Revisiting Lessons from a CIA Heretic

Events in Middle East have led me to reflect on the talk I gave in September of last year at the Business Innovation Factory. (You can read the prepared text here or see the video of my speech here)  I was noting how the world is changing and how that in turn requires a different sensemaking method. The key paragraphs:

If you think that the world is driven mostly by the secret deals and aspirations of powerful people—the Hitlers, the Communist Party of the Soviet Unon, Mao Tse Tung, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, I’m desperately trying to think of a likely woman here—then you will conclude that you need some kind of capability to figure out what these people are doing, to ferret out their secrets. To protect our nation from some very nasty ideas these individuals cook up. And you may also want an organization that can impede their plans, cross your fingers.

But if you think that most of the forces the US will need to navigate are not specifically man-made, or at least not specifically made by one man or a small group of them–then you need a different kind of organization. If what matters is that the US understand the trends in the world, like globalization or the emergence of new economies such as India and China and Brazil (which clearly no one is like trying to keep a big secret) than spending a lot of time digging out secrets seems not as important, and what you really want is to have your hand on the pulse of the world, to be out there sensing and in many ways just being part of the whole big ride.

(A little later in the talk.)  

Making sense of the world is so hard and so important that it demands collaboration with as broad a network as possible. It was around this time that this thought entered my mind: The CIA will end up being the last secret organization in the world. And being the last of anything is never a good thing.

And so back to the question. I actually think the answer to it is very complicated. But I do believe that more of what will be important to US prosperity in the future will lie in the second dynamic and our success will depend on how well we understand these large shift changes underway and are able to engage them. Here’s where the imbalance of the Intelligence Community really can hurt us. To deal with the first circumstance it’s important to be a closed network. But to understand and prosper in the second dynamic it’s best to be an open network.  What we have here is a real innovator’s dilemma.

That’s why one of my passions now that I’ve retired from the Agency is to do what little I can to help Americans think about connecting, about working in open networks, about transparency. I believe as a successful multicultural society the US is poised to be innovative in this new world, and this time perhaps all out of proportion to our size. I love all social networks and in particular Twitter because of its power to spread ideas faster than the speed of light. Just think of it. One thought can reach a thousand people much faster than a single beam of light could physically touch those same individuals.

3 responses to “Revisiting Lessons from a CIA Heretic

  1. A very much needed post! What I find so surprising is that for an administration that got to the White House in great part because of social media, social networking, community, it seems that power has been forgotten (until you need to run for the next election).

    I look forward to seeing you shortly and discussing this in more depth!!! Thank you for writing this –


  2. As always, I’m enjoying your insights! I’m curious: Having been seriously immersed in this world of open networks since retiring, what practices would you want to bring into the CIA if you were there now? And how might you introduce those practices, given the political and cultural challenges?

  3. Peter Sperry

    I’ve always thought the “great man woman)” and “river of history” theories were not mutually exclusive. Yes, there are large demogrpahic, economic, cultural etc trends to human events which are so overwhelming that no single individual or small group can shift their progress more than a few degrees in any direction. But smart, motivated well informed individuals who can read the currents of human events and act decisively often leave a significant mark on human events and shifting the course of history even 1/2 a degree is a major acomplishment. If luck is what happens when prepartaion and hard work meet opportunity, great men and women are the result of talant and ambition being in the right place in histories stream at the right time.

    Unfortunately, great and good are not necessarly synonymous. Many of the individuals and small groups that have shifted the flow of human development have done so in a negative direction or at great cost to their fellow human beings.

    Consequently, I think we may need intelligence services that can walk and chew gum at the same time. Use open source and shared intelligence to develop a robust description of current events trends and possibilities. But also maintain the covert deeply secret operations necessary to prevent self interested idividuals and groups from achieving greateness by inflicting harm on the rest of the human community.

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