How Spies Think: Ten Lessons in Intelligence
by David Omand

I can imagine that the publishers were dazzled by the author’s background and qualifications: a former director of GCHQ, seven years on the Joint Intelligence Committee, permanent secretary at the Home Office and a professor of war studies.

Impressive stuff, indeed.

And there are of course reviews one would expect for an establishment figure…a tour de force…fascinating…a rare insight…a brilliant book…etcetera.

So let’s look at some of his pearls of wisdom, taken at random.

‘Intelligence agencies prefer to keep quiet about success…’

‘Reality is what it is.’

‘Context is therefore needed to infer meaning…’

‘In all sustained thinking, assumptions do have to be made…’

‘The best way to secure situational awareness is when you can see for yourself what is going on…’

‘A well-studied lesson of the dangers of misinterpreting complex situations is the “security dilemma” when rearmament steps taken by one nation with purely defensive intent trigger fears in a potential adversary…’

‘Do not believe what you want to believe until you know what you need to know…’

‘…we are all liable to wrestle with inconsistent beliefs, often suffering stress as a result.’

‘intelligence communities have the duty of trying to forestall unwelcome surprises by spotting international developments that would spell real trouble.’

No shit, Sherlock.

Then, for the academically minded reader, there’s plenty of gobbledygook to keep her/him amused:

‘The analysis of computing hypotheses using Heur tables is an example of one of the structured analytic techniques in use today…’

And if that isn’t enough:

‘The Bayesian method of reasoning therefore involves adjusting our prior degree of belief in a hypothesis on receipt to form a posterior degree of belief in it…’

Final observation: while this book is entitled ‘How Spies Think’ – it really isn’t. The title is frankly misleading. It’s really how the suits – Whitehall analysts, managers and those charged with assessing intelligence – might, could or should, think (but usually don’t).

Spies are people who collect intelligence ie. facts – and the latter – God help us all – then provide an interpretation.

Spies don’t, and shouldn’t assess, their own material. Obviously.

And perhaps it’s a little odd that Professor Omand does not take the trouble to list the several failures of the JIC over the years, regardless of his beautiful formula: p(N)/E=p(N.(p(E/N/p(E)

I didn’t finish it. Hence no rating.

John Fullerton
April 2022


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