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Ken Adelman
Political advisor

Ken Adelman

A Reagan-era Ambassador and Arms Control Director, Ken Adelman is co-founder and vice-president of Movers and Shakespeares, which offers executive training and leadership development.

The difference between a secret and a mystery

Q: This week's Washington Post investigative series on the government's burgeoning intelligence network prompts the question: Can an organization get so big and so complex that it just can't be managed effectively? Or is "too-big-to-manage" just a cop-out for flawed structure and lack of leadership?

No, it's not primarily the size of the sprawling intelligence network that makes it flawed, though that's surely a problem; anything that big can't work all that well. But two other factors lead to expectation-inflation, and the resulting feeling that the intelligence community (IC) doesn't yield results, i.e. to warn us of future threats.

First, many threats simply aren't predictable. There's a mega-distinction between a mystery and a secret. Mysteries are inherently uncertain, not factual at all, often because they're uncertain to the actors themselves.

During the Reagan Administration, we looked to the intelligence community to tell us what Mikhail Gorbachev would do and, more generally, what he had in mind. Well, that turned out to be less a secret than a mystery. Gorbachev himself didn't know what he'd do - that depended on so many factors (themselves mostly mysteries). And what he had in mind one minute different from that which sprang into his fertile mind the next.

In contrast are secrets, which are facts hidden but knowable with the right sources or detection. The IC spends gobs of money trying to pry those secrets loose.

This leads us to the second factor in why the intelligence yield is disappointing. Granted, secrets are knowable facts, and fact are vital to reaching conclusions on threats. But there are facts, and there are facts. Some are uncertain; others fuzzy; and many contradictory.
Above all, there are mountains of 'em. This point is best made in the classic movie "The Lion in Winter," in the scene which the King admonishes everyone to "face the facts."

The Queen replies, "Which ones? There are so many!"

By Ken Adelman

 |  July 20, 2010; 2:30 PM ET
Category:  Government leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: No such thing as 'too big to manage' | Next: Three strikes against the intel community

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"Too big to manage" is not really the problem with our Intelligence organizations. The necessary "managing" cannot be assured without Coordination, lots of it. This was pointed out by that 9/11 Investigation. Coordination means a certain sharing. Sharing means a certain loss of control of, and credit for, the facts being shared. It also means revealing techniques and procedures across various unaccustomed bureaucratic turf.

Perhaps "teamwork" cannot be expected in the conventional sense of the term.

Surely the Intelligence Community is aware of all this; it hasn't been settled since the 9/11 hearings; so we certainly don't need the likes of reporters from the Washington Post opining on the results of their own "Investigation" of the "Top Secret" workings of a bureaucracy to which they are granted only the barest access. That's one very large oxymoron.

Isn't it easy to point fingers when one doesn't have the deadly day to day responsibilities for strategic decisions concerning national survival?

This major problem is certainly too big to be examined by the likes of the Washington Post's staff. Who do they think they are?

Posted by: CharlesGriffith1 | July 20, 2010 10:29 PM
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"Too big to manage" is not really the problem with our Intelligence organizations. The necessary "managing" cannot be assured without Coordination, lots of it. This was pointed out by that 9/11 Investigation. Coordination means a certain sharing. Sharing means a certain loss of control of, and credit for, the facts being shared. It also means revealing techniques and procedures across various unaccustomed bureaucratic turf.

Perhaps "teamwork" cannot be expected in the conventional sense of the term.

Surely the Intelligence Community is aware of all this; it hasn't been settled since the 9/11 hearings; so we certainly don't need the likes of reporters from the Washington Post opining on the results of their own "Investigation" of the "Top Secret" workings of a bureaucracy to which they are granted only the barest access. That's one very large oxymoron.

Isn't it easy to point fingers when one doesn't have the deadly day to day responsibilities for strategic decisions concerning national survival?

This major problem is certainly too big to be examined by the likes of the Washington Post's staff. Who do they think they are?

Posted by: CharlesGriffith1 | July 20, 2010 10:27 PM
Report Offensive Comment

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