The problem with private intelligence

What's wrong with Stratfor in a nutshell:

"First, Washington had no intention of actually carrying out airstrikes against Iran."

a) You can never make definitive statements about intentions, because they are unknowable! Especially when 99% of everything regarding possible US military action against Iran remains classified. This is basic intelligence analysis 101. Stratfor is selling false certainty.

b) Washington never intends on doing anything because Washington is not a thing! Stratfor insists on looking at everything through hardcore realists lenses. It's more likely that some PEOPLE in Washington wanted to bomb Iran, and other PEOPLE didn't, and the people who didn't want to bomb were able to outmaneuver their bureaucratic opponents. But individuals don't usually feature in many Stratfor analyses - it is all about indivisible countries that have clear-cut interests.

Private intelligence shops like Stratfor obviously exist and apparently do quite well. But I think the market for private intelligence will always be extremely distorted. For markets to work properly, consumers need good information about the product they're buying. But the nature of intelligence is that good information doesn't exist on whatever the intelligence product is about. So you can only judge intelligence based on logic, examining the sources yourself, and track record. But track records are hard to get in the intelligence world because they are jealously guarded.

So I think what ends up being the best business strategy for a private intelligence firm is to play on your potential customers' pre-existing beliefs on how the world works. A small amount of this is maybe desirable so that the intelligence actually makes sense to the consumer by fitting in their paradigm, but I think the Stratfor stuff goes way beyond that. Stratfor sees their potential customers as "private individuals, global corporations, and divisions of the US and foreign governments." But if you look in their emails, all the testimonials about how great they are come from American businessmen or retired American military folks (who will have credibility with American businessmen) so I think it's accurate to say that US business executives are their target clientele. And I guess Stratfor's brand of unitary rational actor, realist, grand geopolitical drama analysis matches this clientele or else they wouldn't be as successful.

The same problem exists in government when competing intelligence shops open up, whether its Team B in the 1970s providing an "alternate" analysis that conveniently was exactly what the bosses wanted to hear, or Doug Feith doing the same thing with his Office of Special Plans. In government it could be even worse because multiple shops will be competing for a single consumer (the gov't), or at least a much smaller number of consumers. The problem is that people have no way of knowing which product is better until it is too late, and so you run the risk of creating competition to kiss ass rather than provide objectivity. This seems pretty obvious - it's why a lot of people think the head of the CIA and now the DNI should serve set terms instead of at the pleasure of the President - but even in spite of this a lot of people push the idea of private intelligence.

2 comments:

Adam said...

I wouldn't fault Strafor for being overly grounded in a realist theory. I'd fault them for being straight up fabulists. I used to subscribe, but got way too many reports that just didn't make any logical sense. Like the US was going to back the Beja Congress in Northeast sudan to over throw the government. I mean, there is no way that anybody with any knowledge of the country could think this would be a likely scenario, but they sent it out as if it was a near certainty.

Adrian said...

Yeah - I bought a 3 month subscription while writing my thesis because I saw that they had done some reports on the Tuareg rebellion. It was a total waste of $100.