Why and how journalists should think like spies 

Future News 76

“It’s very serious, isn’t?” was Margaret Thatcher’s reported reaction during the afternoon of Wednesday 31 March. The then British Prime Minister had effectively learnt of Argentina’s plans to invade the Falkland Islands. Thatcher had been handed unequivocal signals intelligence from Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the UK’s listening post to the world. 

The Gloucestershire-based boffins had managed to decipher Argentine naval communications, revealing that the military junta had already carried out a covert reconnaissance mission near Port Stanley and a taskforce was on its way to overwhelm the small detachment of Royal Marines on the island guarded by the lightly armoured patrol ship HMS Endurance in an operation code-named Rosario. 

We know of this account thanks to Professor Sir David Omand, who was then principal private secretary to Defence Secretary John Knott, the pair who burst into Thatcher’s meeting with the pouch of history-defining intelligence. His reply to the Iron Lady? “The only response was ‘yes, Prime Minister’,” he told FN. 

The then US President and close Thatcher ally Ronald Reagan was telephoned in quick order and when his subsequent calls were ignored by President Leopoldo Galtieri, the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Defence and the First Sea Lord of Navy Sir Henry Leach used the advance notice of the invasion to put the UK’s own taskforce together. “[The intelligence] saved her political career,” Omand said, as it gave Thatcher “just enough” time to prepare the country’s response and avoid an outraged nation and furious Conservative Party. 

The Falklands were retaken after the Argentine forces surrendered on 14 June 1982, but thousands of combatants had been killed, wounded and maimed, with an estimated cost of around £3bn on the British side. 

A lesson was to be learned from this experience about ‘strategic notice’ or, as Omand put it, the UK could have “prepositioned submarines or ships or reinforced the garrison, given enough time”. But the decision makers at the time instead relied on “magical thinking” and thought that the military junta would continue to peacefully negotiate on the sovereignty of the Falklands and South Georgia territories. 

The story is really about a failure of imagination and one that Omand uses to introduce his own “manifesto in favour of rationality”, How Spies Think. He offers up ten lessons in intelligence around a framework of analytical thinking dubbed ‘SEES’: 

  • Situational awareness of what is happening and what we face now. 

  • Explanation of why we are seeing what we do and the motivations of those involved. 

  • Estimates and forecasts of how events may unfold under different assumptions. 

  • Strategic notice of future issues that may come to challenge us in the longer term.

A former director of GCHQ who sat on the Joint Intelligence Committee for seven years, Omand was catalysed to codify the process of an intelligence analyst because he became dismayed at the “disinformation, half-truths and deceptions” that were being spread across social media during the Brexit referendum in the UK in 2016 and the US Presidential election campaign of the same year. 

For the former spy master there are two types of thoughts: the rationale and emotional. “The emotional side was creeping over to distort the rationale,” he warned. How Spies Thinks therefore arms everyone, including journalists, with the tools to think critically thanks in part to the inclusion of the Bayesian inference method, where you have to assign a probability to an outcome and update it according to any new and good information you are provided with. 

Newsrooms could find this particularly useful when deploying correspondents or devoting resources to a certain beat. Editors may, by way of example, reason that an incident has a probability value of 0.1 or a 10% likelihood of turning into a big, agenda-shifting story, but new information could increase this to 0.4 or 40%. 

This is all very hygienic, so what happens when the added pressure of a typically time and resource poor newsroom is added to the thinking process? “The same outputs are needed,” Omand stressed. “You’ve got to get the facts on the ground and if you haven’t got them you need to get them.” 

The good news is that there is more open source information (How Spies Think offers up some handy tips in this realm) available than ever before so journalists can cross-check apparent facts. Though, Omand conceded that the explanation part is “still hard” because it’s easy to jump to conclusions or get drawn into what he calls an inductive fallacy. Good practice here is to clearly outline the assumptions baked into the projection, something the scientific advisers have done well in the communications around Covid-19, according to Omand. 

Diversity in the workforce and of opinion is also very important. Omand touches upon the deeply embarrassing Kim Philby case, which saw the head of counter-intelligence for the CIA James Angleton, Mi5 and the Secret Intelligence Service (Mi6) being tricked by the Soviet-aligned double-agent. Such was the success of his subterfuge, Philby, who rose through the ranks to become British liaison with American intelligence agencies, was tipped for the top of Mi6 at one point – M, in other words, could have worked for the Kremlin. 

Boiled down, Philby’s public school connections, Oxbridge education and general clubability allowed him to slip through undetected and up the system (he was recruited by the Soviets in 1934 and defected in 1963). “It would be generally accepted inside the secret world that the English establishment that ran secret intelligence in those days had serious issues around conformity,” Omand, a Cambridge graduate himself who also addresses the issue of groupthink in How Spies Think, said. 

As for how important the news media industry is to the intelligence world, Omand said he read the FT and The Economist as head of GCHQ and now also digests The Guardian, Washington Post and The New York Times. But he warned of a “dramatic scaling down” of foreign and specialist correspondents across the industry, while the BBC remained “world beating” in the breadth and depth of its coverage. 

“I’m a great supporter of the free press and investigative journalism, which keeps politicians and the intelligence community honest,” he said. Social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, are also “fantastic innovations” in Omand’s eyes, which have helped the world get through the Covid-19 pandemic. However, he described the “dark side” of the internet that was “hard-baked” into its protocols.  

“It’s possible to push stories out and remain anonymous,” Omand said. “That rightly pushes responsibility back to the companies that run social media. They tried for many years to say that they just maintain pipes and that it was not part of their job to know what passed through the pipes...They should act more like publishers with some liability for what is passing through their systems.” 

The intelligence expert also credits the relatively recent adoption of anti-misinformation and other interventions by the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Google/YouTube (as seen in the run-up to the 2020 US White House election) to economic rather than political pressures. “They woke up because big advertisers started pulling their accounts,” he claimed. 

For Omand, and for the social media companies for that matter, this is where machine-learning algorithms can help moderate because of the mass scale of interactions, publications and comments across the platforms.

He warned, however, that users needed to get used to the idea of “false-positives”, where credible and acceptable material may be scrubbed from a platform. “There has to be a fast system to restore [credible] material once it has passed through human moderation,” Omand said. “You are going to get those cases and you can’t avoid them.” 

The only platform you’re going to catch the first UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator on is LinkedIn, where he has a “small presence” mainly due to his visiting professorship at King’s College London. If he were to post a review of the late John le Carré’s works, especially the Karla Trilogy around George Smiley’s escapades, on that platform, Omand would describe the books as a “delight to read...not really realistic, but fun”. 

And has he ever used the word ‘mole’, a term le Carré (aka David Cornwall) who passed away earlier this week is credited with coining? “I’ve certainly used the word. But most of his other terminology is not in current use…” 

How Spies Think: Ten Lessons in Intelligence is available online and in stores now. 

💼 Jobs and business

🎧 Podcasts

🤖 Technology and research

📧 Contact

For high-praise, tips or gripes, please contact the editor at iansilvera@gmail.com or via @ianjsilvera. Follow on LinkedIn here. 

Illustration: Freepik