An article in the New Republic takes a critical look at the growing use of writers and creative types in counterterrorism work. Authors and screenwriters are now a regular fixture in brainstorming exercises in which counterterrorism officials develop scenarios for everything from attacks on critical infrastructure to a 21st-century caliphate. I don’t know how common this really is– the Institute doesn’t do classified work– but the article does point out a couple challenges to using fiction in futures.
First, a bit of background:
Our adversaries, the thinking goes, are tougher to understand and predict than in conflicts past. During the cold war, for instance, it was relatively easy to gauge Soviet intentions and capabilities. Not only did we have better human intelligence, but there was a visible political-military apparatus to watch. We could see their missiles and know which ones were pointed at us. Beyond Pentagon red teams that tried to anticipate Soviet responses to U.S. moves, there wasn’t much need to speculate about the Soviet mind.
Radical Islam, by contrast, is a much shadier world. Although jihadists are prolific communicators, issuing videotapes and conversing in Internet chatrooms, it’s difficult to tap into the mind-sets and motives behind the propaganda. So policymakers have increasingly turned to fiction as a way to better understand the enemy, as well as to shake up the intelligence system and fill in knowledge gaps. As Jon Nowick, director of the DHS’s red team program, told The Washington Post, “We paint a picture where there are no dots to connect.” Or, in the more colorful language of the National Intelligence Council’s Robert Hutchings: “[L]inear analysis will get you a much-changed caterpillar, but it won’t get you a butterfly. For that, you need a leap of imagination.”
But there are two big problems with such exercises. First,
they assume a level of organization and strategy that may not exist. Fawaz Gerges, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy, says his interviews with convicted terrorists reveal a surprising lack of strategic sophistication…. It’s possible to strategize as your enemy would when it’s one military analyzing another and there’s a fixed chain of command. Terrorism, though, is not like that. The bumbling, the spontaneity, the role of chance aren’t easily captured by red-teaming.
But a bigger problem is not
that a lack of creativity will produce bad fiction; it’s that an excess of creativity will yield unrealistic scenarios…. Former Clinton National Security Council staffer Steve Simon, now at the Council on Foreign Relations, concurs. “These exercises are like Rorschach tests,” he says. “Somebody shows you a blot, and you project onto it all your anxieties and all your fevered dreams and fears.” This points to a logical flaw in the idea that the less we understand about our enemies, the more we should use our imagination. In fact, the fewer facts we have to work with, the more likely it is that our imagination will take us in the wrong direction. And there’s a real possibility that wrong direction will attract the attention of policymakers and draw resources away from bigger risks.
One thing that’s made the Institute an exciting place to work in the last few years– and I think, a more interesting place for clients– is that our work has become increasingly visual and interactive. Rather than producing big white papers, we create a mix of shorter articles, maps, interactive CDs, and wikis.
But we don’t do very much fiction. Why?
Artifacts and maps have been useful both as research tools and communications media: they’re instruments that help us both think about the future in a more systematic way, and share those ideas with audiences in ways that will offer something at once compelling and useful. But while fiction may be helpful as a way of communicating ideas about the future, it hasn’t been that useful as a thinking tool. Further, I’ve often seen workshops that stumbled when participants have been asked to do something obviously fictional, and came up with things that were too funny or frivolous, often because they extrapolated some current trend to an amusing extreme.