I have always believed in the value of interdisciplinary studies. Specifically, I like to examine approaches taken in superficially-dissimilar fields where the underlying problems or useful solutions have stronger connections to those on which I work when examined more closely. For example, nearly 10 years ago I read Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC and found a number of useful lessons for combating malware outbreaks and dealing with large-scale incidents.
More recently, my interest has turned to applying lessons from intelligence analysis. This isn’t much of a reach, truthfully, because those of us working in infosec (“cyberintelligence”) frequently do the same work as those in military intelligence and related agencies. As part of this effort, I recently finished reading Challenges in Intelligence Analysis by Timothy Walton (ISBN 0521132657). Out of all the books I’ve read recently on intelligence, this offered perhaps the most direct application in any number of fields (including mine). I read the Kindle edition, so I can’t say much about the quality of the printing, readability of the text, or appearance of the figures.
The structure makes it particularly straightforward to read. After the initial chapters dealing with challenges and solutions in somewhat general and abstract terms, Walton runs through nearly 40 case studies ranging from the Israelite spies in Canaan (as recounted in the Book of Numbers, chapter 13) to George Washington to the pre-WWII Luftwaffe to Aldrich Ames to Aum Shinrikyo. Apart from the history lessons, each case study examines the intelligence analysis techniques used and discusses what could have possibly improved upon the approach. “Questions for Further Thought” provide utility for classroom settings or those simply interested in taking the time to structure their thoughts in response. Each case also has a recommended reading list, which I find particularly useful because a number of historical cases have striking parallels in current situations (beyond their own intellectual appeal).
For example, Chapter 10 “Estimating the Strength of the Luftwaffe in the 1930s” immediately resonated with me in thinking about challenges regarding ‘cyberwar’ with China and understanding their strengths. The same challenge would apply in looking at the US, I’d think. And Chapter 17 “Counterinsurgency in Malaya” has a number of connections to the US’ recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, something not lost on General David Petraeus and Lieutenant General James Amos when they wrote the new Counterinsurgency Field Manual.
Several techniques appear frequently in the text. It does not limit discussion to easily-understood tools like timelines, flow charts, and matrices. Walton also reviews link and network analysis (particularly applicable in cyberintelligence), analysis of competing hypotheses, indicators (sound familiar?), and red teaming. This latter goes beyond a simple penetration test to emulate the tactics, techniques, and procedures of specific adversaries. Decision trees and especially scenario analysis also recur throughout the case studies. Cognitive biases also play a significant role in the discussions, especially confirmation bias, groupthink, and even hindsight bias given the context of the book.
A few of the case studies seem a little rushed. Even when we have less data on the situation for historical review, Walton doesn’t always take the opportunity to explore analysis techniques in greater detail. Related to this, a few case studies seem a little forced (“Sun Tzu” has a lot to say about intelligence analysis, but he isn’t a case study per se). And I would have liked a little more description on why he recommends certain books for further reading, especially in the general (non-case-specific) list at the end of the book.
In general, I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in intelligence analysis, world history, or critical and analytical thinking.
A version of this review also appears on Amazon.