In today’s deluge of information and disinformation, enabled in part by social media as news propagation outlets, the solution most proffered is “consider the source” as a way to separate wheat from chaff. Media outlets are trying to outcompete each other to earn their reputational halo. But, in the case of the fake map, Little Bill was a usually reliable source, and, if the British couldn’t be trusted, who could be? Indeed, the fall comes hardest when betrayed by trusted friends, and whom we admire. CIA’s own webpage homage dedicated to Stephenson is notably silent on the specifics of his greatest deception.Trevor-Roper's three filters about information:
CIA has matured immeasurably from the heady and freewheeling days of the OSS, partly through the progression of intelligence officers from glorious amateurs to seasoned professionals, and partly in response to lessons learned from mistakes. Professional intelligence analysts are put through a rigorous analytical training pipeline that includes how to structure analysis, how to weigh sources, and how to consider competing hypotheses. They are taught that one analytical conclusion isn’t equally as valid as another, and that nuances matter. They are taught to figuratively interrogate sources and to consider the source’s purpose in providing information, and who was the intended audience? On the operational side, most raw intelligence generated by CIA’s case officers bears a health warning, a sort of caveat emptor, reminding analysts of what they should already know: “The source of the following information knew their remarks could reach the U.S. Government and may have intended to influence as well as inform.”
And in fact, many tools that intelligence analysts use every day are those that are borrowed from the practice of history, with critical thinking and a skeptical mind at the top of the list. The analytical cadre of Donovan’s nascent intelligence bureaucracy was staffed with the best minds from leading universities, raising questions about whether Donovan, in his haste to please his intelligence consumer in chief and scoop his rivals, even stopped for any analytical analysis on what would be considered raw liaison intelligence.
Not everyone needs to be professionally trained as an intelligence officer or historian to wade through sources, but Hugh Trevor-Roper was both. To apply his craft to approaching a primary source, he listed three questions that should be asked about every document: Is it genuine? Was the author in a position to know what he was writing about? And, why does this document exist? Answers to these questions are the handmaidens of trusting information and halting the malign influence of fake news. Perhaps, before passing the map to Roosevelt, Donovan should have heeded the wise counsel of a different British subject, the historian E.H. Carr, who commanded: “interrogate documents and . . . display a due skepticism as regards their writer’s motives.” Indeed, what intelligence analysts have in common with historians is that the best of the bunch are skeptics.
One practical way that skepticism ought to manifest itself in considering the source was offered by historian and strategist B. H. Liddell Hart: “On every occasion that a particular recommendation is made, ask yourself first in what way the author’s career may be affected.” Or, as the Romans may have inquired, “cui bono?” Who benefits? Maybe this level of skepticism sounds paranoid, but as the aphorism goes, you’re only paranoid if there is no plot. Or applied to the twenty-first century information wars, deception.
Is it real?
Is the originator in a position to know?
Why is this information being circulated?