A Conversation with Professor Sir David Omand, One of Britain’s Most Senior ex-Intelligence Officers & Author of ‘How Spies Think: 10 Lessons in Intelligence’

Professor Sir David Omand

Intelligence officers discern the truth. They gather information – often contradictory or incomplete – and, with it, they build the most accurate possible image of the world. With the stakes at their absolute highest, they must then decide what to do. In everyday life, we are faced with contradictory, incomplete information, too. Whether it’s reading the news on social media, figuring out the next step in our careers, or trying to discover if gossip about a friend is legitimate, we are building an image of the world and making decisions about it.

In this exclusive interview, I speak to Professor Sir David Omand, one of Britain’s most senior ex-intelligence officers. He was the first UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator, responsible to the Prime Minister for the professional health of the intelligence community, national counter-terrorism strategy and “homeland security“. He served for seven years on the Joint Intelligence Committee. He was Permanent Secretary of the Home Office from 1997 to 2000, and before that Director of GCHQ.  We talk through the incredible tools In his new book How Spies Think: 10 Lessons in Intelligence and how the big decisions in our lives can be easier when using the frameworks used by British intelligence.

Q: What is analytical thinking, and why is it so important?

[Professor Sir David Omand]: Analytical thinking is best thought of as a form of scientific enquiry where we progressively improve our understanding of world, and so really come to understand the situation facing us. We go out and acquire information and we try to make sense of it by explaining how it comes to be. We compare different explanations, or hypotheses, to find the one that best fits the evidence available, reducing the problem to the simplest terms possible and without introducing extraneous hypotheses to make the explanation work. In comparing alternative explanations, it is not necessarily the one with the most evidence apparently in its favour that we should choose but the one with least evidence against it. One solid piece of evidence can demolish a hypothesis.  Once we have a sound explanation it becomes possible to estimate how events may unfold on different assumptions and that will really help us make sound evidence-based decisions. If we discover later that the facts on the ground have changed then of course we have to redo our analysis and must be prepared to change our minds about what course to follow, which is why I use the term hypothesis that implies it is a provisional explanation of what is going on.

Analytical thinking is needed whenever you are faced with a strong desire or a compelling need to take a decision. You may have a very strong emotional feeling that you want to move out of the city centre to a new district, say closer to open country. But to make a rational decision you have to start by looking objectively at the options open to you, not least affordability, property prices, access to social amenities, medical facilities, transport routes and so on. You gather information on the choices then open to you. You mustn’t accept uncritically the data you have gathered, for example from the websites of realtors. Information may be incomplete and some of it may be misleading. You will have to understand what lies behind the information you access such as the reason why property in a particular block is cheaper than others (perhaps too close to the scheduled new freeway!). If you’ve thought critically and you’ve tested some alternative options, you will no doubt pick the decision path that best meets as many of your objectives as possible within the real-world objective constraints you have modelled. That shows you are aware of your thinking and approaching decisions from an analytical perspective.

Q:  How can we know what is true?

[Professor Sir David Omand]: Our knowledge of the world is always fragmentary and incomplete and our explanations of how the world works have therefore to be considered as provisional. This means we have to accept that sometimes we will turn out afterwards to have been wrong. But we can use that knowledge to learn and refine our ideas. A particular problem is that we cannot perceive the world directly, rather, we perceive it through our own senses. This is what Plato spoke of where reality was perceived indirectly as the shapes of shadows on a cave wall. Because all we can know comes via our senses we may unconsciously (as in optical illusions) filter out information, or exaggerate its importance, to fit in with our preconceptions, desires or fears. We may not be aware that such emotional framing of an issue is distorting our personal perception of a situation. Intelligence analysts of course strive to be impartial and rigorously to test their ideas against the evidence. But the standard of true objectivity is a high one.

Historians understand this. Their explanation of past events will relate to their choice of which aspects to emphasise, and even which archives to explore. There is therefore always room for revision of earlier theories of the causes of historical events, as we see from the many explanations that have been advanced over the years for the outbreak of the first World War. Intelligence analysts, like historians, have to be particularly careful that unconsciously they don’t just look for evidence which is likely to validate their theories. It is also too easy, as Shakespeare wrote in Henry VI, part 2 for the wish to be father to the thought, believing the evidence points to a conclusion because we want to believe that it is so.

Q: How can we know whether to be transparent, or to keep information secret?

[Professor Sir David Omand]: We wouldn’t want to live in a world of full transparency. That is a world where I can see into your brain, and you into mine. Perhaps one day this will be possible… we will be able to plug into each other’s brains, and I will experience the world as you, and you as me…. A hive-mind… I just hope I’m not around when that technology arrives. We all need privacy for our thoughts, and inside government we need politicians and advisers to be able to explore ideas in private, and tell truths to each other in safe spaces, before opening up to public debate. In everyday life we need limitations on transparency. Sometimes it’s better to think of translucency or levels of opacity- like the smoked glass on an interview room that allows you to know it is occupied and there’s someone inside but doesn’t reveal who.

What is- and is not- an acceptable level of transparency also varies with time and culture. I joined GCHQ (a British intelligence agency) in 1969. At the time, the very existence of this intelligence agency was a secret. The work of GCHQ and of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) was only acknowledged by the British government in the Intelligence Services Act of 1994, following legislation on the Security Service in 1989. That is very recent history. Before these Acts of Parliament there was a polite fiction that the intelligence agencies didn’t exist despite the very large numbers of people who had worked in intelligence during the Second World War. Today the British intelligence agencies are regulated by law, feature in movies, have very visible headquarters and websites of their own and even have published authorised histories written by scholars.

The purpose of intelligence is to improve the quality of decision making by reducing ignorance. The more you know the more likely it is that a sound decision will be taken. That applies to all of us in our day-to-day decisions. For secret intelligence services, the information they seek involves finding out the secrets of our those who mean us harm, including dictators, terrorists and serious criminals who will go to extraordinary and violent lengths to protect their secrets. If they knew what sources and methods are being used to find out their secrets, they can easily dodge the intelligence gathering. A necessary secrecy has therefore to be kept over actual intelligence activity.  I have thought hard about what it is in the intelligence world that must remain secret and the answer is that we must protect which sources and methods are being applied to which target at what time. The existence of the various ways of gathering intelligence, such as human agents and access to digital data in general terms, is on. the other hand well known.

Knowing the secrets of people that mean us harm is a good thing for public security. And if we want global stability, we must understand the dynamics of potentially hostile nations, and be able to prevent crises degenerating into conflict.

Q:  How can we rapidly and resiliently build trust?

[Professor Sir David Omand]: The ability to build trust is an essential human skill but it’s not easy to build trust relationships quickly and certainly not in the midst of crisis. In many ways it’s easier to think about ways in which individuals or organizations can over time build a reputation for trustworthiness as a characteristic. That comes from consistent behaviour that demonstrates integrity, honesty, truthfulness, and keeping one’s word.

Think about one of your friends. Their level of trustworthiness in your eyes may be due to the fact that you’ve known them 20 years and never seen them behaving badly, such as betraying a confidence. Think of a business partner or even a business rival, where trustworthiness may have been demonstrated by the fact that they’ve always ‘played fair’ or ‘delivered when they said they would’ and ‘not made false promises’

Across the Atlantic, the recent US Presidential Election reveals another side of trust. The Trump Base certainly turned out to vote for him, but largely because they trusted that he shared their views on issues they care deeply about, whereas the trust President-Elect Biden inspired seems more due to his long record of service to the people of the United States, his deep involvement in international relations, climate change and his exemplary record of personal behaviour, including political opponents. That is what we could describe as ‘trustworthy’ behaviour.

Q:  How do our minds deceive us when making decisions?

[Professor Sir David Omand]: When any of us have to take a decision, there are two different kinds of thinking we have to process in our minds simultaneously. Rational analysis is anchored in facts, explanations of those facts, estimations and risk management. But we also need to understand what emotionally drives us to want an outcome from a decision. It’s driven by values, hopes and fears and our own psychology.

We see these two modes of thinking playing out with how countries are responding to Covid. In the UK, you have the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) who are a committee of scientists and doctors producing impartial advice based on evidence and modelling. On the other side you have decision makers with political mandates who have to create a view of what ought to happen from what is (Hume’s law). They are making the values-based decisions that scientists cannot. The same is true of the intelligence community. You have the intelligence analysts doing the rational assessment of what is going on and options open and then you have the politicians and policy makers producing a values-based answer to the question ‘what ought we to do?’ in any given circumstance, after absorbing the assessment.

I worry that the emotional side has these days too much dominance over the rational. We think we’re being rational, but unconsciously we’re being swayed by the power of some of the images and words that we’ve seen, particularly on social media.

Q: How can we make decisions with incomplete information?

[Professor Sir David Omand]: Today, there is more information out there than we could possibly cope with so often the problem is not that our access to information is limited, but rather that we need to select the information that’s relevant without introducing unconscious biases such as confirmation bias which causes you to select the information that leads to a conclusion you unconsciously want to reach. We cannot help being unconsciously influenced and have to work very hard to understand our own psyche and motivations. Making decisions should be a team-sport, and that means you bring a number of minds to the table to expose the biases and differences that may exist.

Putting the jigsaw pieces together is hard if you don’t have a picture on the front of the box and with intelligence work, you have more than one puzzle mixed-up in the same box. Our world is extremely complex, and so you have to differentiate the bits of information that will help you solve your puzzle amongst the pieces of others. To achieve this in practice is a mixture of experience, training and tools such as the analysis of competing hypotheses (ACH). These days we are also seeing machine learning and artificial intelligence applied to data sets to help intelligence services and law enforcement to select a manageable set of information likely to be relevant to investigations, clues that may well then have to be followed up and checked out by old fashioned shoe leather detection. AI and machine learning have huge potential to augment intelligence services and decision making, subject of course to proper independent oversight.

Q:  How can we maintain hope and optimism in challenging times?

[Professor Sir David Omand]: I’m a natural optimist, partly because of my own psychological make-up but also because of my experience that shows that nothing ever turns out quite as bad as it first appears (or, I have to admit, as good as it first might seem).

The internet for example is a wonderful tool for human development. We will be completely reliant on it for our economic and social wellbeing forever. There is no going back, some would say we have sold our soul to it. Imagine having to live through this pandemic without the internet. The pain of separation from our loved ones… the isolation… the lack of information… all these things would be so much worse without the internet. The internet also has brought many challenges with it, but it is one of the tools that makes it possible to live through difficult times. As a society we will always face difficulty, we will find ways of getting through it, and we will endure. That is the human condition. We don’t have to accept failure as inevitable when faced with bad things happening… if we understand what is happening and apply rational, analytical thought, then we can find the right ways to respond.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.