Unintelligent intelligence services — the problem with intelligence is that we think we have it

  •   3 min reads
Unintelligent intelligence services — the problem with intelligence is that we think we have it

Intelligence Services are packed with extremely bright and intelligent people — yet they get it wrong over and over again.

"How could we have been so stupid," said President John F Kennedy in 1961. In 2021, President Joe Biden might want to say something similar.

What he did say, however, on July 8th 2021, was:

"The Taliban is not the south—the North Vietnamese army. They're not—they're not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There's going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy in the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable."

In 1961 the US was licking its wounds after a disastrous failure of intelligence. It had tried to create a popular uprising in Cuba, overthrowing Fidel Castro. Instead, 114 US troops were killed, 1,100 were held captive. That was the Bay of Pigs disaster — when US intelligence concluded that the Cuban people could be nudged into overthrowing the government. The intelligence was wrong — disastrously so. The Bay of Pigs incident, is often cited as an example of groupthink — when groups of people collectively agree on a particular idea or course of action seemingly oblivious to why they might be wrong.

Groupthink can lead to crowds becoming baying mobs moving to ever more extremes — with all dissenters either ignored or condemned. Groupthink can infest a democracy — the world's first Democracy Ancient Athens engaged in an un-winnable war against Sparta, egged on by populist politicians and a mob thinking as one, unwilling to countenance an alternative narrative.

Groupthink has often charged history — is that how the Nazis were able to do what they did?

And groupthink leads to calamitous decisions by the government.

There has been no greater medium in history for supporting groupthink than the Internet. A virtual reality (metaverse) type world envisioned by Mark Zuckerberg will exacerbate groupthink.

Motivation for invasion of Afghanistan

We should not forget the motivation to invade Afghanistan twenty years ago. However, it was quite different from the motivation to invade Iraq. Afghanistan provided shelter to the architects of 9/11. The Iraqi government had nothing to do with 9/11.

But when the US and allies invaded Afghanistan, there was no shortage of people who warned of the lesson of history — from Alexander The Great, The British during the days of the Empire and The Russians in the late 1970s. It was well known that attempts to invade or rule Afghanistan don't tend to turn out well.

That narrative was understood — but one can understand the rationale to punish Bin Laden and those who sheltered him.

The debacle of the last twenty years was inevitable.


The disaster — from the Western point of view, no doubt the Taliban don't see it that way — of the last few days was also, it seems, inevitable. Nevertheless, with the benefit of hindsight, we can shake our heads and wonder at the stupidity of US Intelligence.

Of course, Biden and his team can argue that there was never a good moment to pull out of Afghanistan; that may be so, but Biden assured us there would be no Saigon like the rescue of US citizens from the US Embassy. His intelligence was wrong.

And now we will argue about who will give refuge to those fleeing the wrath of the Taliban. But, of course, they should be given refuge, everyone that asks for it; we owe the Afghanistan people that.

But isn't the fundamental problem here too much faith in intelligence. Not just CIA or MI5 Intelligence— both organisations are constructed from highly bright people with IQs off the charts. And don't say they lack common sense. On the contrary, highly intelligent people have just as much common sense as the rest of us.

No, the problem is that we all have too much faith in our own intelligence. If you want to combat groupthink, here is a suggestion; how about saying, "This is what I think, but I might well be wrong."

PS: What has just happened in Afghanistan illustrates why I don't believe in conspiracy theories — there isn't enough intelligence to pull them off.

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