Blog Archives

Olof Palme and intelligence analysis training

It’s the end of summer which means it’s time for my unintentional yet seemingly annual review of academic journals for articles about the intelligence and analysis. Over the coming week or two I’ll be posting about a number of articles that have caught my eye and what, if anything, I make of them.

I’ll kick off with this one which was able to scratch both my intelligence AND Nordic itches.

Was Olof Palme Killed by an Intelligence Agency? Ralf Lillbacka. International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence. Volume 24, Number 1. (oh…and don’t expect any sort of consistency in how I cite these articles…I’m too much of a slacker for that. TwS.)

Just in case you have no idea who Olof Palme was a bit of a recap. Palme was the Swedish Prime Minister and head of the Social Democratic Party in the mid-1980s. He held a number of controversial views (he was a strong supporter of the PLO and the ANC), was active in attempting to broker a peace deal between the Iraqis and Iranians (two nations not widely recognized at the time for their moderation and willingness to see someone else’s point of view), and enjoyed playing up his nation’s independent status by criticizing both the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In addition, Palme was notorious for disregarding personal security procedures and would often ditch his security detachment for significant periods of time.

So, it may not be particularly surprising to learn that late one evening in 1986, while Palme and his wife were walking home from a movie, he was shot and killed.

The murder has remained a cultural touchstone ever since and even though a suspect was found, tried and arrested (a drug addict with violent tendencies – the crime being decared a random act of violence), the Swedish public (and much of the political class) have not been satisfied with those results. Conspiracy theories began circulating almost immediately and continue to swirl in many, many variations. One theme that runs through most of theories is that the Palme murder was a professional assassination by a state or terrorist group and that is the subject of Lillbacka’s article.

He goes through a lengthy review of the case and then examines three competing hypotheses: Palme’s murder was a professional ‘hit’; it was a non-professional killing; it was an act of deception designed to make a professional killing appear unprofessional.

I have some issues with the formulations of Lillbacka’s hypotheses but still recommend this article highly for several reasons.

First, his explanation of his methodology and limitations is top notch and should serve as an example of how analysts may want to consider explaining their work to their audiences, particularly a subject which may be new or complicated for their intended audience. He lays out his assumptions clearly and allows the reader to follow along with his train of thought and agree or disagree without having to engage in a great deal of crystal ball reading to figure out how Lillbacka came to his conclusions.

Second, while he doesn’t mention it specifically, Lillbacka central effort revolves around Analysis of Competing Hypothesis. While he doesn’t use the exact same methodology many of us are used to, it should be immediately familiar and its incorporation within a work like this provides another example of how analysts can use it in their own products (and, unfortunately, there are few enough examples to draw upon).

Finally, it occurred to me as I was reading this article that the murder of Palme fits many of the criteria I set forth when identifying characteristics of a good intelligence training scenario. Few people outside of Scandinavia are familiar with the event, the ‘solution’ to the case remains ambiguous, and information is incomplete. At first I was a bit reluctant to include a murder because I’m not sure it would be profitable to go too far down the crime investigation road but if one were to look at the murder from a potential terrorism/espionage/organized crime angle I think it would work quite well.

The most challenging aspect to developing a training scenario around this case would be making sure you provided students with sufficient context and background information that they could make reasonable hypotheses and assumptions without bogging them down in lengthy lectures about late 20th century Swedish politics and international relations. Still, I suppose a starting point might be to work with existing conspiracy theories, each of which you could build an event matrix, timeline and/or association matrix and ask the analysts to evaluate them and then move forward with their own ACH.

I suppose this could also be a longer exercise that would allow analysts to do some independent research as well. Since it was a real-world event, there’s no reason to prevent students from bringing in outside information. In that case, you could use the critical thinking training I wrote about earlier (using John Carpenter’s The Thing as source material) as an introduction to some of the concepts and methodologies (made easier because it is a self-contained universe) and then give this as a larger, more self-directed project.

Hmmmm….another thing to add to the ‘to do’ list.

Similarities between investing, intelligence analysis

We’ve talked before about how the analytic techniques and critical thinking that serve as the foundation of intelligence analysis are the same used by many of us in our daily tasks and across a range of professions. In particular, I am always struck by the similarities between intelligence analysis and investing.

Investing uses standard analytic techniques and critical thinking to calculate risks, organize and analyze imperfect data, and identify alternative hypotheses, information gaps, and contrary evidence. Those who invest must be forward thinking and predictive of future events when considering information and circumstances within and outside of their control. While the goal is to make money, the process is similar to an analyst analyzing emerging trends and threats or the evolution in intent and capability of a group or country.

Consider the recent announcement by Hewlett Packard that the company is planning to spin off its personal computer business unit. The stock was hammered on Friday after downgrades and doubts about its future strategy followed. Without a clear vision forward, some investors may decide to avoid investing in HPQ altogether. Others may see an opportunity to consider whether investing in this down-but-maybe-not-out company presents a potentially lucrative upside.

An investor could use an intelligence analyst’s toolbox to calculate the risk and opportunity of an investment in HPQ, crunch numbers, gather data, analyze imperfect information, and develop an analytic product of where HPQ may be in a set time frame. Could the company survive without a third of its profits from a unit that had a low operating margin? How should the statements and outlook of the company’s leaders be interpreted? Is this an oversell, or is the company heading for more trouble and the selling is justified and likely to continue?

I read a book recently that said the best traders on Wall Street only make money on fifty-three percent of their trades. It’s in their analytic techniques and risk calculation that they maximize their chances for success and, perhaps more importantly, minimize their losses. They push themselves to think smarter and act on information that indicates a favorable risk-reward. News and global events that affect the market will come and go, but tried and tested analytic techniques and critical thinking methods are constants. Intelligence analysts take note.