Dennis J. Gleeson, Jr., was formerly a Director of Strategy in the Central Intelligence Agency’s Directorate of Analysis. For the past five years, he has been one of the driving forces behind how analysts might discover, explore, search for, and interact with information in the face of “big data.” Prior to joining the government, he worked at the Institute for Defense Analyses and wrote on topics like military innovation, military experimentation, and effects-based operations. During the most recent Senior Conference, we asked him to sit on our Data and Metrics panel, where his reputation as a critical and creative thinker who pointedly questions assumptions and teases out more concise narratives proved well-founded. This interview expands on some of the ideas he presented on the panel.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

CTC: How would you characterize the way we think about terrorism?

Gleeson: It’s often too simplistic. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, It could be argued that we needed the simple message of then President [George W.] Bush: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” The problem is that now, almost 15 years later, the discourse around terrorism in many cases has devolved into a simplified shorthand of “good guys” and “bad guys.”

CTC: Why is this shorthand problematic? Might it not reflect the criticality of mission or esprit de corps?

Gleeson: It might. The casual nature with which we use terms like terrorist and terrorism suggests that is not always the case though. I think some people do understand the history and nuance behind the shorthand. In other cases, though, I think that absolutist language masks nuances—or context—that might allow for new approaches to thinking about formulating a policy or executing a plan. That’s a problem. I am concerned by this for a handful of reasons:

First, how we speak and how we think are related. Lera Boroditsky, a professor at Stanford University, found that “the way we think influences the way we speak, but the influence also goes the other way.” [1] To me, this means that even if we, as individuals and professionals, routinely rely on and use this shorthand, we create the conditions for a range of cognitive biases like the bandwagon effect or confirmation biases that limit how we might think about a challenge or pursue an opportunity.

My second concern builds on the first: binary thinking limits the courses of action that are open to an individual or a group. I think the best explanation of this came from Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian politician. He wrote,

“An adversary is someone you want to defeat. An enemy is someone you have to destroy. With adversaries, compromise is honorable: Today’s adversary could be tomorrow’s ally. With enemies, on the other hand, compromise is appeasement.”

A common theme at the Senior Conference was the recognition that we cannot “capture or kill” our way out of the long war that we seem to have resigned ourselves to. In light of Ignatieff’s argument, binary thinking all but condemns us to those being the main strategies open to us.

Lastly, as a recovering political analyst, binary thinking has the potential to limit analysis and what a leader should expect of analysis. Analysis is about change detection: as a result, segmentation—geographic, organizational (i.e., factions, individuals), domain-specific (e.g., political, economic, societal, etc.)—against the backdrop of time allows the analyst to paint a far more nuanced picture of where a group (or an individual or a faction) is or is going on some variant of Ignatieff’s scale of ally, partner, adversary, or enemy.

CTC: How do we prioritize our efforts?

Gleeson: The challenge for our country is to consider, really consider, the threat—in terms of motive, means, and opportunity—they and other groups pose to US national interests. In that, I tend to agree with folks like Micah Zenko, who has highlighted the tendency to use hyperbole as a political tool. Arm-waving might be great for securing funding for a program, but it is a disservice to the American people insofar that not everything can be an existential threat demanding immediate action. [2]

There will always be people and organizations doing, or planning to do, things that are inimical to their fellow man, as well as to the interests, security, and safety of the American people; that said, the United States will never be able to respond to each and every one of these people and groups. As a result, the decision to respond—and the costs that we are willing to incur and ask the American people to pay—should be the product of serious discussion and debate, not sound-bite driven posturing that plays well on the news.

CTC: You talked about the challenges that binary thinking poses to analysis. Given that metrics are very much in vogue, could you expand on that?

Gleeson: Everyone is in the midst of shifting to working with larger volumes of more diverse data. The consequence is that, as Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier captured in their book Big Data, correlations are likely to be more interesting and useful than, let’s say, conceptual models that are based on assumptions and experiences. The correlations, even if they are poorly understood, encourage asking more and different questions, spawn new lines of research, etc.

The challenge is that absent a well understood, easily quantifiable thing they tend to be arbitrary. It might be easy to measure activity or output, but it is often difficult to measure effect. Binary thinking makes metrics easy though perhaps not terribly useful: did X number of missions or sorties kill or neutralize Y number of bad guys?

A while back, Jessi Hempel, who’s now a senior writer at Wired, made this great point in an article for Bloomberg Business that still resonates with me. “Metrics madness can lead to confusion, dysfunction, and less innovation, not more.

The common mistakes are putting in too many metrics, measuring the wrong things, misaligning metrics within organizations, and counting what can be counted, not what counts.” [3]

Unfortunately, metrics tend to be recast in ways that help protect participants and programs. They make for great PowerPoint slides; they allow for all sorts of bar graphs and pie charts.

Unfortunately, the charts tend to speak more to activity or output than effect.

CTC: How might we incorporate this thinking in a practical way?

Gleeson: In the context of the Army, I think it ends with doctrine and field manuals. Doctrinal publications such as ADP 3-0 (“Unified Land Operations”), ADP 3-07 (“Stability”), and ADP 3-37 (“Protection”) all speak to facets of the challenges and opportunities of dealing with enemies and adversaries that routinely apply “unconventional” strategies and tactics in pursuit of their goals.

The question is how we get from where we are to a conceptual framework that better reflects what we have learned over the past 15 years of contending with and fighting ideologically driven groups that transition between being terrorist groups (as defined by their actions) and insurgent movements. [4]

The Army generated massive amounts of data over the course of its deployments to and operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. With the benefit of hindsight (i.e., other historical data and reporting), what correlations might be found that spark discussion and debate?

The important thing here is Army data should not—cannot—be the only data considered: what did other government departments and agencies report? What did non-governmental organizations report? The volume of data we routinely generate far exceeds the capacity of an individual to process it; fortunately storage and computational power are both cheap enough to allow for us to consider far more data that we could have even five years ago.

CTC: What is the next step after the analysis?

Gleeson: The next step should be submitting some of the hypotheses and theories that emerge around the correlations to testing. What might a wargame that seeks to undercut an insurgency look like? How might the Army better achieve “stability” and “protection” in the context of commonly correlated conditions? What might small-scale experiments like the ones Hans von Seeckt conducted prior to the Second World War [5] look like relative to the challenge of engaging and thwarting ideologically driven adversaries and enemies? How might other partners and players in the theater of operations help?

The final step would be to distill the insights into discrete lessons and philosophies that can be passed on to soldiers throughout the Army. Having worked with the Department of Defense and having come out of another large governmental bureaucracy, I think the key is to find a way to explain what might be a set of complex dynamics or ideas in plain language. Jargon can be every bit as harmful as binary thinking. What would Sun Tzu or Miyamoto Musashi say if they were asked to review the next generation of doctrinal publications?

As a lifelong civilian, these are methodologies I would consider. I am sure the men and women at the Center for Army Lessons Learned and the US Army Training and Doctrine Command are grappling with issues like this.

In the run-up to this interview, I read Major Robert A. Doughty’s The Evolution of US Army Tactical Doctrine, 1946-1976. In it, he speaks to what I suspect is a core function and responsibility of the U.S. Military Academy:

Doctrine, nevertheless, cannot perform the impossible. It can only provide guidelines for action, not final answers. Given the infinitely varied situations on the battlefield, the application of doctrine requires judgment. While doctrine is important for providing models for adaptation, the prime factors remain the imagination, the inventive genius, and the will to fight of the American soldier.

[1] Lera Boroditsky, “How Language Shapes Thought.” Scientific American. 304, 2011, pp. 62-65.
[2] Micah Zenko, “Exaggeration Nation,” Foreign Policy, November 21, 2014.
[3] Jessi Hempel, “Metrics Madness,” Bloomberg Business, September 24, 2006.
[4] Joint Publication 1-02 –The Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms defines insurgency as “The organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify, or challenge political control of a region.”
[5] James S. Corum, The Roots of Blitzkrieg: Hans von Seeckt and German Military Reform, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992, Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett (eds), Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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