The unexamined life is not worth living --Socrates.
A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather, it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions! --Nietzsche
Rob Johnston has written a superb book, a study of intelligence as it is actually practiced. Rob’s book is alive with specific, practical recommendations about how the practice of intelligence could be made better. The literature of intelligence is overwhelmingly devoted either to studies which, however rigorous in their academic structure, fail to convey the humanness of the enterprise or to books and articles, too often self congratulatory or self promoting, which are little more than assemblages of entertaining anecdotes. Rob’s study deserves a place of honor on the very small bookshelf reserved for analytically sound, deeply insightful works on the conduct of intelligence. Any serious discussion of reform or significant change in the ways in which US intelligence is organized, structured, and carried out will need to take this book as a starting point.
Rob’s work bears witness to the imagination and commitment to excellence on the part of the senior intelligence officials who made it possible for a cultural anthropologist to carry out his field work in the secret, sometimes hermetically sealed, world of intelligence. Rob’s work also bears witness to the tremendous passion among intelligence professionals to understand better what they do, why they do it, and how their work could be improved. There is, in this community, a palpable desire to do better.
Since the tragedy of 9/11 and the bitter controversies surrounding Iraqi WMD, the world of intelligence analysis has been scrutinized with an intensity of almost unprecedented dimensions. The focus of scrutiny, however, has been on the results, not on the process by which the results were produced and certainly not on the largely anonymous corps of civil servants whose work was at the heart of the issue. Those people, and how and why they do what they do, are at the heart of Rob’s important study. If we are ever to make the improvements that must be made in the quality of our intelligence work, then we must begin with a more mature and nuanced understanding of who actually does the work, how, and why. There is a context within which the work is done, a definite culture with values, traditions, and procedures that help shape important outcomes.
Rob has characterized a world that I find all too familiar. It is a world in which rewards and incentives are weighted heavily in favor of filling in gaps in conventional knowledge rather than in leading the way to alternative points of view. It is a world in which confirming evidence is welcome and rewarded and disconfirmatory evidence is, at best, unwelcome and, at worst, discounted. It is a world in which the legitimate and often necessary resort to secrecy has served, all too often, to limit debate and discussion. It is a world in which the most fundamentally important questions—what if and why not—are too often seen as distractions and not as invitations to rethink basic premises and assumptions.
Much of the recent discussion concerning the performance of intelligence organizations has been conducted in almost mechanical terms. “Connecting the dots,” “mining the nuggets” are phrases offered as a way of understanding the exquisitely subtle, complex business of making intelligence judgments. As Rob Johnston’s book makes abundantly clear, this is first and foremost a human enterprise. All of the intellectual power, biases, and paradigms that inform the thinking of the people who actually do the work need to be understood in the organizational context in which they do their work. In the finest tradition of anthropological field research, Rob has observed, collected data rigorously, reflected with deep insight upon it, and produced a study both sophisticated and extremely useful.
I worked myself for more than 30 years in the clandestine operations area of CIA, a part of the Intelligence Community that calls out for the same kind of understanding, professional, and constructive scrutiny this book has devoted to the analytic realm. My fervent hope is that the human intelligence service will benefit from the same kind of rigor and constructive understanding the analytic side has now experienced. My real hope is that Rob is available for the job.
Dr. Rob Johnston is an ethnographer who specializes in the cultural anthropology of work. He has been a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses and a Director of Central Intelligence Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Central Intelligence Agency’s Center for the Study of Intelligence, where he is now a member of the staff.
Dr. Johnston is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, the Society for Applied Anthropology, and the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society.
 Joseph Hayes is a retired senior officer of the Central Intelligence Agency Directorate of Operations. He served more than 30 years in the clandestine service.