How versus Why

January 12, 2017

As most of you know by now, I am a big advocate of improving your CI skills by broadening your knowledge and experience. To that end, I am a voracious reader. For the Holidays, my significantly better, Carolyn Vella, founding partner of Helicon, gave me a “strange” book, something she does every year. This year’s gift book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind[1], sheds some light on a current US intelligence story.

The relevant details (as of now) are that the US Intelligence Community recently reported that (a) Russia tried to interfere in the US election for President through hacking, disinformation, and other means and (b) Russia’s “goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential president”, and further that “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”[2]

Note that this intelligence assessment has two parts, one the “how” and the other the “why”. There is a significant difference between them, in intelligence terms, and in how they have been received in the political arena.

Professor Harari writes that

“What is the difference between describing ‘how’ and explaining ‘why’? To describe ’how’ means to reconstruct the series of specific event that led from one point to another. To explain ‘why’ means to find casual connections that account for the occurrence of this particular series events to the exclusion of all others.”[3]

In the case of this intelligence assessment, this difference explains why there is less dispute about part (a), the “how” of the assessment, since it involves a narrative detailing specific events. However, part (b), the ‘why’, is more controversial because the non-classified assessment provided no evidence about the “casual connections” underlying that assessment leading to these conclusions to the exclusion of all others.”[4]. In other words, just laying out the “how” is not enough to support your determination of the “why”. You must always do more.

Keep this in mind when doing your own CI analysis.

[1] Yuval Noah Harari, Harper, 2015.

[2] “Intelligence Community Assessment: Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”, ICA 2017-01D, 6 January 2017.

[3] Sapiens, 238.

[4] To be fair, there may be good reasons why this supporting detail could not be released. However, protecting sources and methods is not an issue in CI.


One Comment on “How versus Why”

  1. […] Note that this intelligence assessment has two parts, one the “how” and the other the “why”. There is a significant difference between them, in intelligence terms, and in how they have been received in the political arena.  […]


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