A Call to Arms In Favor of Rationality
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A Call to Arms In Favor of Rationality

March 8, 2021 • Caitlin Mattingly

Our guest this week is Sir David Omand. He is former director of GCHQ, one of the UK’s primary intelligence agencies, and is currently Visiting Professor in War Studies, King’s College London.

We’ll be discussing his career in intelligence and public service, the changes he’s seen along the way, and we’ll discuss his most recent book How Spies Think: 10 Lessons from Intelligence.

This podcast was produced in partnership with the CyberWire.

For those of you who’d prefer to read, here’s the transcript:

This is Recorded Future, inside threat intelligence for cybersecurity.

Dave Bittner:

Hello everyone, and welcome to episode 199 of the Recorded Future podcast. I’m Dave Bittner from the CyberWire.

Our guest this week is Sir David Omand. He is former director of GCHQ, one of the UK’s primary intelligence agencies, and is currently Visiting Professor in War Studies, King’s College London.
We’ll be discussing his career in intelligence and public service, the changes he’s seen along the way, and we’ll discuss his most recent book How Spies Think: 10 Lessons from Intelligence. Stay with us.

Sir David Omand:

In 1969, I left Cambridge University with a first class degree in economics, had a short period in working in Her Majesty’s Treasury, decided that kind of economic advisor work was not for me, looked around for something interesting to do and was put in touch with GCHQ, the Government Communications Headquarters, the British equivalent of the US National Security Agency, and nobody would talk about this very secret organization, which intrigued me. So I sat their entrance exam, which was the hardest exam I’ve ever sat in my life. To my slight surprise, I ended up there, but I never regretted it, it was a wonderful place to work, but I then transferred to the Ministry of Defense in London, worked in defense really for quite a long time, was invited in the mid nineties to go back to GCHQ as its director.

Sir David Omand:

It was the end of the Cold War. The digital revolution was coming and there was a need for change, so I went back to start that program. Then spent three years as the senior civil servant, the permanent secretary in the home office, and then ended up in the cabinet office, as I suppose the British equivalent of the DNI, the UK security and intelligence coordinator. So that was essentially my career in the worlds of UK intelligence and defense and security.

Dave Bittner:

Well, what was it about a career in public service that was attractive to you?

Sir David Omand:

Yeah, this was the 1960s, the end of the 1960s, a very different atmosphere to today’s world. A lot of young graduates felt they wanted public service and I did, to give something back if you like. We weren’t particularly interested in making large sums of money, that wasn’t the zeitgeist. Job security was pretty good in those days. So if you had a good degree and you were a graduate, you knew you would always be able to get a job. You didn’t have the kind of insecurity, which is one of the problems today. But public service, I never looked back, it was a wonderful career. Took me into some very, very interesting pieces of work.

Dave Bittner:

When you went back to GCHQ in the nineties, can you give us some insights unto, what was the state of things there? I mean, the internet was really starting to get a head of steam behind it at that point.

Sir David Omand:

Only just, only just, I mean, email was around, but that was mostly confined to commercial organizations. The iPhone had not been invented, the app had not been invented, social media had not been invented. It was just the beginnings, but you could sense that there was a digital revolution just approaching really quite fast. And if organizations like GCHQ and the national security agency didn’t adapt very quickly, they would simply become obsolete because the Cold War had essentially been fought in an analog world. And one where intelligence was gathered, was carefully and quite slowly analyzed, added to the heap of knowledge, which would support our military commanders if war came. The post Cold War world was very different. You had terrorists, serious organized criminality, you had proliferation of nuclear weapons, risks, all of those things, which required a different approach to the gathering and application of intelligence.

Dave Bittner:

Well, when you think back to those days, when you were planning for the future, and you compare that to how things have actually developed. How much of your predictions back then were on the mark?

Sir David Omand:

The central predictions were exactly on the mark. The digital revolution did arrive. It then developed further and faster than I think we’d thought. I don’t think any of us in the 1990s really thought that social media would become the mobilizing force, which it has done, connecting people. Facebook alone has what, two and a half billion users around the world. I don’t think we had quite foreseen that, but that all forms of information would be digitized, whether it was video, whether it was sound, forensic information, everything would be rendered into digital form. And that would mean it could be stored, it could be accessed. Even the beginnings of what had become smart cities, that you would have devices that would be connected to the internet, that was just beginning to be thought about. And the application of intelligence to reduce the ignorance of the people who have to make the final decisions, providing them with information about the threats we face, those who mean us harm; the autocrats, the terrorists, the criminals, the cyber attackers. The flexibility needed, to support that kind of decision-making, has indeed, that’s exactly how the world has turned out.

Dave Bittner:

Well, I think that’s a great opportunity for us to discuss your book, which is titled, How Spies Think: Ten Lessons In Intelligence. What prompted you to write the book? What prompted you to put together this list of lessons?

Sir David Omand:

I have to confess, it was almost a state of anger. I wrote the book as a Call to Arms in favor of rationality, in favor of having decision-making being based on greater use of rational analysis and less on appeal to our emotions. And the roots of the book were, in my feelings at seeing how first, the Brexit debate in the United Kingdom and then the 2016 US presidential election campaign, were being reflected in social media. And what we all saw was knowledge was regarded as dependent on social forces rather than on reason. We had this rising tide of half-truths that sought to persuade people online of what they ought to want, not to mention some downright falsehoods and some deceptions, and we now know that some of those were coming from Russia, aimed at widening divisions in society and setting us at each other’s throat. So that set me thinking about what is the theme of the book, what would you need to know to take a rational evidence-based decision?

Dave Bittner:

You describe in the book, what you call SEES, S-E-E-S, which is a model of analytical thinking. SEES is an acronym, can you take us through what it stands for?

Sir David Omand:

Yeah. Let me just make one preliminary remark because for all of us and those in business, as well as those in government, if you’re going to take a major decision, you have to bring together two types of thinking inside your head, on the one hand desires for what we want to achieve by our choice, or it might be our fears over what we want to avoid by taking a decision. And on the other hand SEES, the rational analysis of the situation we’re facing and the options open. Now you need both, you need the passionate values driven, what ought to be and what I want and the dispassionate, what is and what can be, but you’ve got to bring them together. And what I was seeing was that the passionate part of it was beginning to drive out the rational analysis. And it’s always been hard to bring those kinds of thinking together, but it is getting harder in the internet age.

Sir David Omand:

And you will recognize this, it’s that emotional feeling on hearing something or seeing it on social media, I would like that to be true. And if it’s repeated often enough, it becomes, well, it might be true and then that slides too easily into, well, for me, it’s as good as true and I’ll act as if it’s true. And that’s what we saw with the storming of the Capitol building. So my book sets out this method of thinking, which I called SEES. It stands for, situational awareness, explanation, estimation, and strategic notice. You start with accessing data about what’s happening on the ground or in cyberspace to answer those factual questions that start with what, when and where.

Sir David Omand:

You need to take the trouble to establish what is actually going on, before we all start arguing about what to do about it. And our choice of where to look for evidence of course, can be biased, it can distort the picture. You can fall victim to rumor, fake news, deliberate deception. So you need the humility to take care over facts and recognize that our knowledge of the world is always fragmentary, it’s incomplete and yes, it is sometimes wrong. And that’s the first lesson in the book, the first lesson of intelligence.

Sir David Omand:

But if you have solid facts, what do they actually mean? If you have data it’s capable of multiple explanations. So the first E in the word SEES is explanation and that answers the questions about why and how, so you test alternative explanations against the data, you look for the explanation with the least evidence against it. Not necessarily the one with most in its favor, because if you look hard enough, you can always find some evidence to support an argument, however crazy. That’s how conspiracy theories thrive. But if you’ve got the data and you’ve got a good explanation, you can move on to the bit that’s really valuable, for decision-makers, for the prime ministers and generals and senior police commanders. You can estimate how events may turn out.

Sir David Omand:

It’s a word I prefer to predict. Intelligence analysts prefer to avoid the word predict because there are no crystal balls, but you can estimate within bounds, how things might turn out and you can start to model on different assumptions, what might happen, after you’ve taken a decision. We see this all the time with the COVID-19 modeling, and this is what you get from the scientists, for example, if you applied certain COVID-19 measures, what is likely to happen, and they make assumptions about the degree of public compliance for example, with the restriction.

Sir David Omand:

So take those three together, situational awareness, the explanation and the strategic notice, and you’ve got a very good rational way of providing that essential, solid analysis that any decision maker needs to set alongside the kind of more emotional, more media considerations that are in their mind. My acronym SEES, there are four letters and the last one is another S and that stands for strategic notice because once you’re focused on the first three experience, certainly my experience is that something completely unexpected will come and hit you in the back of the head. And so you need strategic notice, so possible future challenges that might come and upset your decisions. And that’s answering questions about how we could prepare best for what might come and hit us next, or even here’s a risk, could we preempt it, so it never comes to test us?

Sir David Omand:

I mean, quantum computing at scale may turn up one day and that’ll destroy the security of the internet. So wouldn’t it be a good idea to commission the research now on quantum resistant algorithms, so that international financial transactions can still be secure, even if the first people to get there are China and so on.

Sir David Omand:

So another important lesson in intelligence is that if you do devote effort to acquiring strategic notice, looking over the horizon, and you use that information wisely to prepare, you don’t have to be so surprised by surprise itself. And one of the best examples of that is the vaccine production, where some years ago, because of other diseases like SARS, the biotech industry worked with regulators to see how could you speed up the process of vaccine development and have all the right kind of scientific knowledge you would need and genome sequencing you would need. And of course, unexpectedly, we suddenly got hit with COVID-19, but within a year we have workable vaccines, which is truly a remarkable scientific achievement, but it didn’t come out of nowhere. There was strategic notice some years ago, and the industry took to it.

Dave Bittner:

How important is collaboration? It strikes me that it’s very easy for an individual to find their rational thinking short circuited by their emotions. But if you have a group of people, is it more likely that someone can say, Hey, snap to your senses here, you’re not thinking straight.

Sir David Omand:

Yes. The second part of my book is really devoted to all the ways you can get it wrong, the cognitive errors in particular, and you get these at the level of the individual, you get them at the level of the work group and you get them sadly, sometimes even at the level of an institution that has built in biases or prejudices. But certainly at the level of the individual, because these various biases are unconscious. You don’t know you’re being affected by them. And that unconsciously you’ve tended to favor the explanation that you most wanted deep down. And the best way to avoid that is to make the assessment or analysis a team sport. So if you’ve got others in the team, they can see, ah what’s going on here is that you’re downplaying the evidence against the hypothesis and you’re paying too much attention to the bit that bears out what you always said.

Sir David Omand:

And that can be quite dangerous. That was one of the reasons why the intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003, some of those judgments were not very good. And one of the reasons was because subconsciously we all, and I was around at the time, we all believe that Saddam did have these weapons. And therefore we focused too much on validating the bits of information which tended to say, well, yes, he does. And downplaying such information as there was that suggested, well, hang on, there’s an absence of evidence here, why aren’t we seeing this or that? And we tended to ascribe that to Saddam’s deception, oh, well, he’s deceiving us. And it’s so easy to explain… This is what happens with conspiracy theories as well. It’s so easy to explain a way contrary evidence, if you’re in the grip of a very firm belief system, as we were then, that Saddam did have these weapons. Of course, he had them in the past and that’s one of the reasons why we were convinced he would still have them.

Dave Bittner:

And I suppose, I mean, this speaks to the importance of having diversity of thought within your team, but also a culture where people can raise their voice and have the courage or the support to say, I don’t agree with what everyone else is thinking here.

Sir David Omand:

The cognitive problems that you get that tend to lead to distortions in judgment can occur at the level of the individual, but they can also occur at the level of the group. This is often described as group think, and it sometimes comes about because you’ve got a very dominant leader and the members of the group don’t dare put their hands up and disagree with the boss. Or it may be that there’s such a strong feeling in the group, and perhaps there’s an out-group, that are blaming someone else for what’s going on. And that group feeling is so strong that you don’t get a genuine argument. You don’t get the facts of the matter or the explanation really being examined. There are different techniques you can use. One of them, which is quite common, is a kind of red teaming. So let’s have another group.

Sir David Omand:

Or if the boss just simply says, look, let’s break for half an hour, think about this. And then perhaps somebody will come up to the boss and say, look young so-and-so he’s the real expert, but I can tell he doesn’t agree. Or you can appoint a member of the group and say, look, I want you to challenge this before we publish this decision, let’s really take it apart. So all these techniques, they’re all quite well known, but what it boils down to, if you’re in charge of any sort of analytic work, you’ve got to create a safe space. And the same is true for presidents and prime ministers. It’s no use being a president or a prime minister, if those around you don’t dare tell you the truth.

Sir David Omand:

Now creating a safe space probably means keeping the media well away. It probably means keeping most of the executive away because the leader will not want to lose face by having to admit that they’d got it wrong, or the facts have changed, so they’re going to have to change their mind. So you do need a small, safe space where trusted counselors can say to the boss, however grand they are, look boss, we’re all convinced you haven’t quite got this right. And of course, you can always think of good historical events where we would have been better off, if that kind of discussion had taken place.

Dave Bittner:

The final part in your book is optimistic. You end on a note of optimism. Can you share that with us?

Sir David Omand:

Yes. And having published a book, a number of commentators have raised their eyebrows and said, since so much of the book is downbeat and it’s pointing out the problems we’ve had with Russian interference with our elections, it’s pointing out about the way that social media can lead to conspiracy theories being spread. So why are you optimistic? Well, let me start with one observation, which is American democracy survived its challenge last month. President Biden is the lawful president of the United States and he’s in The White House and he’s in office, despite the challenges and the false challenges I may say. So, that’s one example.

Sir David Omand:

The other thing I’d say is that it is becoming clearer that the democracies have to take care to safeguard that precious thing, democracy. It won’t necessarily look after itself. So for example, we have to start in schools, teaching children how to stay safe online, teaching them how to discriminate between fake news and genuine news. We’ve got to work with the internet companies. And there’s some signs they’re coming round to this, so that they start to label material, which is harmful or better still remove it altogether. So you can see signs that we’ve been through rather a bad period, but given the care, we can actually safeguard ourselves.

Dave Bittner:

Don’t forget to sign up for the Recorded Future Cyber Daily email, where every day you’ll receive the top results for trending technical indicators that are crossing the web, cyber news, targeted industries, threat actors, exploited vulnerabilities, malware, suspicious IP addresses, and much more. You can find that at recordedfuture.com/intel.

We hope you’ve enjoyed the show and that you’ll subscribe and help spread the word among your colleagues and online. The Recorded Future podcast production team includes Coordinating Producer Caitlin Mattingly. The show is produced by the CyberWire, with Executive Editor Peter Kilpe, and I’m Dave Bittner.

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