EES: a model of analytical thinking
I am now a visiting professor teaching intelligence studies in the War Studies Department at King’s College London, at Sciences Po in Paris and also at the Defence University in Oslo. My experience is that it really helps to have a systematic way of unpacking the process of arriving at judgements and establishing the appropriate level of confidence in them. The model I have developed – let me call it by an acronym that recalls what analysts do as they look at the world, the SEES model – leads you through the four types of information that can form an intelligence product, derived from different levels of analysis:
Situational awareness of what is happening and what we face now.
Explanation of why we are seeing what we do and the motivations of those involved.
Estimates and forecasts of how events may unfold under different assumptions.
Strategic notice of future issues that may come to challenge us in the longer term.
There is a powerful logic behind this four-part SEES way of thinking. Take as an example the investigation of far-right extremist violence. The
first step is to find out as accurately as possible what is going on. As a starting point, the police will have had crimes reported to them and will have questioned witnesses and gathered forensic evidence. These days there is also a lot of information available on social media and the Internet, but the credibility of such sources will need careful assessment. Indeed, even well-attested facts are susceptible to multiple interpretations, which can lead to misleading exaggeration or underestimation of the problem.
We need to add meaning so that we can explain what is really going on. We do that in the second stage of SEES by constructing the best explanation consistent with the available evidence, including an understanding of the motives of those involved. We see this process at work in every criminal court when prosecution and defence barristers offer the jury their alternative versions of the truth. For example, why are the fingerprints of an accused on the fragments of a beer bottle used for a petrol bomb attack? Was it because he threw the bottle, or is the explanation that it was taken out of his recycling box by the mob looking for material to make weapons? The court
has to test these narratives and the members of the jury have then to choose the explanation that they think best fits the available evidence. The evidence rarely speaks for itself. In the case of an examination of extremist violence, in the second stage we have to arrive at an understanding of the causes that bring such individuals together. We must learn what factors influence their anger and hatred. That provides the explanatory model that allows us to move on to the third stage of SEES, when we can estimate how the situation may change over time, perhaps following a wave of arrests made by the police and successful convictions of leading extremists. We can estimate how likely it is that arrest and conviction will lead to a reduction in threats of violence and public concern overall. It is this third step that provides the intelligence feedstock for evidence-based policymaking.
The SEES model has an essential fourth component: to provide strategic notice of longer-term developments. Relevant to our example we might want to examine the further growth of extremist movements elsewhere in Europe or the impact on such groups were there to be major changes in patterns of refugee movements as a result of new conflicts or the effects of climate change. That is just one example, but there are very many others where anticipating future developments is essential to allow us to prepare sensibly for the future.
The four-part SEES model can be applied to any situation that concerns us and where we want to understand what has happened and why and what may happen next, from being stressed out at a situation at work to your sports team losing badly. SEES is applicable to any situation where you have information, and want to make a decision on how best to act on it.
We should not be surprised to find patterns in the different kinds of error tending to occur when working on each of the four components of the SEES process. For example:
Situational awareness suffers from all the difficulties of assessing what is going on. Gaps in information exist and often evoke a reluctance to change our minds in the face of new evidence.
Explanations suffer from weaknesses in understanding others: their motives, upbringing, culture and background.
Estimates of how events will unfold can be thrown out by unexpected developments that were not considered in the forecast.
Strategic developments are often missed due to too narrow a focus and a lack of imagination as to future possibilities.
The four-part SEES approach to assessment is not just applicable to affairs of state. At heart it contains an appeal to rationality in all our thinking. Our choices, even between unpalatable alternatives, will be sounder as a result of adopting systematic ways of reasoning. That includes being able to distinguish between what we know, what we do not know and what we think may be. Such thinking is hard. It demands integrity.
Buddhists teach that there are three poisons that cripple the mind: anger,
attachment and ignorance.7 We have to be conscious of how emotions such as anger can distort our perception of what is true and what is false. Attachment to old ideas with which we feel comfortable and that reassure us that the world is predictable can blind us to threatening developments. This is what causes us to be badly taken by surprise. But it is ignorance that is the most damaging mental poison. The purpose of intelligence analysis is to reduce such ignorance, thereby improving our capacity to make sensible decisions and better choices in our everyday lives.
On that fateful day in March 1982 Margaret Thatcher had immediately grasped what the intelligence reports were telling her. She understood what the Argentine Junta appeared to be planning and the potential consequences for her premiership. Her next words demonstrated her ability to use that insight: ‘I must contact President Reagan at once. Only he can persuade Galtieri [General Leopoldo Galtieri, the Junta’s leader] to call off this madness.’ I was deputed to ensure that the latest GCHQ intelligence was being shared with the US authorities, including the White House. No. 10 rapidly prepared a personal message from Thatcher to Reagan asking him to speak to Galtieri and to obtain confirmation that he would not authorize any landing, let alone any hostilities, and warning that the UK could not acquiesce in any invasion. But the Argentine Junta stalled requests for a Reagan conversation with Galtieri until it was much too late to call off the invasion.
Only two days later, on 2 April 1982, the Argentine invasion and military occupation of the Islands duly took place. There was only a small detachment of Royal Marines on the Islands and a lightly armed ice patrol ship, HMS Endurance, operating in the area. No effective resistance was possible. The Islands were too far away for sea reinforcements to arrive within the two days’ notice the intelligence had given us, and the sole
airport had no runway capable of taking long-distance troop-carrying aircraft.
We had lacked adequate situational awareness from intelligence on what the Junta was up to. We had failed to understand the import of what we did know, and therefore had not been able to predict how events would unfold. Furthermore, we had failed over the years to provide strategic notice that this situation was one that might arise, and so had failed to take steps that would have deterred an Argentine invasion. Failures in each of the four stages of SEES analysis.
All lessons to be learned.
How this book is organized
The four chapters in the first part of this book are devoted to the aforementioned SEES model. Chapter 1 covers how we can establish situational awareness and test our sources of information. Chapter 2 deals with causation and explanation, and how the scientific method called Bayesian inference, allows us to use new information to alter our degree of belief in our chosen hypothesis. Chapter 3 explains the process of making estimates and predictions. Chapter 4 describes the advantage that comes from having strategic notice of long-term developments.
There are lessons from these four phases of analysis in how to avoid different kinds of error, failing to see what is in front of us, misunderstanding what we do see, misjudging what is likely to follow and failing to have the imagination to conceive of what the future may bring.
Part Two of this book has three chapters, each drawing out lessons in how to keep our minds clear and check our reasoning.
We will see in Chapter 5 how cognitive biases can subconsciously lead us to the wrong answer (or to fail to be able to answer the question at all). Being forewarned of those very human errors helps us sense when we may be about to make a serious mistake of interpretation.
Chapter 6 introduces us to the dangers of the closed-loop conspiratorial mindset, and how it is that evidence which ought to ring alarm bells can too often be conveniently explained away.
The lesson of Chapter 7 is to beware deliberate deceptions and fakes aimed at manipulating our thinking. There is misinformation, which is false
but circulated innocently; malinformation, which is true but is exposed and circulated maliciously; and disinformation, which is false, and that was known to be false when circulated for effect. The ease with which digital text and images can be manipulated today makes these even more serious problems than in the past.
Part Three explores three areas of life that call for the intelligent use of intelligence.
The lessons of Chapter 8 are about negotiating with others, something we all have to do. The examples used come from extraordinary cases of secret intelligence helping to shape perceptions of those with whom governments have to negotiate, and of how intelli
gence can help build mutual trust – necessary for any arms control or international agreement to survive – and help uncover cheating. We will see how intelligence can assist in unravelling the complex interactions that arise from negotiations and confrontations.
Chapter 9 identifies how you go about establishing and maintaining lasting partnerships. The example here is the successful longstanding ‘5-eyes’ signals intelligence arrangement between the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, drawing out principles that are just as applicable to business and even to personal life.
The lesson of Chapter 10 is that our digital life provides new opportunities for the hostile and unscrupulous to take advantage of us. We can end up in an echo chamber of entertaining information that unconsciously influences our choices, whether over products or politics. Opinion can be mobilized by controlled information sources, with hidden funding and using covert opinion formers. When some of that information is then revealed to be knowingly false, confidence in democratic processes and institutions slowly ebbs away.
The concluding chapter, Chapter 11, is a call to shake ourselves awake and recognize that we are all capable of being exploited through digital technology. The lessons of this book put together an agenda to uphold the values that give legitimacy to liberal democracy: the rule of law; tolerance; the use of reason in public affairs and the search for rational explanations of the world around us; and our ability to make free and informed choices. When we allow ourselves to be over-influenced by those with an agenda, we erode our free will and that is the gradual erosion of an open society. Nobody should be left vulnerable to the arguments of demagogues or snake
oil salesmen. The chapter and the book ends therefore on an optimistic note.
We can learn the lessons of how to live safely in this digital world.