Intuition in Intelligence

As regular readers of this blog know, I spent my thirty-five-year government career in intelligence work. I learned early on that the end result of the hard work of intelligence is fact and nothing but fact. My opinion of the fact was immaterial.

But more often than not, it was intuition that led to the uncovering of the facts. Merriam-Webster defines intuition as “the power or faculty of attaining direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference.” To me, intuition is instant, instinctive knowledge not derived from research or factfinding. It’s something I already know beforehand.

So typically in my search for the truth about a foreign nation, I would conjecture about actions I had no data to confirm. My suspicion guided my search for fact. And many times, my intuition led to uncovering the truth I had suspected.

Long ago, I concluded that intimate knowledge of the intelligence target—how the enemy thought, how he saw the world, what his goals were—was invaluable in directing the collection of data about him. Knowing him well told me where to look and what to search for.

One example of many is the North Vietnamese conquest of Saigon that ended the Vietnam war. In April 1975, conventional wisdom of the day was that the war was over. The U.S. and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, that is, North Vietnam) had signed a peace treaty. But I had been collecting data on and studying the DRV in its drive to conquer South Vietnam for almost fifteen years. I knew the DRV and its communications like the back of hand. It was clear to me that the country was perfectly capable of lying to accomplish its goals. And I knew that it was determined to unify Vietnam under its rule. That intuition guided my search for data. And I found it. The evidence from signals intelligence (my specialty) was overwhelming that the DRV was preparing to attack Saigon. I warned everyone repeatedly. But I wasn’t believed. Saigon fell. Thousands died. And the U.S. lost a war for the first time.

So intuition and knowing where to look are key to intelligence success. Thank God I followed my instincts and listened to my inner voice—although ultimately I failed: I wasn’t believed.

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