One of my favorite things about working at Sweet Briar is sitting in on classes, which I’m always happy to do (only when invited, of course!)
On Friday, Professor Spencer Bakich invited me to visit his course on How Leaders Decide. He was hosting a terrific guest speaker: Geoffrey Peck is Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Transnational Threats at the CIA (and the father of a Sweet Briar student to boot!)
It was a remarkable opportunity for students to hear from someone working in the field about how intelligence is used in support of decision-making. What was especially valuable, I thought, was to hear an intelligence officer’s reflections on what makes it so very difficult to turn bits of information into a coherent intelligence assessment. In the context of a specific agency’s work, he raised what is really the most fundamental question of any intellectual enterprise: how can we know what we know? And how sure can we be that we know it?
Here are some ideas I took away from listening to the discussion:
- Categorization matters. It’s important to question what categories and assumptions you’re starting out with in any inquiry. If you’re looking for a “war” you might miss non-state-based threats; if you’re looking for a reaction to an assumed cause you might miss recognizing the importance of other factors.
- Scope matters. As you ask more and more detailed questions, it’s natural to begin looking at any problem “through a drinking straw.” Sometimes that’s exactly what you need to do — and sometimes you need to look around at the larger context to make sense of what you see through that straw.
- Culture matters. Organizational culture defines the way any group approaches intelligence. This is true in government, business, education, any field — it’s important to recognize the ways in which your cultural practices influence the way you acquire and interpret information and to interact collaboratively with different organizational and knowledge cultures.
These are ideas that are important in national intelligence, of course, but to my mind they are equally important in every profession or field of study. Our students learned something important about U.S. intelligence activities, and also something important about thinking intelligently in any field.