In 2002, Defense Secretary Don
Rumsfeld got sneers and jeers for rambling about "known unknowns." But Rumsfeld
was onto something. He was trying to make a crucial distinction originally developed
by Sherman Kent, the legendary leader of the CIA's analytic branch. Kent argued
that there are three types of intelligence:
1. Information that is knowable in the world and known by our government;
2. Information that is knowable in the world but not known by our government;
3. Information that is not knowable to anyone at all.
The first, "knowable and known"
category includes things like weapons that can be counted in theory and have
been counted by U.S. officials in practice. The number of Chinese aircraft
carriers, for example, is well known (they currently have one, a refurbished Ukrainian ship). The second category of intelligence includes things that can
be discovered in theory by our intelligence agencies but have not been discovered in practice. We know
about the existence of China's carrier, but unless you have been on board or
have a spy who has, it's hard to know how the newly retrofitted ship operates
under various weather and battle conditions. Carrier performance is known by some
in the Chinese navy but probably not by us. The third intelligence category is
the doozy: Things that are not knowable to anyone at all. This is the world of
Assessing even our own intentions turns out to be harder than you might think. Imagine that I asked you to write on a piece of paper where you intend to spend your summer vacation next year. Eleven months from now, you retrieve your piece of paper and compare what you predicted to what you actually did. There is a pretty good chance that your prediction turns out to be wrong, for a gazillion possible reasons. Maybe you took up snorkeling, gave up smoking, bought a house, lost a job, had a baby. Or maybe the change in plan had nothing to do with you -- the hotel closed for renovation, the travel deal expired, the security situation there deteriorated. Life has a way of intervening, making even the best laid plans go awry.
This is the easiest case: It's you predicting your own behavior. Now try predicting the behavior of someone else. Add volumes of information, some of it correct, some incomplete, most of it probably wrong. Extend the time horizon. And then consider that this person is actively trying to deceive you.
Welcome to the world of intelligence analysis.
This is why intelligence agencies have
such a hard time understanding whether China's rise will be peaceful, whether
Iran is going nuclear, whether Burma's political opening will continue, whether
the Muslim Brotherhood is serious about democratization, or what in the world
Kim Jong Un will do next. Even Kim may not know the answer to that one. But maybe
Joe Scarborough and Nate Silver can bet on it.