“Thou Shalt Never Change… Thou Shalt Change”: The lack of in-depth understanding about objects researched by the intelligence community.

Brig. Gen. Yoel Ben Porat, commander of Unit 848 (8200) in the Yom Kippur War. In his testimony before the Agranat Commission, he raised the subject of the drop in the number of Arabic speakers in the intelligence community, presenting it as a fundamental and serious problem that must be dealt with.

Brig. Gen. Yoel Ben Porat, commander of Unit 848 (8200) in the Yom Kippur War. In his testimony before the Agranat Commission, he raised the subject of the drop in the number of Arabic speakers in the intelligence community, presenting it as a fundamental and serious problem that must be dealt with.

Lessons from 13 Years of War: “Technology cannot substitute for expertise in history, culture, and languages

Lessons from 13 Years of War: “Technology cannot substitute for expertise in history, culture, and languages".

Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, two of the greatest Middle East scholars of our generation: Their erroneous assessments about future developments in the Middle East in recent decades demonstrate that in-depth knowledge of the past does not guarantee accurate forecasting of the future, but rather helps to acquire a clearer understanding of the present.

Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, two of the greatest Middle East scholars of our generation: Their erroneous assessments about future developments in the Middle East in recent decades demonstrate that in-depth knowledge of the past does not guarantee accurate forecasting of the future, but rather helps to acquire a clearer understanding of the present.

“Thou Shalt Never Change… Thou Shalt Change”:

The disappearance of deep understanding about the objects of research from the world of intelligence bodies and the influence of the phenomenon on their abilities and relevance
Michael Milstein[1]

1.   On both sides of the Atlantic, the intelligence bodies, especially those in charge of research and analysis, have been experiencing a profound crisis in recent decades. This is a crisis rooted in questions of destiny and identity. The crisis stems mainly from the dramatic changes that have taken place in the environment and in the objects of research with which intelligence has dealt for long periods, but no less important - also from the profound change that is taking place in the image of the intelligence expert.

2.   The purpose of this article is to deal with the “elephant in the room,” a phenomenon that is rarely dealt with or even noticed. The problem that will be analyzed is the significant devaluation of the weight of in-depth understanding of the objects of research - those that stem from familiarity with their culture, language and history - among intelligence bodies of recent decades. This is reflected in the reduction in the scope of those with skills in these fields in intelligence systems, in the reduction or disappearance of these components in the training of intelligence personnel, and in the reduction of their weight in the process of formulating a situation overview, assessment and recommendations.    

And he said: “I want to add two more commandments to the ten:

The Eleventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not change”

And the Twelfth Commandment, “Thou shalt change”

So said my father and walked away from me and disappeared into his strange distances.

Yehuda Amichai[2]

3.   This is not a completely new problem. The preoccupation with the devaluation that has taken place in the understandings has been a constant element in the intelligence discourse in recent decades. The topic was raised as a lesson learned in Western intelligence investigations in the wake of formative traumas such as the Yom Kippur War in Israel or the September 11 attacks in the United States. However, this old problem appears to have reached a critical stage. The control of in-depth understandings is on the verge of extinction in the intelligence bodies, the discourse about the problem is almost nonexistent, and worse, over the years, a perception has developed that these are “anachronistic skills” that are not necessary in “modern research.”

4.   A sense of discomfort has accompanied intelligence officials for several decades, inter alia in light of the change in the environment, the research objects and the intelligence targets. Out of this discomfort, a mountain of research studies has emerged that attempted to identify the intelligence problems of today and offer a solution to these problems. In this context, several points of discussion were prominent: the methods of reasoning used by the intelligence expert to formulate a picture of reality and assessments; The patterns of discourse used by intelligence agencies; The organizational structure of the intelligence systems; and the dynamics between intelligence and leaders. As stated, dealing with in-depth understandings is virtually nonexistent in this discourse. Thus, precisely in an era of dramatic changes in which the importance of interpreting the cultural components of the objects of research becomes more acute, the intelligence community faces a situation in which the group of experts on these issues is an extinct species.

5.   As in many cases of dealing with crises, it is likely that a fierce clash with reality is expected to expose fundamental problems and sharpen the understanding that the period prior to that clash was accompanied by a “hidden crisis.” In this context, it is necessary to cite former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on the variety of states of consciousness, in which he claimed that the most problematic situation that a person can be in is not knowing that you don’t know.[3]

[1]Senior Advisor on Palestinian Affairs in COGAT (Unit of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories), and former head of the Palestinian arena in the Military Intelligence Research Division. Author of the books: Between Revolution and State: Fatah and the Palestinian Authority(2004), The Green Revolution - The Social Portrait of the Hamas Movement (2007), and Muqawama - The Rise of the Resistance Challenge and its Impact on Israel’s National Security Concept(2010).
[2]Yehuda Amichai, Open Closed Open(Tel Aviv: Schocken, 1998), p. 85.
[3]The remarks were made at a February 2002 press briefing that analyzed the evidence that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction, which was the key pretext for promoting a US military campaign against him in 2003.