CIA Simulation

It’s that time of year again. Recruiting season at the University of Chicago includes visits from all the usual suspects–Goldman Sachs, Bain, and the Credit Suisse. But for the fifty or so attendees at the Central Intelligence Agency’s information session last Wednesday, it was more than just an information session: It was December 1, 1941. The group of CIA hopefuls ran the gamut from zealous third-years to recent graduates, including a dissatisfied veteran of the financial industry. Armed with fifteen pages of intelligence, the attendees were split into groups of nine to prepare a five minute briefing on the possibility of war with Japan for the Directors of National Intelligence and Central Intelligence, followed by a five minute grilling by the same individuals. The two analysts overseeing the simulation left the groups with ominous words of advice: “You’ll sink or swim as a team.”

It wasn’t much like the movies, but tensions ran high during the hour-long preparation for the briefing. Far from the expectation of a too-confident agency ready to fire at will, dissent was encouraged, and the analysts-as-directors pushed the group to admit uncertainties and gaps in information. Pearl Harbor would happen in six days, but it was near impossible to prove it with the information at hand. A thirty-year veteran of the South Asia desk commented that, despite disagreements, the group “got to the heart” of the issue. The directors took the exercise seriously, at one point incredulously reacting, “I have to go to the president and say we’ve lost the Japanese fleet?”

As interesting and high-pressure as the simulation was, it was hard not to feel that an analyst at the CIA is just another cog in the machine. Every piece of analysis must come through the lens of U.S. interests and hew to the CIA’s established stance.

The CIA finds itself in increasingly different territory after 9/11, but it still practices intelligence as an art, not a science. This was perhaps the main lesson from the simulation–as one analyst quipped, “You can be wrong for all the right reasons, and you can be right for all the wrong reasons.”