Title: Anticipating Surprise
Author: Cynthia M. Grabo,
Grabo, Cynthia M. (2002). Anticipating Surprise: Analysis for Strategic Warning. Washington, DC: Center for Strategic Intelligence Research, Joint Military Intelligence College
Date Updated: January 26, 2017
Anticipating Surprise is a condensed version of a three-volume classified treatment of warning intelligence Cynthia Grabo, an experienced intelligence analyst, prepared between 1972 and 1974. Although its central theme is strategic warning, the concepts apply to intelligence analysis generally; put another way, it is a textbook for a 101 course in analysis. Among the principles it stresses are the importance of research, knowing one’s subject, reaching the right conclusions, and informing decisionmakers in a timely fashion.
Grabo provides examples of what she terms intelligence failures and the circumstances that led to them. In addition to Pearl Harbor, the most recognizable example, she includes failure to foresee Chinese military intervention during the Korean War. In this context she raises an interesting variant to the definition of “intelligence failure,” arguing that analysts then did have advance warning, but they were ignored by General MacArthur and President Truman. Failure in this case applies “because no action was taken.” She reiterates the point later in the book. But nowhere does she explain why analysts should bear a burden for failing to convince superiors to accept their conclusions. One could argue that responsibility belongs to the decisionmaker alone—it should go with the pay grade.
Among other topics covered are: asking the right questions, knowing what methods to apply to collected data, understanding how the adversary thinks, order-of-battle warning issues—the only topic for which she supplies a list of warning indicators—the difficulties of developing and assessing warning indicators involving political issues, and deception. She also emphasizes assessment of probabilities as a technique for improving the quality of judgments. This is not new and others have supported the approach, but Grabo doesn’t explain just how guessing or estimating arbitrary numerical values in an iterative process can improve the result. Nor does she offer an example of successful intelligence analysis that used the approach.
Anticipating Surprise is valuable for young analysts wondering where to start and what to do next.