About the Author
David Omand was the first UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator, responsible to the Prime Minister for the professional health of the intelligence community, national counter-terrorism strategy and ‘homeland security’. He served for seven years on the Joint Intelligence Committee. He was Permanent Secretary of the Home Office from 1997 to 2000, and before that Director of GCHQ.
For Keir, Robert, Beatrice and Ada, in the hope that
you will grow up in a better world
Why we need these lessons in seeking independence of mind, honesty and integrity
Westminster, March 1982. ‘This is very serious, isn’t it?’ said Margaret Thatcher. She frowned and looked up from the intelligence reports I had handed her. ‘Yes, Prime Minister,’ I replied, ‘this intelligence can only be read one way: the Argentine Junta are in the final stages of preparing to invade the Falkland Islands, very likely this coming Saturday.’
It was the afternoon of Wednesday, 31 March 1982.
I was the Principal Private Secretary to the Defence Secretary, John Nott. We were in his room in the House of Commons drafting a speech when an officer from the Defence Intelligence Staff rushed down Whitehall with a locked pouch containing several distinctive folders. I knew immediately from the red diagonal crosses on their dark covers that they contained top secret material with its own special codeword (UMBRA), denoting that they came from the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).
The folders contained decrypted intercepts of Argentine naval communications. The messages showed that an Argentine submarine had been deployed on covert reconnaissance around the Falklands capital, Port Stanley, and that the Argentine Fleet, which had been on exercises, was reassembling. A further intercept referred to a task force said to be due to arrive at an unstated destination in the early hours of Friday, 2 April. From their analysis of the coordinates of the naval vessels, GCHQ had concluded
that its destination could only be Port Stanley.1
John Nott and I looked at each other with but one thought, loss of the Falkland Islands would bring a major existential crisis for the government
of Margaret Thatcher: the Prime Minister must be told at once. We hurried down the Commons corridor to her room and burst in on her.
The last assessment she had received from the UK Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) had told her that Argentina did not want to use force to secure its claim to the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. However, the JIC had warned that if there was highly provocative action by the British towards Argentine nationals, who had landed illegally on the British South Atlantic island of South Georgia, then the Junta might use this as a pretext for action. Since the UK had no intention of provoking the Junta, the assessment was wrongly interpreted in Whitehall as reassuring. That made the fresh intelligence reports all the more dramatic. It was the first indication that the Argentine Junta was ready to use force to impose its claim.
The importance for us of being able to reason
The shock of seeing the nation suddenly pitched into the Falklands crisis is still deeply etched in my memory. It demonstrated to me the impact that errors in thinking can have. This is as true for all life as it is for national statecraft. My objective in writing this book therefore is an ambitious one: I want to empower people to make better decisions by learning how intelligence analysts think. I will provide lessons from our past to show how we can know more, explain more and anticipate more about what we face in the extraordinary age we now live in.
There are important life lessons in seeing how intelligence analysts reason. By learning what intelligence analysts do when they tackle problems, by observing them in real cases from recent history, we will learn how they order their thoughts and how they distinguish the likely from the unlikely and thus make better judgements. We will learn how to test alternative explanations methodically and judge how far we need to change our minds as new information arrives. Sound thinkers try to understand how their unconscious feelings as individuals, as members of a group and within an institution might affect their judgement. We will also see how we can fall victim to conspiracy thinking and how we can be taken in by deliberate deception.
We all face decisions and choices, at home, at work, at play. Today we have less and less time to make up our minds than ever before. We are in the digital age, bombarded with contradictory, false and confusing information from more sources than ever. Information is all around us and we feel compelled to respond at its speed. There are influential forces at play ranged against us pushing specific messages and opinions through social media. Overwhelmed by all this information, are we less, or more, ignorant than in previous times? Today more than ever, we need those lessons from the past.
Looking over the shoulder of an intelligence analyst
Over the centuries, generals naturally learned the advantage that intelligence can bring. Governments today deliberately equip themselves with specialist agencies to access and analyse information that can help
them make better decisions.2 Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) runs human agents overseas. The Security Service (MI5) and its law enforcement partners investigate domestic threats and conduct surveillance on suspects. The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) intercepts communications and gathers digital intelligence. The armed forces conduct their share of intelligence gathering in their operations overseas (including photographic intelligence from satellites and drones). It is the job of the intelligence analyst to fit all the resulting pieces together. They then produce assessments that aim to reduce the ignorance of the decisionmakers. They find out what is happening, they explain why it is
happening and they outline how things might develop.3
The more we understand about the decisions we have to take, the less likely it is that we will duck them, make bad choices or be seriously surprised. Much of what we need can come from sources that are open to anyone, provided sufficient care is taken to apply critical reasoning to them.
Reducing the ignorance of the decisionmaker does not necessarily mean simplifying. Often the intelligence assessment has to warn that the situation is more complicated than they had previously thought, that the motives of an adversary are to be feared and that a situation may develop in a bad way. But it is better to know than not. Harbouring illusions on such matters leads to poor, or even disastrous, decisions. The task of the intelligence officer is
to tell it as it is to government. When you make decisions, it is up to you todo the same to yourself.
The work of intelligence officers involves stealing the secrets of the dictators, terrorists and criminals who mean us harm. This is done using human sources or technical means to intrude into the privacy of personal correspondence or conversations. We therefore give our intelligence officers a licence to operate by ethical standards different from those we would hope to see applied in everyday life, justified by the reduction in harm to the
public they can achieve.4 Authoritarian states may well feel that they can dispense with such considerations and encourage their officers to do whatever they consider necessary, regardless of law or ethics, to achieve the objectives they have been set. For the democracies such behaviours would quickly undermine confidence in both government and intelligence services. Consequently, intelligence work is carefully regulated under domestic law to ensure it remains necessary and proportionate. I should therefore be clear. This book does not teach you how to spy on others, nor should it encourage you to do so. I want, however, to show that there are lessons from the thinking behind secret intelligence from which we can all benefit. This book is a guide to thinking straight, not a manual for bad behaviour.
Nor does thinking straight mean emotionless, bloodless calculation. ‘Negative capability’ was how the poet John Keats described the writer’s ability to pursue a vision of artistic beauty even when it led to uncertainty, confusion and intellectual doubt. For analytic thinkers the equivalent ability is tolerating the pain and confusion of not knowing, rather than imposing ready-made or omnipotent certainties on ambiguous situations or emotional challenges. To think clearly we must have a scientific, evidence-based approach which nevertheless holds a space for the ‘negative capability’
needed to retain an open mind.5
Intelligence analysts like to look ahead, but they do not pretend to be soothsayers. There are always going to be surprise outcomes, however hard we try to forecast events. The winner of the Grand National or the Indy 500 cannot be known in advance. Nor does the favourite with the crowds always come out in front. Events sometimes combine in ways that seem destined to confound us. Importantly, risks can also provide opportunities if we can use intelligence to position ourselves to take advantage of them.
Who am I to say this?
Intelligence agencies prefer to keep quiet about successes so that they can repeat them, but failures can become very public. I have included examples of both, together with a few glimpses from my own experience – one that spans the startling development of the digital world. It is sobering to recall that in my first paid job, in 1965, in the mathematics department of an engineering company in Glasgow, we learned to write machine code for the early computers then available using five-character punched paper tape for the input. Today, the mobile device in my pocket has immediate access to more processing power than there was then in the whole of Europe. This digitization of our lives brings us huge benefits. But it is also fraught with dangers, as we will examine in Chapter 10.
In 1969, fresh out of Cambridge, I joined GCHQ, the British signals intelligence and communications security agency, and learned of their pioneering work applying mathematics and computing to intelligence. I gave up my plans to pursue a doctorate in (very) theoretical economics, and the lure of an offer to become an economic adviser in HM Treasury. I chose instead a career in public service that would take me into the worlds of intelligence, defence, foreign affairs and security. In the Ministry of Defence (MOD), as a policy official, I used intelligence to craft advice for ministers and the Chiefs of Staff. I had three tours in the Private Office of the Secretary of State for Defence (serving six of them, from Lord Carrington in 1973 to John Nott in 1981) and saw the heavy burden of decisionmaking in crisis that rests at the political level. I saw how valuable good intelligence can be, and the problems its absence causes. When I was working as the UK Defence Counsellor in NATO Brussels it was clear how intelligence was shaping arms control and foreign policy. And as the Deputy Under Secretary of State for Policy in the MOD I was an avid senior customer for operational intelligence on the crisis in the former Yugoslavia. In that role I became a member of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), the most senior intelligence assessment body in the UK, on which I served for a total of seven years.
When I left the MOD to go back to GCHQ as its Director in the mid-1990s, computing was transforming the ability to process, store and retrieve data at scale. I still recall the engineers reporting triumphantly to me that they had achieved for the first time stable storage of a terabyte of rapidly accessible data memory – a big step then although my small laptop today
has half as much again. Even more significantly, the Internet had arrived as an essential working domain for professionals, with the World Wide Web gaining in popularity and Microsoft’s new Hotmail service making email a fast and reliable form of communication. We knew digital technology would eventually penetrate into every aspect of our lives and that
organizations like GCHQ would have to change radically to cope.6 The pace of digital change has been faster than predicted. Then, smartphones had not been invented and nor of course had Facebook,
Twitter, YouTube and all the other social media platforms and apps that go with them. What would become Google was at that point a research project at Stanford. Within this small part of my working lifetime, I saw those revolutionary developments, and much more, come to dominate our world. In less than twenty years, our choices in economic, social and cultural life have become dependent on accessing networked digital technology and learning to live safely with it. There is no way back.
When I was unexpectedly appointed Permanent Secretary of the Home Office in 1997, it brought close contact with MI5 and Scotland Yard. Their use of intelligence was in investigations to identify and disrupt domestic threats, including terrorist and organized crime groups. It was in that period that the Home Office drew up the Human Rights Act and legislation to regulate and oversee investigatory powers to ensure a continual balancing act between our fundamental rights to life and security and the right to privacy for our personal and family life. My career as a Permanent Secretary continued with three years in the Cabinet Office after 9/11 as the first UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator. In that post, rejoining the JIC, I had responsibility for ensuring the health of the British intelligence community and for drawing up the first UK counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST, still in force in 2020 as I write.
I offer you in this book my choice of lessons drawn from the world of secret intelligence both from the inside and from the perspective of the policymaker as a user of intelligence. I have learned the hard way that intelligence is difficult to come by, and is always fragmentary and incomplete, and is sometimes wrong. But used consistently and with understanding of its limitations, I know it shifts the odds in the nation’s favour. The same is true for you.