How Active is the Insurrectionist Movement in the United States?

How Active is the Insurrectionist Movement in the United States?

Randy Pherson, President, Pherson
For decades, I have tracked political instability and insurgencies around the globe, assuming that the indicators I developed would never have relevance for the United States. The events of January 6, 2021 led me to challenge that assumption, speculating that the same dynamic might now be occurring within our borders. I decided to apply the indicators developed for foreign countries in the past to our present circumstances in the United States.

Following the January 2021 attack on the Capitol, I surveyed a dozen colleagues, asking them to rate 19 indicators of incipient insurgency or insurrection (based on the definitions provided below) during the time period subsequent to the November 2020 presidential election. The matrix below organizes the indicators into five categories, and displays my colleagues’ responses over time. In January 2021, their informal, consensus view generated an overall rating of Medium as shown by the M in the chart.


DEFINITIONS

In January 2021, insurgency—or, in today’s terms, insurrection—was defined as “a protracted political-military activity directed toward completely or partially controlling the resources of a country through the use of irregular military forces and illegal political organizations.” Such activity is designed to weaken government legitimacy and control while increasing insurgent power, legitimacy, and control over territory or government institutions.

Insurrectionist activity is distinguishable from terrorist activity because terrorists do not seek to create an alternate government capable of controlling a given area or the country. Insurrectionists also can be distinguished from members of a political movement so long as those members do not aspire to supplant our democratic institutions with a new form of government.


Three months later, we reevaluated the indicators to consider what new information had been revealed by Congress and the press relating to the activities surrounding insurrection. The overall rating moved from Medium to High because four indicators’ ratings changed (as shown in red), resulting in 10 of 19 indicators now rated as High:

  • Oath Keepers cached arms in Arlington, VA for a quick reaction force that could be employed before and after the 6 January attack.
  • Some attackers had radios, gas masks, zip ties, body armor, night vision goggles, and bear spray.
  • The 6 January Congressional investigation uncovered extensive planning involving the White House and at the Willard Hotel and several states for months prior to the attack.

Another indicator was raised from low to medium to reflect subsequent reports of five deaths and more than 140 injuries to police officers. We encourage you to review all the indicators and generate your own set of ratings.

Applying this time-proven “indicators yardstick” to current political dynamics in this country strongly suggests that an incipient insurgency—or in today’s parlance, an insurrectionist movement—has emerged in the United States. The number of active proponents of insurrection may be limited to only hundreds or thousands of citizens, but scoping the size, motivations, and intentions of this movement is a critical challenge that merits further investigation by law enforcement and homeland security analysts.

Insight into how to use Indicators to track future insurrectionist behavior can be found in the Analyst’s Guide to Indicators.

The Ukraine Situation: Producing Analysis Using the Five Habits of the Master Thinker

The attention of the world is focused on Ukraine. If you were an analyst supporting the National Security Council in that region, you would be generating a lot of analysis on extremely short deadlines. In this month’s Analytic Insider, I review how you could leverage the Five Habits of the Master Thinker to assist you in this task.

The Five Habits were developed specifically to help analysts generate a rigorous analysis when there is insufficient time to engage in a Structured Analytic Technique exercise. The Five Habits are:

  • Challenge Your Key Assumptions
  • Consider Alternative Hypotheses
  • Look for Inconsistent Data
  • Identify Key Drivers
  • Understand the Overarching Context

Using the Five Habits of the Master Thinker, I have produced the following analysis. Bear in mind that this analysis was drafted on 21 February, and the situation in Ukraine is likely to change dramatically in subsequent days.

Challenge Your Key Assumptions. As of 21 February, the lead hypothesis is that Russia will launch a large-scale military invasion within days across Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders involving some 200,000 troops with the objective of installing a more Kremlin-friendly government in Kyiv. Key assumptions worthy of challenge include the scale and geographic breadth of the attack, timing, and the overall objective. Other assumptions to challenge are that only Ukraine will be targeted, that China is supportive, that Ukraine forces are unable to offer stiff resistance, and that an invasion must be launched within days or weeks before the ground is no longer frozen.

Consider Alternative Hypotheses. Challenging one’s assumptions allows one to consider a broader range of hypotheses such as:

  • Russian military activity will be concentrated in the east with the primary objective to convert the eastern provinces into a region responsive to Russian interests.
  • An all-out invasion does not happen; instead, we will witness a multifaceted campaign (including lesser attacks by Russian military and rebel forces, major disinformation and deception campaign, cyber attacks, political acts possibly including assassinations, and escalating diplomatic pressure).
  • Putin realizes that he cannot afford another Afghanistan, and concerns about internal dissidence and possible pressure from foreign allies dissuade him from a major invasion and spur him to negotiate a diplomatic solution.
  • Putin launches a large-scale invasion and as soon as sanctions are applied, he launches crippling cyber attacks on NATO states, including the United States, escalating the conflict into a NATO-Russian “soft war.”

The job of the analyst is to develop and track indicators for each scenario and monitor which one appears to be emerging as the most likely trajectory.

Look for Inconsistent Data.  Russian claims in the past week that they are withdrawing some troops from the border are easily disproved by satellite imagery and other inconsistent data that show by the movement of Russian forces right up to the border. The shipment of blood supplies to the border is an even more vivid example of inconsistent data. Looking ahead, potentially “good inconsistent data” would be a continuing failure to launch an invasion and the holding of a US-Russia Summit meeting. The analytic team must take care not to dismiss inconsistent data as noise because it does not support their lead hypothesis.

Identify Key Drivers. In an ideal world, any issue—no matter how complex—can be described in terms of four key drivers. In this instance, some candidate key drivers are:

  • Putin’s determination to reassert Russian dominance over its remaining non-NATO near-neighbors.
  • Whether NATO can remain united.
  • The impact of sanctions (threatened or imposed) on Russia, its economy, political stability, and military capabilities.
  • How the Russian people react to Putin’s actions, particularly if body bags start flowing home and the economy takes a dive.

Understand the Overarching Context. One overarching question is: What is motivating Putin? How has he balanced the costs and benefits to him and Russia of invading Ukraine? Or is he even doing that? Most likely he will be influenced heavily by how the four key drivers listed above play out. Are Putin and Russia rich enough to absorb the impact of sanctions? Would Putin calculate that delaying an invasion will increase opportunities to sow division within NATO?

From the perspective of NATO members, is it essential to stand up to Russia now to prevent future incursions across other borders? Can NATO members absorb the economic and political costs of dramatically increased gas and oil prices and cyber attacks on critical infrastructure? And perhaps most significant, can Germany and other parts of Europe find ways to live without the Nord Stream pipeline?

The job of the analyst is to understand and frame the issue for the decision maker in terms of the overall context of the problem. By focusing on the overarching context and the key drivers, the decision maker has a better chance of mitigating bad scenarios and enhancing the prospects of good scenarios.

The 2022 Mid-Term Elections: Another Surprise?

Cognitive psychology teaches that most people expect change to be incremental and that past patterns usually repeat themselves. With historical voting patterns favoring the Republicans, gerrymandering likely to increase their representation in the House, and inflation and high gas prices eroding support for President Biden, almost every political pundit is predicting the Republican Party will take control of the House and the Senate in the November 2022 mid-term elections. But What If? the electoral results defy all predictions (as happened in 2016 when Donald Trump won the presidency) and the Democrats retain control? How could we explain how everyone totally missed this call?

The focus of this article is to think outside the box and explore how such an unlikely scenario could come about. What are the key drivers that could spur a dramatically different election outcome with the Democrats retaining power? What are the indicators that would signal that such an unlikely scenario is beginning to unfold?

Hindsight analysis following the mid-term elections might posit that most Americans decided that allowing an increasingly radical right movement to take power posed an existential threat to democratic rule in the United States. They saw the danger in returning power to those who previously undermined democratic institutions and tried to block a peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected president.

A more compelling argument might be that Democrat candidates mobilized voters around three themes perceived as posing existential threats to American life. In 2016, Trump’s victory has been attributed to voters who saw their way of life as under threat; could this dynamic repeat itself but with a different set of voters?

Three Key Drivers
If Democrats should retain control of the House and the Senate, they probably succeeded by shifting the national narrative to three foundational, and for some existential, concerns:

Voting Rights. The US decennial census has opened the door to reconfiguring congressional districts. In 2022, many people of color will see their voices subdued if not muted by redistricting schemes now being implemented in the red states. For example, in Texas most of the state’s population growth is attributable to persons of color living in Democratic-leaning communities, but the Republicans redrew the map to give themselves both new congressional seats while reducing the number of competitive seats from six to one. In addition, perceived voter suppression legislation in many red states and what promises to be an intense debate surrounding passage of two landmark voter rights bills in Congress could spur democratic turnout. The rallying cry would be to overturn what was increasingly perceived as efforts by Republican office holders to continue the Jim Crow legacy and suppress the rights of minorities.

Income Redistribution. If Build Back Better is defeated in the Senate or only parts of the package are passed into law, this could spur an increase in Democratic representation to allow the Senate to pass the full package of benefits. Programs for subsidized child and elder care, Medicare expansion, the containment of prescription drug costs, and universal prekindergarten have majority support in the country. In this scenario, the rallying call would be that the rich should pay their fair share, fully funding these programs through increased taxes on those earning more than $400,000 and modestly raising the corporate tax rate. The need for income redistribution would become a front burner issue as popular anger mounted to rectify past payouts to the rich. The need to reinstate the childcare tax credit would become paramount.

Climate Change. In 2021, 30 percent of America has been significantly impacted by devastating and often unprecedented tornados, hurricanes, floods, drought, and wildfires. People have lost their houses, jobs, and have been forced to relocate or must consider it. Over 60 percent of Americans believe that action is needed to address the challenge climate change increasingly poses to their own lives, and those of their children and grandchildren. There is growing distaste for those who do not believe humans are primary contributors to climate change and refuse to recognize the consequences they have, or may soon, suffer. Anger is building over Congressional inaction, and people are looking to the Democrats to provide strategic vision and deliver much needed legislation.

In addition to the three perceived existential threats listed above, a Democratic surge at the polls could be bolstered by a Supreme Court decision invalidating Roe v. Wade, the “conquering” of COVID, a major upswing in economic performance, Republican calls for stricter immigration laws putting the Dreamers at risk, and indictments of those who orchestrated the 6 January insurrection (potentially including Republican members of Congress, associates of the former president, and even the former president himself).

Indicators for Anticipating the Unanticipated
Key indicators that would suggest the Democrats are headed for a surprising win in November include:

  • Large demonstrations and a proliferation of court cases targeting voter suppression laws and gerrymandering plans
  • Moderates on both sides of the political spectrum focusing on the threat posed by the far right to democratic institutions and the rule of law
  • Growing threats of—and the actual use of—violence by those associated with the far right to attack government officials and “establishment” politicians
  • Opinion polls reflecting a growing demand that the rich and large corporations pay their fair share
  • Democratic grass roots organizations raising substantial sums to support “bring out the vote” efforts
  • The promotion by Democratic candidates of specific and popular Build Back Better programs as key campaign themes
  • Inflation neutralized as a concern because it comes to be seen as the byproduct of a growing economy and is offset by wage increases
  • Campaigns to elect Democrats who will vote for legislation that reverses the impact of the Supreme Court’s nullification of Roe v. Wade
  • Sharp decline in oil prices
  • President Biden’s handling of COVID-19 being perceived as a success as COVID infections wane
  • Reinstatement of the child care tax credit in response to a strong public outcry following its termination in January 2022
  • Criminal indictments of the former president and his close associates

Is Western Civilization Confronting a Global Inflection Point?

As reported in the October blog, I recently spent three weeks in a hospital bed in Iceland. This time allowed me the opportunity to observe and reflect on some fundamental dynamics of our society. My key takeaway is that Western society is not paying sufficient attention to how dramatically the world could change over the next few years. As we head into the holiday season, we should take a moment to give thanks for the social order we all value.

Western civilization appears to be facing a global inflection point. The stresses are widespread—political, social, environmental, economic, and technological. More problematic is that society seems to be overlooking critical warning signs. Those who seem to have their heads in the sand are falling victim to two cognitive pitfalls: assuming the future will closely resemble the past and expecting that change will be incremental. In this article, I explore changes that we as a society should be taking more seriously as well as strategies for countering these trends.

  • Democracy Under Threat. The Congressional committee investigating the January 6 insurrection is finding increasing evidence that a concerted campaign had been launched to negate the peaceful transition of power to a new president. If Vice President Pence had not proceeded to count all the Electoral College ballots, then President Trump might have succeeded in propelling himself into an unconstitutional third term in office. Looking toward 2024, a serious concern is whether recent legislation in several states will result in state electoral boards countermanding the popular vote in their districts. Also of concern is a recent Public Religion Research Institute poll showing that 30 percent of Republicans believe further violence may be necessary to solve the nation’s problems.
  • Burgeoning Non-rational Behavior. Cultish beliefs and behaviors are being displayed by a large percentage of the population–including unsubstantiated claims of election fraud, QAnon conspiracy theories, and COVID-19 vaccination falsehoods. Disinformation has proved far more impactful than most expected, and commercial pressures argue against social media giants taking strong measures to neutralize it.
  • Accelerating Climate Change. The melting of ice in Greenland and permafrost in Russia are establishing negative feedback cycles that accelerate global warming in unanticipated ways. Some scientists are concerned that we may have reached a point where Greenland’s ice melt could spur a redirection of the Gulf Stream with dramatic consequences for Europe. The US Department of Defense released a study in October outlining 11 serious threats climate change poses to national security. The potential for climate change to have irreversible impact on current and future generations was underscored by the statement by the just-concluded UN Climate Change Conference that “no longer can anyone be under any illusion” that it is vital to “accelerate the momentum” globally for addressing the crisis.
  • Reimagining the Labor Force. Substantial defections from the workforce may not be an aberration but a reflection that large segments of the workforce have permanently rejected corporate America’s hierarchical structures, salary systems, and established central workplaces. Could new mechanisms evolve for replacing current salary systems with arrangements such as bitcoin, cryptocurrency, or bartering?
  • Accelerating Technological Change. Potentially explosive developments are fast approaching in the areas of Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, quantum computing, big data analysis, advanced materials, biotech, energy production and storage, and space industrialization. Many of these areas will enable or accelerate change and prove highly disruptive to our economic and social activities. People will find it increasingly difficult cognitively to keep up with the challenges; many may opt out or angrily resist the changes.

So, what is to be done?

How does one mitigate the negative impact of these trends? How does one respond to the destructionists who are promoting division and undermining our institutions? Counter arguments based on science and logic appear to have little impact. Once people adopt a false belief that is central to their identity, cognitive science argues it is almost impossible to talk them out of their mindset. Admitting one is wrong creates unacceptable cognitive dissidence, especially when one’s false beliefs are reaffirmed by media feeds. If being proved wrong or ostracized is a core fear for the destructionists, isolating them will make it worse.

A more promising strategy may be to pay less attention to the obstructionists who want to emphasize our differences and refocus the national dialogue on what needs to be done constructively move the country forward. Can we work cooperatively to promote a more just, fair, and equitable society? Can we devise new mechanisms and processes that promote collaborative behaviors that are more efficient and have positive impact?

Progress is being made in this direction. Witness the growing corporate emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusiveness; efforts to promote a meaningful dialogue on the local level to address neighborhood-police relations; and the work of the Problem Solvers Caucus in the US Congress. The challenge is to multiply such initiatives and not let the disruptive voices of destructionists distract society from what needs to be done to solve today’s mounting challenges. When you encounter negative destructionist rhetoric on the airwaves or social media, just turn it off. Focus instead on listening to and seeking positive solutions.

If our political leadership—and the media—fail to alert the general population to the dangers we face, civility and political order will start spiraling downward at an accelerating pace. Destructionism will come to predominate, with little hope of reversing the trends. The only viable antidote is to redirect our energies to implementing constructivist policies. The time for talk is over; each of us needs to commit to taking constructive action.

Two books that will help you gain a better understanding how cognitive pitfalls can “keep your head in the sand” are Heuer’s Psychology of Intelligence Analysis and Pherson’s Handbook of Analytic Tools and Techniques.

Best Practices in Medicine: Observations from Iceland

In 2020, I authored a book, How to Get the Right Diagnosis: 16 Tips for Navigating the US Medical System. It captured key lessons learned in 2014 following a five-year struggle with an undiagnosed illness. Little did I know then that I would spend the next six years dealing with a second undiagnosed illness!

Recently, while on vacation in Iceland, my health deteriorated severely. I was hospitalized for 18 days suffering from a rare form of vasculitis. During this time, I observed five best practices that should be emulated by every medical system:

1. Consider and test for multiple hypotheses
2. Encourage all team members to challenge assumptions
3. Incentivize doctors to avoid becoming captives of their specialty
4. Listen to and partner with the patient
5. Foster a robust collaborative team effort

Multiple Hypotheses. In Iceland, the doctors and nurses worked as a group to generate a list of candidate alternative diagnoses (think of the TV show House). Instead of testing the hypotheses in a serial fashion, they conducted synchronous evaluations. As a result, the diagnostic process was much more efficient.

Key Assumptions. With complex cases, it is important not to discard a hypothesis prematurely. In Iceland, two initial assumptions that made sense turned out to be wrong, and one that appeared implausible turned out to be correct. The team discovered this only because a culture had been established in which anyone regardless of rank could raise questions and challenge expert judgment.

Overspecialization. Over the course of my sojourn, I was attended by doctors representing nine specialties: rheumatology, hematology, infectious disease, cardiology, pulmonology, dermatology, oncology, gastroenterology, and internal medicine. In Iceland, I was impressed by the willingness of the doctors to think outside their “specialty box.” I suspect one reason for this behavior is that the practice of medicine is far less litigious in Iceland. In addition, my sense was that the doctors felt more empowered to focus on the broader context of my condition and more compelled to get the diagnosis right.

Listening Skills. The first question I was asked by doctors and nurses on every visit was “How are you feeling?” When I mentioned a symptom that did not fit their pattern of what could be wrong with me, they wanted to explore the discrepancy, not ignore it.

Collaboration. Lastly, what truly impressed me was the robust culture of collaboration demonstrated by everyone associated with my case. On at least three occasions, a panel of doctors and nurses convened to brainstorm diagnoses, decide on the best treatment, and estimate a discharge date. Over 18 days, I was seen by 12 doctors, and the transfer of knowledge among them was smooth and comprehensive. While in the ER and the hospital, I engaged in conversations with more than 100 medical professionals. Much to my amazement, they all appeared to be working off the same sheet of music. How they managed to collaborate so effectively was unexpected and impressive.

In sum, my recent health emergency in Iceland taught me a lot about what makes a medical support system work well….and I am alive today to tell the story!

The Case of Kabul: Foresight and the Hindsight Bias Trap

The chaotic evacuation of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan has generated a storm of speculation—some informed and some not—about what led to the crisis in Kabul and how it could have been prevented. In this special edition of the Analytic Insider, I collaborate with my German colleague, Ole Donner, to review how Foresight and Hindsight analytic processes are both used – with varying success– to assess what occurred in Kabul and why.

Many commentators appear to have fallen into the trap of conflating what is known today with what could have been anticipated before Kabul fell to the Taliban. The neurological processes for anticipating what is about to happen and for evaluating what has happened are quite different.

Our brain consists of millions of neurons and the connections between them. When we learn something, it changes which neurons are connected to each other and how. Our brain’s physical change is referred to as neuronal plasticity. This process takes place unconsciously and irreversibly changes the way we think about an event.

When using Foresight analysis to anticipate what is about to happen, the objective is to:

  1. Identify a set of key drivers (or key variables) that best frame the issue and will determine how events will play out.
  2. Give different weights to these drivers to generate a set of mutually exclusive but comprehensive scenarios or potential trajectories.
  3. Develop a set of indicators to alert decisionmakers to which scenario or alternative trajectory is beginning to unfold.

For example, in the weeks before Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, many were asking the question: When will the Taliban take Kabul? Answering this question required analysts to select pieces of information from a sea of incomplete and contradictory data and then formulate a set of potential scenarios when much of the needed data for conducting the analysis was missing.

In the Kabul case, the scenarios most often discussed in the press posited different time estimates (weeks, months, and years) for when the Taliban would gain control of Kabul. Instead of trying to predict a date when the Taliban would take over (an almost impossible task at the time), a better approach would have been to identify the key drivers that would determine when a takeover would occur. Some examples of key drivers are: the will of government leaders and Afghan soldiers to resist the Taliban, the extent of popular support for the government and the Taliban, prospects for installing a transition government, and US willingness to increase or decrease its military footprint.

As a situation became increasingly fluid, a primary analytic function was to track the indicators relating to each of these key drivers and alert decisionmakers to which scenario or alternative trajectory was emerging as the most likely. For example, an indicator that there would be sufficient time to evacuate Americans and Afghans would be the successful establishment of a transition government.

Hindsight is a very different matter. If a certain event already has occurred, such as the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, that changes how we—as analysts, journalists, or politicians—look at that event. The challenge is to avoid the cognitive trap of Hindsight Bias—or at least mitigate its impact.

Hindsight Bias: Claiming the key items of information, events, drivers, forces, or factors that shaped a future outcome could have been easily identified.

Information related to the event, which may have seemed less important than others in a Foresight analysis, will suddenly take on enormous significance because—and only in retrospect—it clearly pointed to the event that occurred. Before the event occurred, this same information was just part of the background noise in a sea of other information.

The tendency to retroactively give undue weight to some items of information is the essential difference between how the brain processes data in Foresight versus Hindsight. After we know about an event, it is not possible to put ourselves in the same cognitive state we experienced before it occurred. The physical structure of our brain is changed by what we have just learned has occurred, and this neuronal plasticity cannot be reset.

The Hindsight Bias cognitive pitfall helps explain why some observers claim that an apparent “intelligence failure” such as the failure to anticipate the rapid fall of Kabul should have been easier to predict than may actually have been the case. Commentators and politicians who understand the difference between Foresight and Hindsight know to exercise restraint in assessing the success of predicting a complex event or anticipating a surprise development. They recognize that Hindsight Bias is one of the most important cognitive pitfalls to protect against.

For more information on Hindsight and other cognitive biases see Richards J. Heuer Jr’s Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, (2007), page 161. To learn more about Key Drivers and Foresight techniques check out my Handbook of Analytic Tools & Techniques, 5th ed. (2019).

Rethinking the Impact of Global Climate Change: Challenge Your Assumptions

The release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on 9 August should cause many of us to rethink some of our key assumptions. Some common beliefs about climate change include: Our primary need is to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions; ice and snow will cover the Arctic for decades; and the Gulf Stream will always warm the European continent. Each of these statements is based on a key assumption that could prove to be wrong—and probably sooner than you think. Below, I will show you how to use research to challenge your assumptions, using these climate change examples.

  1. Concern over CO2 may be eclipsed by concern over methane.

The climate report cited above calls for slashing CO2 emissions but notes that methane—another invisible, odorless gas—has 80 times more warming power over the near term than CO2. The concentration of methane in the atmosphere is higher than any time in the last 800,000 years. In an interview given to CNN, a lead author of the climate report, Charles Koven, said the fastest way to mitigate the impact of climate change is by reducing methane.

Most of the methane that is pumped into the atmosphere comes from landfills, livestock, and the oil and gas industry. In the United States, 28 percent of the emissions come from livestock and 41 percent from the oil and gas industry. According to the US Energy Information Administration, methane is leaking from millions of abandoned oil and gas wells, two million miles of gas pipelines, and thousands of active gas wells and refineries that process the gas. The International Energy Agency estimates that the oil and gas industry could reduce emissions by 75 percent using existing technology.

  1. Ice and snow are disappearing in the Arctic and Greenland at unforeseen, accelerating rates.

The Arctic is warming two to three times more quickly than the global average. In June 2020, the temperature in a Siberian town soared to 100oF, the hottest temperature recorded in the Arctic. Scientists project that the North Pole will see completely ice-free summers by 2030.

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center 

Click here to watch a video from NASA: Annual Artic Sea Ice Minimum 1979-2020 with area graph

According to a recent British research report, Arctic ice is thinning 70 to 100 times faster than previously thought. As the ice thins, it reflects less sunlight, increasing the warming of the ice and water below it, generating a vicious feedback loop. From 1979 to 2021, the linear rate of decline for July sea ice extent is 7.5 percent per decade. The loss of sea ice since 1979 is equivalent to about ten times the size of the state of Arizona.

The Guardian has reported that the Greenland icecap is melting so rapidly that in just one day in early August temperatures rose to a record 68oF, flowing enough water into the Atlantic Ocean to cover the entirety of Florida in two inches of water. In 2019, ice loss was running at a rate of one million tons per minute, and melting is accelerating. Taking a long view, the Washington Post reports that Greenland could lose 35,900 billion tons of ice by 2100, raising sea levels three feet.

3.  A collapse of the Gulf Stream could put Europe in the icebox.

Most of us are familiar with the Gulf Stream (which is part of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation-AMOC) that transports warm, salty water from the tropics to northern Europe and then sends colder water south along the ocean floor. As a result of this circulation, Europeans enjoy considerably warmer weather.

A mounting concern is that increasing sea temperatures combined with the onslaught of fresh water from Greenland could disrupt ocean temperatures and salinity gradients, causing the AMOC to shut down. Recent research shows that the feedback loops that keep the AMOC churning are in decline and eight indirect measures of the circulation’s strength have become increasingly unstable.

The circulation appears to be reaching a tipping point. If it crosses that line and the AMOC shuts down, much of Europe and parts of North America will experience extreme cold. This change and other likely disruptions will be irreversible.

Predictions about the future are usually derived from an analysis of historical data and patterns of behavior. But sudden dramatic change can also come unexpectedly—like the Arab Spring or the 6 January insurrection. The best way to avoid surprise is to document and challenge your key assumptions and then be honest with yourself when data mounts that is inconsistent with your assumptions.

Understanding Complex Events

We are witnessing dramatic and disruptive events play out with increasing frequency within the United States and across the world: the COVID crisis, street protests in Cuba and South Africa, wildfires in Australia and the western United States, flooding in Europe, and the assassination of the Haitian president. In this Analytic Insider, I use a technique—Key Drivers Analysis—to demonstrate the use of structured analysis to make sense of complex situations.

When the press reports a major unexpected and dramatic event, the first question to ask yourself is: What Key Drivers would explain why this phenomenon occurred?

A Key Driver is a force or factor that fundamentally determines how or why an event will occur.

If you can identify a robust and comprehensive set of Key Drivers, you can better understand why something happened and anticipate better how future events will unfold. By understanding the Key Drivers, decision makers know where best they can exert the most leverage, and analysts understand what factors or forces will most likely determine how the situation evolves.

Example #1: Is Cuba Approaching a Tipping Point?
Recent public demonstrations on the streets of many towns and cities in Cuba reflect deep-seated dissatisfaction with the regime’s inability to meet the needs of its people—particularly with regard to inoculating the population against the ravages of COVID-19. Cuba prides itself on the quality of its health system. It enjoys the highest ratio of doctors to patients in the Western Hemisphere, but it has failed to inoculate its citizens.

The Castro brothers are no longer in power, and the people are restless. Whether dramatic political change will come to Cuba is hard to predict, but the answer to that question will revolve around an assessment of how these Key Drivers play out in the coming months:

  • The government’s success in managing the COVID crisis.
  • The government’s ability to deliver basic services, especially food, to the people.
  • The population’s access to the internet and other communications networks.
  • The emergence of resistance leaders who are too popular to be arrested or killed.

The current regime is unlikely to make much progress on the first two drivers. President Biden announced on 15 July that the United States was exploring how it could restore internet connectivity on the island. Much will depend on whether leaders emerge to mobilize a popular resistance without being eliminated.

Example #2: Has COVID Fundamentally Changed Business Practices?
COVID-19 dramatically changed how business is conducted on a daily basis. Work from home has become standardized and office meetings, conferences, and training have transitioned rapidly from in-person to virtual/online collaborative experiences.

The question is—once the COVID crisis is behind us—will we return to conducting business the way we did pre-COVID or have business practices been transformed for the long term?

In mid-July, Pherson facilitated a Foresight workshop hosted by the State Department’s Overseas Security Analysis Council (OSAC) that engaged senior analytic and security specialists from 20 global companies to focus on this question.

We identified three Key Drivers that will determine how the dynamic will play out:

  • The Evolution of the Virus: Will it be a persistent problem or a declining concern?
  • COVID Narratives: Will the public space engage the issue from a constructionist/problem-solving perspective or be dominated by destructive disinformation and conspiracy theory rhetoric?
  • Reimagining the Workspace: Will business leaders and workers return to their offices and past practices or will they institute reimagined business practices that emphasize more remote work, networking, and matrix management?

The future business workplace will also be influenced by two potential major Disruptors:

  • Surprising Innovations in Technology: Will new technologies emerge that protect private, distributed networks; enable effective collaboration systems; and ensure secure data protection?
  • New Security Risk Patterns: Have potential adversaries and competitors learned how to take advantage of our distributed work patterns and can these vulnerabilities be overcome?

A Disruptor is an innovation or intervention that significantly alters existing practices, i.e. the  automobile, the iPhone, or ransomware.

By identifying and exploring these Key Drivers, it should be easier to anticipate the potential for fundamental and dramatic change.

Learn more about Key Drivers in the Foresight section in Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, 3rd ed., (2021) or take one of our upcoming workshops on Foresight Structured Analytic Techniques.

How the Intelligence Enterprise Can Support Constructive Solutions

In my two previous Analytic Insider articles, I explored whether America could turn the corner and start forging constructive solutions to the existential threats confronting our nation. If we are to succeed, then we will need to reframe national conversations and press coverage around positive narratives.

In this final article in the series, I address the potential role that the intelligence community and analysts in particular can play in supporting the process of building constructive narratives. Hopefully, over time a collaborative and concerted effort to find positive solutions can supplant the destructive rhetoric that has undermined our democratic institutions in recent years.

One suggestion is that the broader national security enterprise should expand its audience to include not only decision makers but the population in general in order to spur a more informed debate. Some of the best intelligence officers are good storytellers; should we tap their talent to begin generating positive narratives that help inform a constructive dialogue? Such a reorientation may prove necessary because the traditional strategy to counter false narratives with facts does not appear to be working. Few supporters of a false narratives will admit they are wrong when presented with “the facts.” They live in a world of redefined reality where facts have little impact.

A good model to follow is the work we have seen in countries like Finland where much energy is going into developing positive narratives that take the oxygen away from false narratives. In the United States, attention can be focused on topics that garner substantial popular support, such as mitigating the impact of digital disinformation and global climate change; projections for and implications of the rate of global vaccinations; and the erosion of democratic norms and institutions. Emphasis would be given to developing consensus on what can be done globally to build the necessary coalitions to enact positive change.

If the intelligence community is to support constructive solutions, I would recommend a strategy of generating narratives that fall into the category of either Descriptive or Estimative analysis on the Analytic Spectrum (see graphic). A good example of a Descriptive narrative is the US IC’s assessment on foreign interference in the 2020 US Federal elections. A superb example of Estimative analysis is the Global Trends estimates that are published by the National Intelligence Council every four years. Less attention should be given to articles that focus on the other two elements of the Analytic Spectrum – Explanatory and Evaluative analysis – as those efforts are more likely to inflame debate rather than expand learning.

Intelligence organizations should consider shifting their primary mission to facilitating and publishing Strategic Foresight workshops. Such Foresight workshops would engage decision makers with academics and intelligence analysts to explore how the future might—and should—evolve, especially in ways that “wicked” problems might best be resolved. This approach holds great promise for addressing issues with global implications ranging from global climate change to health care to police reform.

An even more radical idea would be for government analysts to publish unclassified “opinion” articles for public consumption on key foreign policy issues, similar to the regular essays former Acting DCIA John McLaughlin now posts on EZY. The purpose of these articles would be for current intelligence analysts to succinctly capture what has just happened (Descriptive) or for National Intelligence Officers to speculate on how future events may evolve (Estimative).

As a result of enhancing the role of the IC to support constructive solutions, the nation’s dynamic could shift from thinking that society is polarized to a realization that a strong center can be mobilized to work together to build a better tomorrow. With a stronger center, compromise can become acceptable, and resources can be allocated more equitably. My hope is that civil discourse shifts from “playing the blame game” to “how can we work together to make all of our lives better?”

Moving Toward Constructive Solutions

In my previous Analytic Insider, we discussed whether America is likely to become increasingly polarized or could turn the corner and start forging constructive solutions to the many existential threats we now confront as a nation. We all expect that this will prove a major challenge for the US Congress, but the more critical question is whether Americans can begin the process of engaging in constructive dialogues.

If we are to successfully “turn the corner,” then we, as a people, will need to:

  • Spend more time talking to each other – not arguing with each other. The purpose of our conversations should be to gain perspective on why others think the way they do, not to impose our views on them. The focus when we speak should be to inform, not persuade. A good way to start a conversation is to ask where someone gets their information. If it is a different set of sources than yours then consider this a great opportunity to learn what data they are relying on to form their opinions. Later you can reflect on whether that data is valid. If it can be challenged, then send them reports or information that points out the factual errors in their data or the faults in their judgment that they can read privately without feeling challenged.
  • Stop arguing about “facts” and reframe discussions around positive narratives. What narratives best describe how the United States can best move forward? Learn from the past but focus attention and energy on the future. The metric for successful dialogues will be whether constructive narratives come to dominate our discussions. When you encounter negative, destructionist rhetoric on airwaves or social media, just turn it off. Focus on listening to or seeking positive solutions.
  • Spread the word that cognitive bias is extremely powerful and that mindsets are extraordinarily hard to change.
  • Lobby Congress and the Executive to join forces with the major privately-owned social media companies to establish an authoritative set of objective standards for what is appropriate and inappropriate to post on social media. Create a private-public partnership to establish a Social Media Standards Commission tasked with delivering within six months a framework to establish and maintain a set of standards for both print and images. One model which may merit duplicating is the European Commission’s March 2019 Code of Standards Against Disinformation to which Facebook, Google, and Twitter are signatories.

Get Off the Sidelines!

Pick a topic you care a lot about (education, local infrastructure, voting rights, the environment) and craft your own positive, personal narrative of what needs to be done to make things better. Identify who needs to be engaged and what resources are required to make it happen. Join and/or build a network connecting you with others who want to promote constructive narratives and forge fair and balanced solutions. Make sure your group is inclusive of all views on the topic. Once your “team” has agreed on a preferred, consensus outcome, construct an action plan and generate some indicators to track your progress.

One example of successful public engagement is Finland’s campaign against Digital Disinformation in the schools. According to a 2019 CNN Special Report, Finland was ranked first out of 35 countries in 2018 in a study measuring resilience to the “post-truth” phenomenon.

  • In 2015, Finland launched a concerted campaign to advise officials—and subsequently students in grades K to 12—on how to recognize fake news, understand why it goes viral, and develop strategies to fight it. The education system was reformed to emphasize critical thinking. In 2016, the critical thinking curriculum was revised to prioritize the skills students need to spot the sort of disinformation that clouded recent election campaigns in the US and across Europe. As one official noted: “The first line of defense is the kindergarten teacher.” One caveat, however, is to make sure skepticism does not give way to cynicism in students.
  • Another strategy that proved highly effective was to develop a strong, positive national narrative, rather than trying to debunk false claims. As one consultant explained: “The Finns have a very unique and special strength in that they know who they are. And who they are is directly rooted in human rights and the rule of law—a lot of things that Russia, right now, is not.” Can the same be said of the United States?

The next issue of the Analytic Insider will address the potential role of intelligence analysts in support of the process of building constructive narratives.