August 24, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: The Value of an Analytic Imagination: Part Two

As of late August 2012, two polar opposite but equally ineffective analytical approaches continue to subtly distort the decision-making process of government and corporate policymakers. While these two approaches are not necessarily codified or even officially acknowledged techniques, they remain intractably prevalent in both the intelligence analysis and policy formulation processes, often unconsciously shaping outcomes largely because both approaches fit nicely into pre-existing mental constructs. In the end, instead of uncovering the most useful way ahead, both of these approaches invariably lead to conclusions that simply match — or support — previously held assumptions.

In this series, these two approaches are referred to as analyst-based analysis and the one-percent doctrine. Part One of this series explored analyst-based analysis, where analysts unwittingly base their decisions to varying degrees on what they can or cannot imagine, a process that intransigently links their analysis to the limits of their imagination. Part Two will examine the one-percent doctrine (coined after the book by the same name written by Ron Suskind that examined Bush-era counterterrorism policies that arose from a decision to treat low-probability/high-threat possibilities as near-certainties for the purpose of designing a response).

An unacknowledged and unfortunate tendency of both policymakers and analysts alike is that it appears better (and is too often rewarded) to be an alarmist and wrong than to be thoughtful, vigilant...and wrong. This is understandable to a degree — no one wants to be held accountable for not sounding the alarm before an attack. At the same time, such an approach is neither professionally honest nor practically effective. If the analyst-based analysis suffers from a failure of imagination, then the one-percent doctrine suffers from a failure to properly employ imagination. Just as it is analytically perilous to unconsciously deduce that "I can't imagine it so therefore it is not possible," so it is equally perilous to deduce "I can imagine it so therefore it is certain."

Such a prevention-at-all cost approach is not only toxic to good policy, it also poisons the well of critical thought that informs it. It becomes a race to the bottom of the worst-case scenario barrel and drains resources and time that could be better invested in determining the probability of an array of possibilities and devising ways to avoid potential threats rather than treat them as inevitable. Perhaps the most memorable contemporary example of one-percent thinking occurred in the chaotic aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when then-Vice President Cheney observed:

"If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It's not about our analysis ... It's about our response." 

There is, of course, a strong argument that when confronted with an unlikely event with certain devastating consequences (such as nuclear weapons in the hands of a terrorist group), every preventive measure should be considered. Note, however, that these preventive measures should be examined if sufficient evidence  — and imagination — suggest the threat merits a proactive response; they should not, however, be resolutely required or driven by casual assessments of worse-case scenarios that have no reasonable basis. (If a suggestion that a scenario has a 1% chance of occurring is based entirely on conjecture — as opposed to imagination — then the actual probability likely runs from zero to absolute certainty. In other words, it is essentially meaningless.)

A further examination of the above quote reveals the truly insidious negative within such an approach: "It's not about our analysis..It's about our response." Such a doctrine does something even worse than divorcing the response from the analysis; it reverses the proper flow so that response ultimately drives analysis (or ignores it completely). For example, if billions of dollars are spent on fences as a predetermined response, eventually the analysis will be shaped, even if unconsciously, to justify the expense and effort or that analysis will soon be marginalized. One-percent doctrine should never be confused with prudent risk mitigation and threat avoidance because it presumes an unjustified certainty instead of a possibility inherent in the term risk.

Furthermore, from a policy point of view, the one-percent doctrine treats the worst-case as inevitable and consequently dismisses or reduces analysis that seeks to uncover ways to prevent the worst-case scenario instead of only preparing for its aftermath. It leads people to dismiss counter assessments that confirm the sky is, in fact, not falling as pollyannaish and amateurish, because, by design, the unlikely event has been accepted as a certainty. Again, there are many times to consider the worst-case scenario, but it shouldn't be a permanent — or even primary — basis for decision-making. While the aftermath of 9/11 might seem remote from current day planning, the one-percent doctrine continues to subtly influence decisions such as ballistic missile defense, with its US $35 billion in costs (and climbing) that are exempted from the rules of both conventional financial oversight and result-oriented assessments. Despite the fact that the system failed 7 out of 15 highly controlled tests as of 2011, it moves forward, largely driven by the vision of the devastating consequences of a ballistic missile strike on the United States, a scenario viewed as a certainty under the one-percent doctrine.

As noted previously, the analyst-based analysis suffers from a failure of imagination while the one-percent doctrine suffers from an improper understanding of imagination. To help clarify matters, it's a good idea to define what is an improper understanding of imagination, in terms of decision-making and analysis. As noted in Part One and to be detailed in Part Three of this series, the analytic imagination approach is an appropriate blending of experience and imagination, with our imagination used to glean more value from our experiences. The imagination in the one-percent doctrine does no such thing. Instead of adding value to our experiences, it adds only a constraining fear, a fear that by design has no basis in experience, a fear so dramatic there is no easy way to walk back from that position. The deliberate or unconscious decision to treat highly unlikely events as certainties because of their possible devastating effects is not, as one would assume, the result of an imagination running wild but instead the result of an imagination sprinting to one distant spot and then stopping.


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