David Omand – How Spies Think – 10 Lessons In Intelligence – Part 7

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Lesson 5: It is our own demons that are most likely to mislead us

Well, you can kiss my ass in Macy’s window’ was the brutal one-line dismissal by Ava, the CIA’s Iraq Group Chief, of the over-reliance of US Biological Warfare (BW) expert analysts on a single human intelligence source on Saddam Hussein’s BW programmes, codenamed Curveball. When she challenged the experts’ faith in using information from that source, in her words, ‘they looked at me like pigs looking at a

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David Omand – How Spies Think – 10 Lessons in Intelligence – Part 6

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Lesson 4: Strategic notice We do not have to be so surprised by surprise

Early in the blustery spring morning of 14 April 2010 an Icelandic volcano with a near unpronounceable name (Eyjafjallajökull) exploded, throwing a cloud of fine ash high into the sky. The debris was quickly swept south-east by the regular jet stream of wind across the Atlantic until the skies above Northern Europe were filled with ash. Deep under the Icelandic ice-sheet melt water from the heat of the magma had flowed into the site of the eruption, rapidly cooling the lava and causing the debris to be rich in corrosive glass particles. These are known to pose a potential hazard if ingested by aircraft jet engines. The next day alarmed air traffic authorities decided they had to play it safe since no one had prescribed in advance specific particle sizes and levels below which engines were considered not to be at risk and thus safe to fly. They closed airspace over Europe and grounded all civil aviation in the biggest shut-down since the Second World War.1

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David Omand – How Spies Think – 10 Lessons In Intelligence – Part 5

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Lesson 3: Estimations Predictions need an explanatory model as well as sufficient data

In mid-August 1968, I was driving an elderly Land Rover with friends from university along the Hungarian side of the border with Czechoslovakia on the first stage of an expedition to eastern Turkey. To our surprise we found ourselves having to dodge in and out of the tank transporters of a Soviet armoured column crawling along the border. We did not realize – and nor did the Joint Intelligence Committee in London – that those tank crews already had orders to cross the border and invade Czechoslovakia as part of a twin strategy of intimidation and deception being employed by Yuri Andropov, then KGB chairman, to undermine the reform-minded government in Prague led by Alexander Dubček.1

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David Omand – How Spies Think – 10 Lessons in Intelligence – Part 4

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Lesson 2: Explanation Facts need explaining

Belgrade, Sunday, 23 July 1995. It was getting dark when our military aircraft landed on an airfield just outside the Serbian capital. We were met by armed Serbian security officers and quickly hustled into cars, watched over cautiously by a diplomat from the British Embassy. After what seemed an endless drive into the country we arrived at a government guest house. Our mission was to deliver in person an ultimatum to its occupant, General Ratko Mladić, the commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, the man who

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David Omand – How Spies Think – 10 Lessons In Intelligence – Part 3

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Part One



Lesson 1: Situational awareness Our knowledge of the world is always fragmentary and incomplete, and is sometimes wrong

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David Omand – How Spies Think – 10 Lessons in Intelligence

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Sir David Omand, Former Director of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)


Introduction. Why we need these lessons in seeking independence of mind, honesty and integrity


Lesson 1: Situational awareness. Our knowledge of the world is always fragmentary and incomplete, and is sometimes wrong Lesson 2: Explanation. Facts need explaining

Lesson 3: Estimations. Predictions need an explanatory model as well as sufficient data

Lesson 4: Strategic notice. We do not have to be so surprised by surprise


Lesson 5: It is our own demons that are most likely to mislead us

Lesson 6: We are all susceptible to obsessive states of mind Lesson 7: Seeing is not always believing: beware manipulation, deception and faking


Lesson 8: Imagine yourself in the shoes of the person on the other side

Lesson 9: Trustworthiness creates lasting partnerships

Lesson 10: Subversion and sedition are now digital


A final lesson in optimism


Notes and further reading


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.



Recommended Book – Spies In The Vatican: The Soviet Union’s Cold War Against The Catholic Church

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Effectively scandalous for the self-assertive, distrustful oppression of their own residents, the Soviet Union likewise pursued a horrendous undercover work war against the Catholic Church and its supporters. From the mistreatment of neighborhood ministers to a death request against Pope John Paul II, the KGB saw Catholicism as a danger to security in Eastern Europe and regarded the Church as a foe of the State.

Lifetime writer and previous U.S. Armed force Intelligence Officer John Koehler has composed the complete book on this surprising history. Utilizing at no other time seen records and transcripts, including subtleties of how the KGB, Gorbachev, and the Politburo upheld and empowered the 1981 death endeavor against Pope John Paul II, Koehler illustrates the Soviet system of spies and sleeper specialists, from Dominican priests to Vatican secretaries, who helped the KGB penetrate the Church’s framework even in network areas. Be that as it may, what is frequently most great is the extraordinary mental fortitude of ordinary adherents who offered safe house and assurance to abused ministers, in spite of the threat of their own capture or execution.

The KGB’s endeavors to cleanse the Soviet Union of the Church’s “conspiratorial impact” would inevitably blowback. The mutual feeling of solidarity that created because of these assaults, exacerbated with the horde of complaints welcomed on by many years of severe Soviet guideline, would finish in the introduction of the Solidarity development after a visit by the Pope in 1979. This uncommon history of the Soviet Union’s virus war against the Catholic Church is a fundamental and significant commitment to crafted by twentieth century history.

Investigation into the Cold War endeavors by Soviet and East European Communist forces to penetrate the Vatican and upset its populist impact.

Writer and previous Army knowledge official Koehler (Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police, 1999) mines reports acquired from the documents of the East German and Hungarian mystery police, just as Moscow’s Politburo, to construct the account of a continued exertion over decades to dull the intensity of the counter socialist Roman Church in communist nations. Following the Soviet oust in Russia, the creator asserts, the progressive chamber may have planted its first covert agent against the Catholic Church in that nation as ahead of schedule as 1922. Cleanses and even executions of pastors followed, saving no Christian organization from the start, yet when the Soviets later cut an arrangement with the Russian Orthodoxy it made a fracture that truly drove the Roman church underground by 1941. As the Cold War continued, the Russian KGB got a significant knowledge report on the Vatican’s “Ostpolitik” arrangement—to oppose the concealment of strict opportunity in Eastern Europe and bolster hostile to communist developments—by means of the Polish specialists. The Soviet utilization of administrative operators, many Polish, turned into a normal danger, countered by the Vatican’s estimates which at one point incorporated an American Jesuit cleric who turned into the Vatican’s top covert agent catcher. The two sides every so often “turned” each other’s operators to twofold specialists. The CIA turned out to be effectively included, especially during the Reagan organization, utilizing the Vatican as an insight asset yet additionally as a “release” focus to take care of chosen data to Moscow. Koehler tirelessly tracks the story as the decades progressed, yet the account is over-burden with realities and short on emotional pressure.

The overwhelming dependence on authentic archives grants minimal human dramatization and sabotages the interest the creator regularly exaggerates.

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