being impolitic by choosing one religion and its tenants over others, its definition can be drawn from philosophy. From a philosophical perspective, virtue is well-defined by the “Golden Mean” proffered by Cleobulos of Lindos, one of the Seven Sages of Greece. The Golden Mean manifested an understanding that life is not lived well without following the straight and narrow path of integrity. That life of moderation is not what is popularly meant by moderation. The classical Golden Mean is the choice of good over what is convenient and commitment to the true instead of the plausible. Virtue is then the desire to observe the Golden Mean. Between Obama and Putin, no confidence, no trust, no love existed, and relations between the US and Russia have been less than ideal. Regarding the errant Syria airstrike, the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said it perhaps served as evidence of US support for ISIS and an al-Qaeda affiliate fighting the Syrian government which the US sought to remove. Churkin’s statement could be viewed as indicaing that insinuated into his thinking was the notion commonly held worldwide of the US as virtuous country, a notion proffered, promoted, and purportedly fashioned into its foreign policy. It appears that he, too, would have liked to believe US actions and intentions are guided by virtue. Yet, it would seem that was a hope unfulfilled as a result of the bombing Syrian troops, coupled with all the disagreements and disputes, trials and tribulations between the US and Russia, and led to his expression of so much disappointment and discouragement. Nihil est virtute pulchrius. (There is nothing more beautiful than virtue.)

The US must be a role model, a moral paragon as the world’s leader acting as virtuously as it speaks. The US leaders must act virtuously not just because others worldwide expect it, but rather because they should expect it of themselves. Diplomatic relations with Russia must be transformed in line with a new policy necessitating efforts to end misunderstandings and to exploit opportunities in which the two countries can coordinate and cooperate. However, achieving that will require the effective stewardship of US diplomatic, military, political, and economic activities by US leaders. Micromanagement can often result in mismanagement in certain situations. Still, in the midst of on-going efforts  to resolve urgent and important issues, US leaders must take steps to ensure that all acting on behalf of the US. They must thoroughly understand the concept and intent of the president, the implications of any actions taken individually or by their organizations, and perform their tasks with considerable diligence. All must make a reasonable effort to ensure errant actions are prevented. Melius est praevenire quad praeveniri. (Better to forestall than to be forestalled.)

A Look at Stephen Marrin’s “Improving Intelligence Studies as an Academic Discipline” and Remembering a Professor and Friend, Roger Hilsman

Stephen Marrin says literature in intelligence studies must be compiled and evaluated in a structured way for it to become aggregated and made cumulative as the literature of other academic disciplines. Intelligence studies writers today often overlook past practitioners’ works. Marrin says contributions by Roger Hilsman (above) are among those overlooked. Hilsman was this author’s professor, faculty advisor, and friend during undergraduate and graduate study. Due to the fact it is edifying and thought provoking, and due to sentiment over a generous professor, greatcharlie.com has presented Marrin’s article to its readers.

In February 2016, Routledge, part of the Taylor & Francis Group, provided free online access to an article from Intelligence and National Security entitled “Improving Intelligence Studies as an Academic Discipline.” The article, by Stephen Marrin, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst and General Accounting Office analyst and current associate professor at James Madison University, considers whether the body of intelligence studies scholarship is sufficient as a basis for the development of intelligence studies as an academic discipline. In the article, Marrin notes that in the 1950s, there was concern that the lack of literature on the intelligence profession. Ensuring that knowledge about the intelligence business would be captured and made accessible to others was uncertain. He says that paucity has been resolved as both government and academia have been contributing literature to advance knowledge in the field. However, he argues intelligence studies literature has not been compiled, evaluated, and aggregated in a structured process yet. Marrin illustrates this by reviewing the discourse on the view of Sherman Kent, the renowned Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and CIA intelligence analyst, that the “integrity” or independence of the analytic function had to be retained outside the direct line authority of the decision maker. For the counterargument, researchers often turn to Kent’s contemporary, Willmoore Kendall, who suggested that if this were done the contribution from intelligence analysts would be marginalized in the decision making process.

Marrin is convinced that Roger Hilsman’s 1952 writings are as good as or better than Kendall’s in challenging some of Kent’s ideas. Nevertheless, he says Hilsman’s work is usually overlooked. Marrin further discusses Hilsman’s strong case for a closer relationship between intelligence analysis and decision making. Hilsman argued, “a more effective integration of knowledge and action”—or intelligence analysis and decision making—will require intelligence analysts to become more policy-oriented. Hilsman also argued that in order for intelligence to be “useful and significant,” it “should be frankly and consciously concerned with policy” and that its practitioners should have “a frame of mind which is … instrumental, action-conscious, policy-oriented. The major task before the researchers is one of recasting their thought to the context of action, and adapting their tools to the needs of policy.” Marrin believes the rediscovery of Hilsman’s work and those of others will result in a much more substantive debate about the respective roles and functions of intelligence analysis vis-à-vis decision maker assessment. Marrin later proffers that intelligence studies should emulate the key practices that enable any field of knowledge to become cumulative and in doing so become its own coherent academic discipline. In reviewing the need to evaluate intelligence studies for gaps or holes as a step to become more cumulative, Marrin discusses Hilsman’s evaluation of “the academic observers” in Strategic Intelligence and National Decisions (The Free Press, 1956)). Marrin’s article is edifying, thought provoking, and another valuable contribution by him to the body of intelligence studies scholarship.

What is most interesting to this author is Marrin’s reference to Roger Hilsman’s work. Hilsman was this author’s professor, independent study advisor, faculty advisor, and friend during undergraduate study at Columbia College, Columbia University, and mentor during graduate study at Columbia. Hilsman was a phenomenal educator. Discussions on policymaking and analysis that he had with students during seminars held at his residence were marked not only by the inspiration and encouragement he would give to students in their research and career plans, but also by a frankness and realism that would give them a leg up in future endeavors. The reminiscences Hilsman would share directly with this author during office hours were from those periods of his life that are perhaps the most intriguing in his biography. That included: studying at West Point; service in Merrill’s Marauder’s and command of an OSS guerilla warfare battalion both in Burma in World War II; work as a military planner for NATO and the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe; service in the administration of US President John Kennedy as Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research for the US Department of State; and, service as Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs in the administration of US President Lyndon Johnson. During lectures, he would always provide a riveting anecdote from his experiences during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis to accompany his “pearls of wisdom”. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of what he proffered on intelligence analysis and “the politics of policymaking” was the need not only to gather and analyze intelligence to understand key actors among ones’ opponents and to formulate policy, but to understand the relevant actors in the US policymaking process to understand how to promote, formulate, and implement viable policy approaches. Due greatly to the insights and lessons, and due in part to nostalgia and sentiment for a generous professor, greatcharlie.com has decided, with permission from Taylor & Francis Online, to present Marrin’s article to its readers. Quod enim munus rei publicae ad ferre maius mellusve possumus, quam si docemus atque erudimus luventutem? (What greater or better gift (or performance of duty) can we bring to the state than if we teach and instruct youth?)

Stephen Marrin, “Improving Intelligence Studies as an Academic Discipline,” Intelligence and National Security 31, no. 2 (February 2016): 266-279.


As the field of intelligence studies develops as an academic complement to the practice of national security intelligence, it is providing a base of knowledge for intelligence practitioners to interpret their past, understand their present, and forecast their future. It also provides the basis for broader understanding of intelligence as a function of government for other government and security officials, academicians, and the general public. In recent years there has been significant growth in the numbers and kinds of intelligence-related educational and training opportunities, with the knowledge taught in these courses and programs derived from the body of intelligence studies scholarship. The question posed here is: to what extent is this body of knowledge sufficient as a basis for the development of intelligence studies as an academic discipline?

Intelligence studies is an academic complement to the practice of national security intelligence; the contribution that higher education makes to interpreting its past, understanding its present, and forecasting its future. It forms a body of knowledge that is academic—frequently embedded within broader studies of government and foreign policy—yet also useful for the intelligence professional. As the literature grows and entire academic degree programs, departments, and even colleges are dedicated to the study and teaching of intelligence, it is becoming more established as an academic discipline.1 At the same time, there are significant gaps in the literature due to a generalized failure to ensure knowledge accumulation and aggregation over time. Improving intelligence studies as an academic discipline will require reinforcing best practices that exist in academia by identifying, acquiring, storing, creating, and disseminating new knowledge.2 More effective implementation of these practices will strengthen the coherence of intelligence studies as an academic discipline while at the same time increasing its impact on broader scholarship, public understanding, and government practice.

Intelligence Studies Literature: Large and Growing

The intelligence studies literature is quite large, and growing. This was not always true, however. In 1955, Sherman Kent observed that the intelligence profession lacked a literature and as a result was unable to ensure that knowledge about the intelligence business was captured and made accessible to others.3 To address this inadequacy, Kent strongly argued for the self-conscious development of a professional literature. Soon after, in 1957 Washington Platt observed that: “the literature dealing specifically with the principles of strategic intelligence is scant, and does not reflect even the best of what is now known.”4 Platt attributed this to “the newness of the systematic pursuit of strategic intelligence, and in part to the lack of graduate courses and graduate students” as well as the general paucity of researchers on the subject.

Many of the problems of the 1950s and the early years of intelligence studies have been fixed as both government and academia have contributed to knowledge advancement in the field. The US government has traditionally participated in this process through CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence, and National Intelligence University’s Center for Strategic Intelligence Research.5  Other governments such as Britain, Romania, Turkey, and Spain have also begun to support intelligence studies research, especially through intelligence studies associations. At the same time, academia has contributed to intelligence studies through the development of a cadre of intelligence studies specialists primarily in political science and history departments. They tend to come together in conferences organized by various academic and professional associations where a good part of the intelligence studies scholarship is developed and presented. Foremost among these are the Intelligence Studies Section portion of the annual International Studies Association conference, the British Study Group on Intelligence and Security and Intelligence Study Group, the Canadian Association of Security and Intelligence Studies, and the Australian Institute of Professional Intelligence Officers, though many others also support intelligence studies research and scholarship.

Once it has been developed, new contributions to the intelligence studies literature are then published in a handful of dedicated journals including the peer-reviewed journal Intelligence and National Security, the more policy-oriented International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, and the widely-referenced CIA journal Studies in Intelligence, in addition to more specialized journals generally produced by various intelligence-related organizations and associations.6 While most of the intelligence studies literature exists in the form of journal articles, book publishers have also gotten involved, with Routledge’s Studies in Intelligence book series focusing on the research market, Rowman and Littlefield’s Professional Intelligence Education Series focusing on the practitioner market, and Georgetown University Press and CQ Press focusing on the academic market. The growing literature makes up the body of knowledge in the field. The accumulation of the literature has become so notable that in 2009 the Chronicle of Higher Education published a profile of intelligence studies as a growing academic discipline.7

When one surveys the extensive intelligence studies literature in all its variety, the literature can appear to be quite large indeed. Scholars who have evaluated the intelligence studies literature have focused on general overviews or the state of the literature in specific countries.8 Some of these evaluations have even focused on the importance of learning from history, both for its own sake as well as for improving practice in the future.9 This is, essentially, the contribution that scholarship can make to practitioner-oriented efforts to learn from past experience in various history and lessons learned centers which are dedicated to avoid the Santayana admonition that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”10

At the same time, there are some significant problems with the intelligence studies literature which is impeding the field from developing as a coherent academic discipline. In general the intelligence literature is rich in history but both insular and theoretically thin perhaps because of a generalized failure to ensure knowledge accumulation and aggregation over time.

Failing to be Cumulative

The primary problem with the intelligence studies literature specifically is that it is anything but cumulative regarding its own intellectual history. Intelligence studies as a field of knowledge has books and journals to document “lessons identified” but it does not have a structured process for compiling and evaluating the literature so that it is aggregated and made cumulative.

Referencing prior work on the same or similar subjects, a technique used to layer new knowledge on top of old as a way to ensure knowledge is cumulative, is infrequently done by intelligence studies’ authors. Even those who should cite relevant contributions from the three core journals in the field frequently fail to do so. The end result is the repetition of ideas and knowledge rather than the creation of new knowledge. To mix a couple of metaphors, instead of standing on the shoulders of giants and creating an academic discipline, intelligence scholars seem to be re-inventing the conceptual wheel every 15 years or so without really making advances in terms of disciplinary knowledge. While this kind of conceptual repetition occurs in other academic fields as well, frequently characterized by the phrase “old wine in new bottles”, it is especially noticeable in the intelligence studies domain.

Failing to Learn from Sherman Kent

This is not to imply that past knowledge has been forgotten completely. For example, over the past 25 years Sherman Kent has been established as one of the giants in the field partly due to the efforts of Jack Davis, who has raised Sherman Kent’s profile significantly through his writings.11 This higher profile helps in the knowledge aggregation process because it provides a touchstone in the literature that later scholars and practitioners can refer back to. They can then use it as a jumping off point to make additional observations and contributions to the body of knowledge. But even then, sometimes key ideas fail to be picked up by modern scholars.

As an example, Sherman Kent’s 1949 distinction between intelligence and strategic intelligence is not widely referenced in the literature.12 As Kent put it: “Intelligence is a simple and self-evident thing. As an activity it is the pursuit of a certain kind of knowledge. In a small way it is what we all do every day . . . But no matter whether done instinctively or with skillful conscious mental effort intelligence work is in essence nothing more than the search for the single best answer.”13 Kent then goes on to distinguish this definition of “intelligence” from “strategic intelligence” which he says is “knowledge vital for national survival” and what he considers to be unique problems related to this effort.

Yet modern efforts to define intelligence do not include Kent’s 1949 distinction between intelligence and strategic intelligence. In fact, there is as of yet no consensus on the definition or purpose of intelligence. Perhaps a consensus is not required; other fields do not have unanimity on core concepts either. But the development of schools of thought around different kinds of definitions would provide taxonomies of concepts that could be used to evaluate each definition against the others, and greater understanding of the variation in perspectives embedded within this discussion of definitions.

This failure to be cumulative in terms of the definition of intelligence has also limited the development of theories of intelligence. The disagreements over definitions frequently reflect different assumptions about what the purpose of intelligence is. Definitions can be conceived of as static representations of the underlying vision of purpose, and articulating the variety of visions of purpose may be more important than achieving consensus on definitions. So rather than argue over which words to use in a definition, it would be more effective for knowledge development purposes to address what the different purposes of intelligence are, create schools of thought around them, and then foster structured debates between the respective schools of thought. Knowledge manifestly increases when the formal articulation of conflicting perspectives leads to intellectual debate as the proponents of one school of thought take on the proponents of another in a collegial debate. The development of an academic discipline is at least partially contingent on its ability to create productive debates between different schools of thought, and then grow knowledge cumulatively as the debate continues. While there has been recent progress on developing different kinds of intelligence theory, intelligence studies has not yet effectively created schools of thought or fostered these structured debates.14

Forgetting Roger Hilsman

Even when key ideas from early writers such as Kent are identified and retained in working scholars’ memories, sometimes key contemporaries are forgotten. For example, Kent argued for retaining the “integrity” or independence of the analytic function outside the direct line authority of the decisionmaker.15 The end result would be independent, objective intelligence analysis for national security decisionmakers. This concept of an independent analytic corps was subsequently challenged by Kent’s contemporary, Willmoore Kendall, who suggested that if this were done the contribution from intelligence analysts would be marginalized in the decisionmaking process.16 Instead, Kendall preferred to see a closer relationship between intelligence and decisionmaking in which “the intelligence function (helps) the policymakers ‘influence’ the course of events by helping them understand the operative factors on which the US can have an impact.”17 When scholars reference the purpose of intelligence and the relationship between intelligence and policy, they now cite Kent followed almost immediately by Kendall as a way to identify two early schools of thought on the subject.

But Roger Hilsman’s mostly-forgotten 1952 writings are as good as or better than Kendall’s as a challenge to some of Kent’s ideas. Hilsman made a strong case for a closer relationship between intelligence analysis and decisionmaking, arguing that “a more effective integration of knowledge and action”—or intelligence analysis and decisionmaking—will require intelligence analysts to become more policy-oriented.18 Hilsman directly questioned Kent’s conception of a separation of intelligence from decisionmaking by asking “whether this division of labor is a wise or even a valid one”19 and he ended up concluding that it was “both arbitrary and awkward.” Hilsman goes on to say that in order for intelligence to be “useful and significant” it “should be frankly and consciously concerned with policy” and that its practitioners should have “a frame of mind which is . . . instrumental, action-conscious, policy-oriented. The major task before the researchers is one of recasting their thought to the context of action, and adapting their tools to the needs of policy.”20

In other words, Hilsman disagreed with Kent, and believed that intelligence analysts should work in close cooperation with decisionmakers. Intelligence studies scholars know what Kent said about the intersection between intelligence analysis and decisionmaking and they also know about Kendall’s challenge, but they seem to have forgotten Hilsman even though his ideas have as much relevance as anything else written about the subject over the past 60 years.

The potential value of rediscovering Hilsman is a much more substantive debate than that which currently exists about the respective roles and functions of intelligence analysis vis-à-vis decisionmaker assessment. As an example, at one point a solution had been found which approximates Hilsman’s working relationship of knowledge and action. It was known as the National Security Studies Memorandum (NSSM) in the Nixon and Ford Administrations and the Presidential Review Memorandum (PRM) in the Carter Administration, and received a fair amount of praise for being an effective way to bridge intelligence and policy.21

Unfortunately, the PRM/NSSM product line was disbanded in 1980 and appears to have been completely forgotten by both academia and government.22 With a couple of exceptions, it has not been referenced in the literature for almost 30 years, and current long-serving members of the national security community are not aware that it used to exist. Yet some have begun to recommend and implement various mechanisms for doing exactly what the PRMs and NSSMs were built to do. For example, former Deputy National Security Advisor James Steinberg called for the National Security Council to play a more direct role in facilitating a better working relationship between intelligence producers and consumers.23 In addition, senior intelligence professionals Josh Kerbel and Anthony Olcott recommended a much closer relationship between intelligence and policy.24 If implemented, these suggestions would essentially recreate the old PRM/NSSM product decades later. But this reinvention of the wheel was not necessary. Instead, all that was needed was better utilization of the ideas that were already in the intelligence studies literature.

Ignoring Platt, Knorr, and Hughes

Another example of forgotten intelligence studies scholarship is Washington Platt’s 1957 book Strategic Intelligence Production: Basic Principles. The titles of Platt’s chapters speak to the very interests of intelligence scholars and practitioners today: Principles of Intelligence Production; From Information to Intelligence; Intelligence Production: An Act of Creative Thinking; Help From the Social Sciences; Probability and Certainty; Forecasting; Characteristics of the Intelligence Profession. All of these chapters could make contributions to the ongoing discussions regarding analytic process, utility of the social sciences, increasing imagination, futures work and forecasting, and professionalization. But Platt’s work has also been forgotten, even though it contains some important ideas that current scholars and practitioners would find quite interesting.

Finally, other forgotten scholarship includes some of the best work on intelligence analysis as a social science and the relationship between intelligence producers and consumers. Klaus Knorr’s 1964 monograph “Foreign Intelligence and the Social Sciences” contains the best evaluation of how analysts use social science methodology in the entire intelligence literature, yet is rarely cited or referenced in most work on intelligence analysis.25 In addition, Thomas Hughes wrote a short monograph in 1976 on the relationship between intelligence and policy that is one of the best treatments of the subject, but there are very few references to it in the literature.26

In their treatment of these subjects, current scholars are ignoring insights from prior works and are instead rebuilding the wheels that were built decades ago. It is necessary to know who the giants are in order to stand on their shoulders and right now it does not appear that the intelligence studies field as a whole possesses sufficient understanding of who those giants are or what can be learned from them.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Some scholars conduct more thorough literature reviews than others, and there have also been efforts to remind current scholars and practitioners of those who blazed the trails before them. For example, intelligence studies literature reviews began as early as Hilsman’s evaluation of “the academic observers” in his 1956 book chapter reviewing the works of George Pettee, Sherman Kent, and Willmoore Kendall.27 A set of reviews organized by Roy Godson in the 1980s also provided a review of what had been published up to that point.28 But then these reviews are forgotten, and have to be rewritten for a new generation.

A recent example of this is Anthony Olcott’s evaluation of the writings of Sherman Kent, Willmoore Kendall, and George Pettee that compares and contrasts their differing perspectives and approaches to strategic intelligence analysis.29 This is a valuable contribution to the literature because it reminds other scholars of these authors’ writings. It also reminds them that to understand where the literature is today it is necessary to go back and understand the perspectives of those who helped build it into what it is today. Unfortunately, Olcott’s contribution does not reference Hilsman’s 1956 book chapter which evaluated the very same authors that Olcott did with the very same goal in mind: to evaluate these early writings in order to compare and contrast their different perspectives and approaches to intelligence analysis. This is not intended as a criticism of the author, because most every scholarly contribution fails to address some significant prior work. Instead, it is being flagged here because it is symptomatic of a broader problem in the intelligence studies literature related to the limitation of knowledge accumulation in the field.

Academicians and scholars document, store, and disseminate existing knowledge as well as grow new knowledge. So why have scholars failed to learn from their own history? Because there has not been sufficient emphasis placed on the infrastructure which facilitates knowledge production in the field. In the field of security studies, for example, Stephen Walt has recommended that scholars focus on the relationship between academia and practice in ensuring healthy evolution of knowledge over time.30 He also identifies research support as well as prevailing norms and ethos of the security studies community as mechanisms where improvements can be made to knowledge production in the field. Unfortunately, the kind of emphasis that Walt put on the knowledge infrastructure in the security studies field does not have an equivalent in intelligence studies. But this lack of emphasis in the past presents us with an opportunity to build that infrastructure with an eye to the future.

Developing Intelligence Studies as an Academic Discipline

To become more cumulative, intelligence studies should emulate the key practices that enable any field of knowledge to become cumulative and in doing so become its own coherent academic discipline. This involves establishing formalized processes for creating, documenting, storing, and disseminating knowledge in such a way as to ensure that future generations of scholars and practitioners can benefit from it.31 The steps involve: (1) documenting what is known; (2) evaluating it for gaps or holes; (3) working to fill those gaps in knowledge; (4) distributing this knowledge to those who need or want it; and (5) institutionalizing these efforts.

In most academic disciplines, scholars articulate important ideas which are then evaluated and critiqued by others in the field. This leads to the development of competing schools of thought, with individuals representing those schools. But even if the idea is debunked, that discussion remains in the literature for later generations of scholars to learn from. So there also needs to be a tradition of critiquing previous interpretations, and building secondary and tertiary arguments off of the arguments of the main proponents of each school. It is from this process of evaluation and critique that the giants in the field are identified and their insights transferred to new scholars, leading to longer and deeper intellectual histories. To support this, there also needs to be a heavy emphasis on citation and footnotes in order to link current ideas back to the ongoing scholarly debates. More effective implementation of these academic best practices will strengthen the coherence of intelligence studies as an academic discipline while at the same time increasing its impact on broader scholarship, public understanding, and government practice.

The first step in improving the body of knowledge is to document what is known. This has to be a dynamic rather than static process; perhaps an annualized bibliographic book series. This is labor intensive and probably not something that most scholars would choose to do on their own. The closest working approximation to what is required is the online Muskingum College intelligence bibliography compiled by J. Ransom Clark, which is a tremendously valuable resource for both intelligence studies scholars as well as students of intelligence.32

Other efforts are either limited to specific subject matter topics, or have not been updated recently.33 To continue developing this kind of working bibliography, governments and professional associations interested in ensuring that intelligence studies remains an active academic discipline may have to collaborate on this kind of project.

The second step in improving the body of knowledge is to evaluate what is known; the literature that has already been developed. This would involve a variety of literature reviews oriented towards identifying the research questions that have been explored sufficiently, others that still require some work, and yet still others that have not yet been answered. The Intelligence Studies Section (ISS) at ISA has implemented something like this as its contribution to the International Studies Encyclopedia.34 ISS broke the intelligence studies literature down into 20 different topics, and lined up authors to write literature reviews on each of those topics. These topics include those of interest to practitioners, such as analytic methods, organizational structures and processes, training and education, and so forth. In published form, the end result provides current and future scholars and practitioners with a starting point for understanding the current state of that segment of the literature.

This kind of evaluative literature review is also being done through the Guide to the Study of Intelligence being developed by the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO). The purpose is to provide high school, college, and university instructors with “a literature review of significant works useful for educators” in order to help them with course development.35

The subject matter is wide ranging, and covers many specialized topics within the intelligence studies literature. Additional efforts like it and the one by ISA’s Intelligence Studies Section would improve the intelligence literature by ensuring that both scholars and practitioners were able to evaluate the existing state of knowledge in order to know where the gaps in knowledge are.

The third step in the process is to begin filling in the gaps in the literature identified in the evaluations. There are a variety of ways to do this, including by developing a dedicated (and funded) research agenda akin to the Army War College’s Key Strategic Issues List to back-fill gaps in knowledge. Another way to fill in gaps in knowledge is through themed conferences and symposia. Alternatively, open calls for papers for paper-based conferences on various intelligence-related themes could lead to some interesting new contributions to the literature. A model for this kind of activity could be the 2005 International Conference on Intelligence Analysis that Mitre coordinated on behalf of Mark Lowenthal, the then-Assistant Director of Central Intelligence for analysis and production. This conference was modeled on an academic conference, with a paper requirement and proposals open to the public. It also led to the presentation of papers which have since made their own contributions to on-going discussions in the scholarship.

Funding and content for these conferences could come from consortia made up of experts from government, academia, professional associations, and private industry; together they should have the infrastructure, contacts, and knowledge necessary to successfully implement this kind of venture. Associations could provide a focal point for acquiring and coordinating the kinds of knowledge that would be helpful in terms of outreach to the academic community. For example, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has partnered with the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) on events related to analytic transformation, but other associations such as ISA’s Intelligence Studies Section or the International Association for Intelligence Education (IAFIE) would both be good partners for those wanting to engage academia. The broad point is to find appropriate collaborative partners for these sorts of knowledge-building initiatives.

The fourth step in the process would be to disseminate the new knowledge to those who can use it, including current and future intelligence scholars and practitioners. That could involve better communications between those who research and write about intelligence and those who teach it, so that a feedback loop is established to maximize learning. The students could be those in academia in intelligence studies or intelligence school programs, or those in governmental training courses. The Harvard University Intelligence and Policy Program also provides a potential model for those who want to establish a form of continuing education in the field devoted not to practitioner proficiency per se, but rather broader understandings of purpose and how best to manage the enterprise.36

Finally, the last step in the process would be to institutionalize these efforts. One kind of institutionalization would be through academic Intelligence Studies centers; academic equivalents to CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence or NIU’s Center for Strategic Intelligence Research.37 Such programs can centralize knowledge about the theory and practice of intelligence as a profession, and can provide this knowledge to government, other parts of academia, the news media, and segments of society in a more structured way than has been done in the past. The knowledge resident in these departments in the form of faculty, staffs, libraries, and the other infrastructure can provide the optimal educational environment for those who want to learn more about intelligence studies.

Another way to institutionalize these efforts would be to encourage Ph.D. students to specialize in intelligence studies. Intelligence studies has not developed a cumulative tradition of scholarship partly because there are relatively few intelligence studies Ph.D.s. This means that there are not many scholars who look at the body of knowledge in a longitudinal sense; how it has grown and changed over time. The Ph.D. is not a static representation of knowledge and it cannot be evaluated based on that criterion. Instead, one must evaluate the Ph.D. based on the ability of the bearer to create new knowledge. In this case, that means relevant contributions to our understanding of intelligence. To make that contribution to knowledge, the Ph.D. student first has to survey and evaluate the current state of existing knowledge before deciding precisely how to contribute to new knowledge.

More Ph.D. students studying more intelligence-related subjects will enable the literature to become more cumulative than it ever has been, identify where cumulative progression of knowledge has stalled, and contribute to the institutionalization of footnoting and other practices that would be indicative of greater scholarly rigor. The most effective way to encourage more doctoral students is to provide them with funding. This funding could come in the form of fellowships which bring junior scholars into academic institutions where they would add to the creativity and learning of that institution by managing different projects or developing new courses. This kind of fellowship could be funded by governments in the same way that they fund other kinds of Ph.D.s, the private sector which would benefit from the knowledge created, or professional intelligence associations in their efforts to support related educational activities.

Finally, a push to make the intelligence studies literature more cumulative would also be to make it more professional, more structured, and more disciplined which will increase its impact on broader literatures as well as among intelligence professionals. Currently intelligence studies as a field of knowledge is subordinate to other more traditional academic disciplines including political science, history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and communications disciplines. Unfortunately, while the intelligence studies literature itself is extensive, many mainstream scholars do not sufficiently incorporate its knowledge and insight into their work.38

As a result, both conventional academic scholars and by extension the general public do not incorporate the extensive nuance reflected in the intelligence studies literature and instead frequently rely on broad brush generalizations and mischaracterizations. Improving the coherence and rigor of intelligence studies as an academic discipline will highlight the breadth and depth of the literature to those who were previously unaware of it.

Intelligence studies as an academic discipline was in its formative stages for about 20 years, from the mid-1980s through to the early 2000s. It then entered a form of adolescence resulting from the flow of interest and money in its direction after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Through the 2000s the literature has grown in terms of sophistication and abstraction, with much additional emphasis on key intelligence concepts and theories. As the field continues to mature, improving intelligence studies as an academic discipline will require a return to scholarly fundamentals and best practices in order to create a cumulative, comprehensive, and influential body of disciplinary knowledge for future scholars and practitioners to learn from and contribute to.


1 For a recent discussion of intelligence studies as an academic discipline, see Loch Johnson and Allison Shelton, “Thoughts on the State of Intelligence Studies: A Survey Report”, Intelligence and National Security 28/1 (2013) pp.109–20.

2 These recommendations are derived in part from remarks given at the Conference on Learning the Lessons of All-Source Intelligence Analysis sponsored by State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s Intelligence Community Lessons Learned Center, Washington, DC, July 2008.

3 Sherman Kent, “The Need for an Intelligence Literature”, Studies in Intelligence Spring (1955) pp.1–11.

4 Washington Platt, Strategic Intelligence Production: Basic Principles (USA: Praeger 1957) pp.133–4.

5 Russell G. Swenson, “Meeting the Intelligence Community’s Continuing Need for an Intelligence Literature”, Defense Intelligence Journal 11/2 (2002) pp.87–96.

6 For more on the value of the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence for conventional scholars and practitioners, see Jason Vest, “Artificial Intelligence”, Foreign Policy, 4 January 2006.

7 Peter Monaghan, “Intelligence Studies”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 March 2009.

8 Loch K. Johnson, “An Introduction to the Intelligence Studies Literature” in Loch Johnson (ed.) Strategic Intelligence (Westport, CT: Praeger 2007) pp.1–20; Kenneth G. Robertson, “The Study of Intelligence in the United States” in Roy Godson (ed.) Comparing Foreign Intelligence: The US, USSR, UK and the Third World (Washington, DC: Pergamon-Brassey’s 1988) pp.7–42; Geoffrey R. Weller, “Assessing Canadian Intelligence Literature: 1980–2000”, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 14/1 (2001) pp.49–61; Len Scott, “Sources and Methods in the Study of Intelligence: A British View” in Loch Johnson (ed.) Strategic Intelligence (Westport, CT: Praeger 2007) pp.87–108; Eric Denécé and Gérald Arboit, “Intelligence Studies in France”, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 23/4 (2010–11) pp.725–47; Gustavo Díaz Matey, “The Development of Intelligence Studies in Spain”, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 23/4 (2010–11) pp.748–65.

9 Christopher Andrew, “Intelligence Analysis Needs to Look Backwards Before Looking Forward”, paper given at the New Frontiers of Intelligence Analysis Conference, “Shared Threats, Diverse Perspectives, New Communities”, 31 March–2 April 2004. Stephen Marrin, “Preventing Intelligence Failures By Learning From the Past”, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 17/4 (2004) pp.655–72; John Hedley, “Learning from Intelligence Failures”, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 18/3 (2005) pp.435–50; Len Scott and R. Gerald Hughes, “Intelligence, Crises and Security: Lessons from History?”, Intelligence and National Security 21/5 (2006) pp.653–74.

10 George Santayana, The Life of Reason (NY: Scribner’s 1905–6).

11 Jack Davis, “The Kent-Kendall Debate of 1949”, Studies in Intelligence 36/5 (1992) pp.91–103; Jack Davis, “Sherman Kent and the Profession of Intelligence Analysis”, Occasional Papers 1, no. 5, Washington, DC, Central Intelligence Agency, The Sherman Kent Center for Intelligence Analysis, November 2002; Jack Davis, “Sherman Kent’s Final Thoughts on Analyst-Policymaker Relations”, Occasional Papers 2, no. 3, Washington, DC, Central Intelligence Agency, The Sherman Kent Center for Intelligence Analysis, June 2003.

12 Thomas F. Troy, “The ‘Correct’ Definition of Intelligence”, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 5/4 (1991–2) pp.433–54; Martin T. Bimfort, “A Definition of Intelligence”, Studies in Intelligence 2/4 (1958); Michael Warner, “Wanted: A Definition of Intelligence”, Studies in Intelligence 46 (2002) pp.15–22; Kristan Wheaton and Michael Beerbower, “Towards a New Definition of Intelligence”, Stanford Law and Policy Review 17 (2006) pp.319–30; Alan Breakspear, “A New Definition of Intelligence”, Intelligence and National Security 28/5 (2013) pp.678–93.

13 Sherman Kent, Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1951) p.vii.

14 For recent progress on intelligence theory, see Gregory F. Treverton, Seth G. Jones, Steven Boraz and Phillip Lipscy, Conference Proceedings: Toward a Theory of Intelligence Workshop Report (Arlington, VA: RAND National Security Research Division 2006); Peter Gill, Stephen Marrin and Mark Phythian (eds.), Intelligence Theory: Key Questions and Debates (London: Routledge 2008); Stephen Marrin, “Intelligence Analysis Theory: Explaining and Predicting Analytic Responsibilities”, Intelligence and National Security 22/6 (2007) pp.821–46.

15 See “The Problem of Objectivity and Integrity” in Kent, Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy, pp.195–201.

16 Willmoore Kendall, “The Function of Intelligence”, World Politics 1/4 (1949) pp.542–52, p.550.

17 Davis, “The Kent-Kendall Debate of 1949” p.95.

18 Roger Hilsman Jr., “Intelligence and Policy-Making in Foreign Affairs”, World Politics 5/1 (1952) pp.1–45, p.45.

19 Ibid., p.25.

20 Ibid., p.44.

21 Arthur S. Hulnick and Deborah Brammer, “The Impact of Intelligence on the Policy Review and Decision Process”, Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, Washington, DC, January 1980.

22 Stephen Marrin and Philip H.J. Davies, “National Assessment by the National Security Council Staff 1968–80: American Experiment in a British Style of Analysis”, Intelligence & National Security 24/5 (2009) pp.644–73.

23 James B. Steinberg, “The Policymaker’s Perspective: Transparency and Partnership” in Roger George and James Bruce (eds.) Analyzing Intelligence: Origins, Obstacles, and Innovations (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press 2008) pp.82–90.

24 Josh Kerbel and Anthony Olcott, “The Intelligence-Policy Nexus: Synthesizing with Clients, Not Analyzing for Customers”, Studies in Intelligence 54/4 (2010) pp.1–13.

25 Klaus E. Knorr, “Foreign Intelligence and the Social Sciences”, Research Monograph No. 17, Center of International Studies, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, June 1964.

26 Thomas L. Hughes, The Fate of Facts in a World of Men, Headline Series No. 233 (NY: Foreign Policy Association 1976).

27 Roger Hilsman, Strategic Intelligence and National Decisions (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press 1956) pp.123–37.

28 Godson, The New Study of Intelligence, pp.1–6; Robertson, “The Study of Intelligence in the United States”, pp.7–42; Christopher Andrew, “Historical Research on the British Intelligence Community”, in Roy Godson (ed.) Comparing Foreign Intelligence: The US, USSR, UK and the Third World (Washington, DC: Pergamon-Brassey’s 1988) pp.43–64.

29 Anthony Olcott, “Revisiting the Legacy: Sherman Kent, Willmoore Kendall, and George Pettee – Strategic Intelligence in the Digital Age”, Studies in Intelligence 53/2 (2009) pp.21–32.

30 Stephen M. Walt, The Renaissance of Security Studies, International Studies Quarterly 35/2 (1991) pp.211–39.

31 This is the knowledge advancement portion of the professionalization process. Stephen Marrin and Jonathan Clemente, “Modeling an Intelligence Analysis Profession on Medicine”, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 19/4 (2006–7) pp.642–65.

32 J. Ransom Clark, “The Literature of Intelligence: A Bibliography of Materials, with Essays, Reviews and Comments, Muskingum University, 1998–2012” < http://intellit.muskingum.edu/index.html>

33 George C. Constantinides, Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography (Boulder, CO: Westview Press 1983); Marjorie W. Cline, Carla E. Christiansen and Judith M. Fontaine (eds.), Scholar’s Guide to Intelligence Literature: Bibliography of the Russell J. Bowen Collection (Frederick, MD: University Publications of America 1983); Neal H. Petersen, American Intelligence, 1775–1990: A Bibliographical Guide (Claremont, CA: Regina Books 1992); The Future of Intelligence Analysis, Vol. II, Final Report, Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, 10 March 2006; Greta E. Marlatt, “Intelligence and Policymaking: A Bibliography”, Naval Postgraduate School, December 2010.

34 Robert A. Denemark (ed.), International Studies Encyclopedia (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell 2010) < http://eu.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1405152389.html> with specific intelligence-related publications listed here: < http://intellit.muskingum.edu/refmats_folder/teachingiss.html>

35 AFIO Weekly Intelligence Notes #37-10, 5 October 2010 < http://www.afio.com/sections/wins/2010/2010-37.htm>

36 Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow (eds.), Dealing with Dictators: Dilemmas of US Diplomacy and Intelligence Analysis, 1945–1990, BCSIA Studies in International Security (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press 2006) pp.ix–x.

37 Stephen Marrin, “Intelligence Studies Centers: Making Scholarship on Intelligence Analysis Useful”, Intelligence and National Security 27/3 (2012) pp.398–422.

38 Amy B. Zegart, “Cloaks, Daggers, and Ivory Towers: Why Academics Don’t Study US Intelligence” in Loch Johnson (ed.) Strategic Intelligence (Westport, CT: Praeger 2007) pp.21–34. Also see Amy Zegart, “Universities Must Not Ignore Intelligence Research”, Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 July 2007. For examples of intelligence studies works that are good treatments of the subject but fail to address existing scholarship, see Richard Posner, Preventing Surprise Attacks: Intelligence Reform in the Wake of 9/11 (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield 2005); Douglas Hart and Steven Simon, “Thinking Straight and Talking Straight: Problems of Intelligence Analysis”, Survival 48/1 (2006) pp.35–60; David Omand, Securing the State (NY: Columbia University Press 2010); Ken Lieberthal, The US Intelligence Community and Foreign Policy: Getting Analysis Right (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution 2009). For an exception consisting of a treatment of intelligence which also cites the relevant intelligence studies literature, see Robert Jervis, Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 2010).

The Obama Administration Needs to Respond Effectively and Rapidly on Iraq; Foreign Policy Failures Must Not Become the Norm!

The aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush has sailed into the Persian Gulf with a cruiser and a destroyer. The carrier’s jets could provide close air support for the Iraqi Army. Jets and cruise missiles could strike marshalling points, supply lines and advancing units of the Islamic militant insurgency away from urban areas.

The current crisis in Iraq provides a rather poignant illustration of the results of the failure of the administration of US President Barack Obama to use reasonable care in the handling of US foreign policy. It is difficult to watch what is occurring given that opportunities to avert the present situation were ignored. The Obama administration came into office pledging to repair the grave foreign policy errors of the administration of US President George W. Bush. After Obama’s re-election in 2012, White House staffers spoke confidently about their administration’s efforts and how they wanted to establish their president’s place in history, or his legacy. Yet, his administration has proven to be too risk adverse, and has attempted to absolve itself of the more assertive and aggressive aspects of exercising US power as part of its role as the world’s leader. The Obama administration has faced a number vicissitudes in foreign policy. Its ability to successfully find its way out of a colossal mess in Iraq remains uncertain. Questions exist in Washington, DC, other capitals worldwide, and the global media on whether Obama has the will to take military action in response to the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and other Sunni insurgent groups to the Iraqi government. More useful, however, might be a discussion of the ideas that may cause Obama to display restraint in this crisis, and how, from another lens, he might see how those ideas have failed him and why taking action in Iraq is necessary.

Through the presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2012, hopes of the US public were raised by Obama’s speeches on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, withdrawing forces, and taking new approaches on foreign policy that would establish some tranquility of order in US foreign affairs. Obama’s voice was that of a man speaking from a source. His administration’s captivating assessments were satisfying enough for those who were unable or unwilling to look more deeply and those seduced by simple answers. All things are beautiful through the right lens. However, as a result of a string of policy “disappointments” or failures, it became evident that many of the views proffered by the administration on foreign policy were distorted, albeit unintentionally, through a selective discussion of circumstances. Many efforts to create positive change were fruitless. Recall the claim by the administration that by cautiously arming and training the patchwork Free Syrian Army, burdened from the start with al-Qaeda linked Islamic militant groups, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would soon face defeat and surrender power at the negotiating table. It was a pleasant and unchallenging fantasy. The talent to captivate through speeches proved not to be the same as the talent to truly lead internationally. While the sincere goal may have been to revamp US foreign and defense policy, the effort should have handled with diligence to avoid taking US policy on a course that could lead to its unraveling.

The Obama administration has displayed a predilection toward restraint on military action contrary to the Bush administration. However, that proved to be problematic whenever military was actually needed. Gallivanting around the world attempting to solve its ills through pre-emptive military action, as the Bush administration was perceived as doing, is wrong. However, not responding to aggressive actions that threaten US interests, its image, and peace and security worldwide is wrong, too! Failing to take military action in one instance might settle one situation, but sends a message or creates an impression, that could lead to greater difficulties in another. In 2013, in Syria, everything needed was available to cope with Assad, after allegations were made of his regime’s use of chemical weapons, and to cope with ISIS, after its countless abuses and murders of Syrian citizens and brutal attacks on mainstream Free Syrian Army units. Yet, Obama was unwilling to wield US military power. No action was taken, and the message was sent that Obama would not commit himself to red lines he sets and that he is reluctant to take robust military action for any reason. More recent policy speeches about transnational interests and multilateral responses offer a seductive kind of superficiality, perhaps a shallow entrapment for the administration, itself. The truth is that without strong US leadership and support for friends and partners, militarily, financially, or politically, big things would never have been accomplished internationally, especially during crises. Consider that the United Kingdom, unquestionably one the closest allies of the US, has already announced through its Foreign Secretary William Hague, that it is “not planning military intervention of any kind” in Iraq. Except for some sort of coordination with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the US would likely have to take action in Iraq alone. The Obama administration could hardly have imagined that it was creating such a circumstance.

On a number of other issues, such as Ukraine, the Obama administration could have simply acted more decisively, effectively and rapidly. As a leader, Obama may want to be able to say as Frank Sinatra: “I did it my way!” However, his duty as president is not to respond to issues based on his own needs, values and principles, but only those of the US. That comes before legacy, and truly sets one’s destiny as president. Current events in Iraq indicate there was a failure to recognize the problem, and a failure to find real answers. Intellect and will determine choices. However, pride and ego can block the truth, and lead one to reject all evidence of a problem.   Despite any strong feelings Obama has against military action, as a matter of self-sacrifice, he should have been willing to act for the sake of US interests. In today’s world, it is just not possible for a US president to create an image of himself as a benign philanthropist.

Difficulties between Obama and the US military’s leadership were well-discussed in former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ book, Duty. Those difficulties accordingly have contributed somewhat to Obama’s views on the use of military power. Lacking experience in the military arena, Obama should have had an adviser on military affairs, perhaps a retired general or admiral involved in the presidential campaign, added to the White House staff to better familiarize him with the nuts and bolts of military affairs. General Maxwell Taylor served US President John F. Kennedy in this capacity in 1961. Any mistrust resulting from any negative interactions between the president and his generals should have been quickly resolved. That mistrust hopefully has not ruined relations of the president with other senior foreign and defense policy officials in the government.

In the history of successes and accomplishments in US foreign and defense policy, there are many interesting cases that can provide guidance on how to develop creative solutions to current problems. Among the staffs at the State Department, Defense Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency, particularly at the senior levels, is enough experience, wisdom, and capabilities to meet all of today’s challenges. They must be relied upon with a degree of trust. A president should be receptive to their views, and moderate those advisers urging caution. The memoranda, reports, and other documents produced by these professionals manifest US values and principles, and certainly embody the history of US foreign and defense policy as they have most likely been part of it. History is the country’s life blood. Without knowing the country’s history, a US leader might appear as a child, searching for answers, paralyzed with uncertainty over what should be done. Therein lie the makings for a tragedy. The decisions of a US president can shape the destiny not only of the US, but the world.

Devising approaches in foreign policy in our times requires that US decision makers to possess shrewd insights into human nature. It requires understanding how to deal with people who think differently, and well as knowing people’s frailties. The US should not tolerate threats and aggression from maniacs playing God in other states and among non-state actors. The US is not a door mat for others. There is a real need for Obama to be more attentive and more active. Deeds, not just words, count! That does not mean the US must act with vindictiveness. It means the US must act to correct wrong acts of coarse leaders, when US interests’ are at stake. There is a need to combat the devilish conceit that peace might issue from a concordance with evil. Intimation of a willingness to do so can only lead to disaster. The list of matters that have long been understood to fall within US interests should not be curtailed through sophistic arguments to sidestep action either. It is not too late for the Obama administration to turn the corner. Perhaps Iraq presents that opportunity. Time is of the essence. The danger of the situation in Iraq must be fully recognized now. The US must rapidly formulate and implement solid approaches, a strategy, for its resolution.