Title: The SIGINT Philosopher: In Praise of Not Knowing
Release Date: 2015-08-11
Document Date: 2012-08-16
Description: This 16 August 2012 article from the internal NSA newsletter SIDToday “SIGINT Philosopher” column, considers how analysts should tackle the situation where they cannot fully answer the questions they are tasked with: see the Intercept article The Philosopher of Surveillance, 11 August 2015.
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(U) The SIGINT Philosopher: In Praise of Not Knowing
Run Date: 08/16/2012
(U) I have to begin with a complaint. Hopefully, this will not
incite a war with our IAD comrades, but my beef is really
with IT types. You've ruined a great word. If you Google the
word "agnostic" on your NSANet browser right now, you will
find the results rife with tech-y terms like these:
• The PW storage environment is agnostic regarding...
• Comcast's protocol-agnostic...
• Application layer is bearer agnostic...
(U) ...and so on. In all those uses, "agnostic" means
something like "indifferent to." This tech-y use of the word
has even snuck out into the common vernacular; a leader
once called on SID to become "geographically agnostic."
(U) But that's not what the word means. As the classically
trained analyst who sits across from me will attest, its Greek
roots literally mean "without knowledge." An "agnostic" in
„_i: _ :_a- : ___________i__ : ______________4- n „ ji_
1. The SIGINT
Back -- with a
2. The SIGINT
Have Been a
3. The SIGINT
When Brevity Is
Just the Soul of
4. The SIGINT
Praise of Not
5. The SIGINT
religious terms is someone wno is uncertain aoout uous
existence, and who possibly believes the question is
unknowable. But that doesn't mean agnostics don't care
whether God exists.
(S//SI//REL) I ascend this arcane etymological soapbox not
just because a word has been abused. Words change meaning
in any language, and there's naught I can do about it. But the
admission that one does not know something is really an
excellent intellectual exercise. I recall one time, while
stationed at^^^^J when I briefed the^^^^^^^
Ministry of National Defense on a | military
exercise. The had just gotten done giving
eleven hypotheses. I explained simply that we weren't sure.
The General looked at his countrymen and said, "If you don't
know, say you don't know like the Americans."
Unlike All My
Teammates, I Am
6. The SIGINT
Lessons for Civil
Servants from the
War (That Don't
(C//REL) The IC is full of questions to which we do not
know the answer. And yet we are smart, ambitious,
conscientious people who were hired to answer those
questions, dagnabit, and so we go about trying to answer
them industriously. We can take one of two approaches. First,
we can write our best guesses, and couch them with all sorts
of qualifying language. This is the approach some take with
Although we may know less about
than any country on earth, hardly a day goes by when my
"highlights of IC reporting" e-mail doesn't have a
report in it, in which some industrious thinker has just
pontificated that^^^^^^^ might be open to the West
because Mickey Mouse appeared in parade.
Just by volume, you'd think we actually knew a lot about this
(U//FOUO) NSA often takes a second approach, where we
attempt to address a very small subset of an important
question. Say there is an intelligence need (IN) for Zendian
economic information. People want to know how the main
sectors of the Zendian economy are performing, whether the
needs of the people are being met, and what the high-level
plans are to direct the economy. Reasonable questions. But
NSA doesn't have the access to answer them. Their reclusive
leaders do not use electronic communications we can target.
Their missions abroad use triple pig-Latin encryption, and
underlying it all is the darn Zendian language that nobody
here can even speak. So what do we do? Well, it turns out we
can get access to a Zendian gum-chewing manufacturer that
has its operations based in the North Pole. So our Zendian
Econ team writes 132 reports on Zendian gum sales under the
Zendian economic IN. Analysts in other agencies are so
happy to get anything, they report that they are grateful for
the reporting, which leads leadership here to conclude the
team is doing its mission.
(U//FOUO) Now, I've been in positions before where I was
working the equivalent of the Zendian gum factory. There
wasn't much I saw of use in the collection I had to work with.
And if that's you, and that's where you find yourself, you
absolutely should try to do something rather than nothing.
You're a civil servant, and you should do the best you can to
give value for your paycheck.
(U//FOUO) But it would also be nice for those laboring on
these kinds of missions to have their leaders occasionally
recognize how little we really know.* Often, in their
understandable desire to keep morale high and fight for
resources, they tend to always focus on the positive: "We got
87 positive feedback reports from customers! Our customers
love our stuff!" That's fine, but going overboard with this sort
of thing can lead analysts to conclude they have gone crazy.
Occasionally hearing "you know, we just aren't able to
answer the questions our customers really want" can
actually be a refreshing bit of honesty. A little (real)
agnosticism would really help.
(U) This kind of honesty can help to "rip off the bandage" and
reveal how difficult the task of good intelligence gathering
really is. It can prevent throwing good money after bad when
leadership believes its current efforts are working. It also
helps maintain our ethos as honest, straight-shooting
(U) But, you know, whatever. I'm agnostic to the whole thing.
*(U//FOUO) I realize some of you have great access and
really can answer a lot of your customers' questions. For you,
just know that I hate you, and click on over to a recent Signal
Comments/Suggestions about this article?
"(U//FOUO) SIDtoday articles may not be republished or
reposted outside NSANet without the consent of S0121
(DL sid comms)."
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Last Modified: 11/10/2012 / Last Reviewed: 11/10/2012
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DERIVED FROM: NSA/CSSM 1-52, DATED 08 JAN 2007
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