The Cognitive Delusions of a Top Secret Clearance

The Cognitive Delusions of a Top Secret Clearance

Doyle Quiggle

“The threat that hovers over every secret is betrayal.”

The United States government has granted over one million (currently active) Top Secret Clearances.[i] The TSC community encompasses the entire National Clandestine Community, DCS/CIA/NSA/ISA/JSOC—all alphabet agencies. As most TSC holders know, “support” CONTRACTORS, like Booze-A-Hamilton, bucket handsome sums of US-taxpayer pelf to vet and hire many of the job applicants for which a TSC is required, including many of our National Clandestine Servants. Contractors, like CGI and SAIC, spend tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of dollars vetting these applicants, testing their IQs, assessing physical and psychological fitness, probing subject expertise. These “contracted support” corporations also cull biometric data from each applicant, including, of course, DNA samples. By the time they’re done vetting you, they know pretty much every detail of your life (exercise habits, drinking habits, marital habits, reading habits) from the genetic level up. And they store your “life info” in their own privately owned data banks.

Many of these head-hunting contractors have already assembled their own company data banks out of the information they have gathered from TSC applicants, even from applicants they choose not to hire. Typically, TSC contractors, like CGI, are multinational corporations whose primary loyalty is to the bottom line. Anybody can go online and scan the job openings at these companies and then infer what the US clandestine services need by way of expertise and where. For example, you can find detailed information in these “job openings” announcements for Farsi or Urdu interpreters, including the specific geo-physical environment in which the future TSC holder will be operating, how long they’ll be deployed and so forth—information that should be CLASSIFIED and snugly protected by a firewall.

Notwithstanding these corporations’ respective claims to data security, we do not know with whom they share access to their TSC data banks. As we have discovered from the Snowden fiasco, there is NO system in place for monitoring who has access to these data banks WITHIN the contracting companies.  The personal judgement of the CEO of, say, BAH is our only protection from getting Snowdened again.[ii]

We don’t have any reliable protocol in place for monitoring these data banks. Moreover, many of these data banks, in which TSC biometric data is stored, have been repeatedly hacked into: By whom exactly, we do not know. But the IP addresses of the hackers tend to be located in nations lying east of Poland, North of Japan, and South of Texas. Criminal gangs, like La Mara, increasingly employ hackers (from within and from without) to penetrate these data banks. DEA clandestine agents are no more incognito than any other TSC holder today, a fact strongly suggested by SOCOM’s recent woes.

If you hold a TSC today, the least of your worries is getting through an airport unnoticed. You should be worried about your name being recorded in a data bank that has, in all likelihood, already been hacked into. A simple name check can reveal your actual job status. For those who work anywhere overseas on a TSC, this fact should be chilling, especially as criminal gangs and terrorists organizations have begun hothousing their own cyberthugs and “kamikaze cyberpunks.”[iii]

It’s also distinctly probable that your biometric information has been sold by the contractor who hired and vetted you. (To whom and why—we don’t know.) If you’re a clandestine TSC operating under a false name, and if you are captured by, say, La Mara or Russian mafia or Europe-based Islamic State agents who have already paid criminal hackers for access to these data banks, your biometric information will expose your true identity (along with intelligently useful information about your person, your spouse, your family) through a simple DNA scan. They don’t even need to ask you your name, rank, or serial number.[iv]

The only way be truly clandestine today is to keep your biometric information and your true identity completely off the grid--not only out of a “Support Contractor’s” data bank but out of ALL data banks. When Snowden started blowing his Putin’s whistle, he had no other choice but to run to the Chinese or the Russians, because he knew that they already knew his identity; they already possessed his biometric information. His only hope for survival lay in their desire to use him as a poster-boy to embarrass and humiliate the United States on the stage of global media.  

However, if, as a TSC holder, you do somehow manage to keep your identity and biometric information offline, you will not appear in an “official” Government data bank, and then you will enjoy NO legal protection or even recognition from the US government, should your clandestine career hit a snag downrange. Fact has caught up to the fiction of Scorcese’s The Departed.

One solution to spying in the Age of Big Data is to transform unsuspecting but well-placed citizens into spies-in-place without their consent or knowledge. We could “Zombie” Joe Citizen, like hackers who turn your personal computer, laptop, or smart phone into a network zombie.  That solution would be, of course, immoral and illegal. But then, we are already turning millions of Joe Citizens into information multipliers with Google, Facebook, Linkedin and so forth.

In today’s hybrid battlespace, the devil is always in the detail. John Keegan devoted an entire book to demonstrating that insight, Intelligence in War. As early as 2002, he tried to warn us that counter-terrorism should “cast agencies back onto methods which have come to appear outdated, even primitive, in the age of satellite surveillance and computer decryption.”[v] As I observed in Afghanistan, the almighty algorithm is our Zeus. However compelling the numbers of Social Scientists might be, the stubborn and irreducible fact of COIN and counter-terror operations remains: algorithmic power on a spread sheet does not equate to the ability to predict vectors of extremism, radicalisation, loyalty, and betrayal among actual human beings living within clan, tribal, or gang-land, terror social networks.

Keegan predicted, somewhat too hopefully, I believe, that the “masters of the new counter-intelligence will not resemble the academics and chess champions of the Enigma epic…they will not be intellectuals, nor will they overcome their opponents by power of reasons or gifts of mathematical analysis. On the contrary: it will be qualities of empathy and dissimulation that will equip them to identify, penetrate, and win acceptance by the target groups.”

Keegan even promoted a specific agent type:

Kipling’s Kim, who has survived into modern times only as the delightful literary creation of a master novelist, may come to provide a model of the anti-fundamentalist agent, with his ability to shed his European identity and to pass convincingly as a Muslim message-carrier, Hindu gallant and Buddhist holy man’s hanger-on, far superior to any holder of a PhD in higher mathematics…it will be ironic if the literature of imagination supplies firmer suggestions as to how the war against terrorism should be fought than academic training courses in intelligence technique provide. Ironic but not unlikely. The secret world has always occupied a halfway house between fact and fiction, and has been peopled as much by dreamers and fantasists as by pragmatists and men of reason.

In other words, we need a new generation of truly top secret infiltrators whose EQ is as high as their IQ. Like poets, most agents are born, not made. However, recent discoveries in the fields of emotional intelligence (the Daniel Goleman/Paul Ekman revolution) teach us how to identify and vet for Keegan’s Kim.

We need in-the-field practitioners who can not only study and analyse culture, cultural behaviour, and other intangible “literary” things like narrative, myth, and ritual that guide and channel behaviour within cultures etically, but also emically. To get emotional intelligence into TSC agents, whose “qualities of empathy and dissimulation will equip them to identify, penetrate, and win acceptance by the target groups,” we need to draw insight about human nature from what we now know about the universal biological and neurological substrates of culture. We need to be taking more cues from the cognitive science of Daniel Kahneman, the evolutionary psychology Edward O. Wilson, the bio-anthropology of Scott Atran, Robin Dunbar, Steven Mithen, and the psychotropic history of Daniel Smail and William McNeill.

For example, Nassim Taleb (BLACK SWAN) and Daniel Kahneman’s (THINKING, FAST AND SLOW) research into cognitive illusion should be revolutionizing how we vet analyst teams, research teams, stat teams, CT teams—pretty much any TSC operating downrange today. We should be radically rethinking how we train team leaders and hands-on risk-choice makers.

To make “Kims” out of our next generation of TSC’s, we should not only test them for their susceptibility to cognitive bias, cognitive illusion, and narrative fallacy but also test the applicant for AWARENESS of his or her OWN susceptibility to delusion-inducing cognitive heuristics, such as availability cascades, confirmation bias, the endowment effect, halo effect—any cognitive error that induces the illusion of understanding where no true or valid understanding can be demonstrated in a body of evidence.

What we should want to know about an applicant is how well they know their own intuitive proclivities. How well do they understand what Kahneman calls “System I” of their mind? How well do they adjust for the ways that System I tricks them into thinking they understand a subject, a set of numbers, a body of evidence, when they don’t? We should test for their understanding and awareness of the coherence fallacy, our very dangerous tendency to make stories out of unrelated facts, which makes us vulnerable to the validity fallacy and the predictability fallacy.

Our second-nature habit of constructing narratives out of unrelated data is one of our oldest and most primal cognitive modes. Our narrative capacity is probably an evolutionary pre-adaptation, because narrative is vital to activating the other pre-adaptations involved in human ultra-sociality, like cooperation, altruistic punishment, and so forth. The primary evolutionary task of our narrative capacity is to make us FEEL at home in the world and FEEL bonded to tribal members who share that home. Narrative is great for tribal morale and morality, but terrible for objective science. Kahneman describes Taleb’s work: “We humans constantly fool ourselves by constructing flimsy accounts of the past and believing they are true. Narrative fallacies arise inevitably from our continuous attempt to make sense of the world.” Ergo, any one who tries to construe causality from a data set must vigilantly guard against the narrative fallacy. The TSCed Kim for which Keegan calls possesses that ability, but not a Big Data algorithm. 

Kahneman has shown us that we are NOT primarily rational actors who reason logically and consistently when presented with numbers and collected evidence. We do NOT reason rationally from stats, even when we think we do. EVEN expert statisticians and number-crunchers tend to be as bad as non-experts at making “risk choices.” Even numbers experts make bad risk choices when working from incomplete evidence (probability decision making). And risk choices are precisely what the TSC needs to make day by day, even moment by moment.

What Kahneman has limned for us is not the logic of statistics but the psychology of statistics. He has revealed not so much how we think or logic our way through probability choices, but how we feel about them; more specifically, they've revealed how our feelings (intuitions) about stats/evidentiary bases get in the way of our thinking rationally and logically about stats/evidence; how System I undermines the choices we make when we try to estimate probable outcomes. Even the trained scholarly mind tends to drink its own Kool Aid.

Making reliable risk choices is a crucial skill for anyone working downrange or working on information, evidence, stats culled from and pertaining to downrange work, like CT operatives. Kahneman’s psychology of risk choice largely confirms Keegan’s admonition.

What I saw of COIN in Afghanistan and counter-terror ops in Africa and what I am currently observing in Germany, persuades me that we need more “Kims” and fewer TSC’s in today’s battlespaces. We have droned and “metric-ed” our way deep into the Minator’s labyrinth. And we’ve failed to heed Daedalus’s warning. And our fate is that of Icarus. The wax is melting from our virtual wings. 

In addition to reviewing our TSC protocols, we need to set the cognitive bar higher, not only for our field-level Kims, but for everyone to whom we grant TSCs. We must expect all team-members and fellow-travelling TSC scientists to be aware of cognitive delusion and narrative fallacy, to be able to spot them in themselves & in their own work, in others & in their work, and, equally importantly, to be able make crucial adjustments in the direction of validity for those illusions, fallacies, and delusions. Only after we have undertaken extensive cognitive retooling are we likely to make any defensible advances on the fronts of today’s many small wars.

End Notes

[i]  For a somewhat less alarmed view on this situation, see what former CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz has to say about our promiscuous TSC policy in his article “US Intelligence After the War on Terror” in World Politics Review (June, 2012).

[ii]  The trickiest epistemological hazard besetting a covert operative is to discover, as Frederick Hitz explains in his illuminating chapter “Betrayal,” from his book The Great Game (New York: Knopf, 2004), “that the game has become so destructive that it threatens to overwhelm the values” of the civilization for which the agent has led a life of deception. Thus, the issue of how a covert intelligence officer gathers information is directly linked to his motivational structure, his order of desire, his loyalty—his deepest sense of his own identity. Betrayal is always a threat to the covert officer and his Control Agency, not only because of personal vice, such as greed, but because of the officer’s potential loss of faith in the civilization he is serving.

[iii]  See chapter 16, “Symbolic Terror in the Global Village” in Jonathan Matusitz’s Symbolism in Terrorism: Motivation, Communication, and Behavior (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

[iv]  See Carolyn Nordstrom’s Cyber Shadows: Power, Crime, and Hacking Everyone (Chicago: ACTA Publications, 2014).

[v]  Intelligence in War (New York: Vintage, 2002).


Your rating: None


The article above addresses the delusions and dangers of our current TSC policy. It seeks to make that policy smarter and safer. It does not “bad-mouth” contractors. It urges us to correct a vetting and information-storage policy that is placing TSC holders in unnecessary danger of self-deception, betrayal, and discovery. In this regard, the author must deeply respect and care for the TSCed and the burdensome secrets they carry and protect for their country. He cares enough not only to analyze a faulty policy but also to offer a practicable means by which to mend that policy -- nudging us in the direction of intelligence and security -- for the betterment of the entire TSC community and, thus, for the greater good of the country they serve. Tough-minded, intelligent, constructive criticism is neither bad-mouthing nor disrespectful. It’s exactly what we need right now at this critical juncture if we want to gain and hold any ground in our many treacherous small wars.

I usually read an argument, closely, before I criticize it, lest I fall captive to what the author has helpfully identified as cognitive delusion in the TSC community. Above all, I try to get my facts straight.

For example, the vast majority of “contractors” wounded and killed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been foreign nationals, non-US citizens outsourced to slop food at our DEFACS, drive our lorries on IEDed highways, work the counters at our Green Beans, wash and fold our laundry, clean our toilettes, CLUs, tents, and brick & mortars. They typically haled from places like Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and the Philippines. If you were actually ever downrange, then you may have seen them with purple CAC cards in transparent lanyards pending yoke-like from their chafed necks. Most of these foreign-national, sub-sub contractors were lucky if they earned 150 US dollars a month at FOBs like Fenty, Jalalabad, where they not only cut our hair and gave us massages (a massage parlor on a forward base!), but they also provided us force protection and building security and performed the other under-paid heavy lifting and menial labor that we stopped doing for ourselves at Camp Bondsteal during the war in Kosovo.

These purple CACs did NOT possess Top-Secret Clearances. In fact, they enjoyed few of the privileges or protections (legal and otherwise) or respect of non-foreign-national contractors (US citizens). They were the invisible men and women of these wars, typically un-acknowledged on the job downrange, and rarely, if ever, honored thereafter for the services they quietly performed in our country’s non-domestic batttlespaces. It dishonors these fallen and largely forgotten foreign-national contractors to adduce them in an argument for--exactly what are you arguing for, Retired Marine? Respect? I fail to see how the argument above disrespects, let alone dishonors, anyone. Do you aim to shut down and clot up much-needed discussion of our promiscuous TSC policy? Aren’t you impiously misusing the valorous fallen to make a distracting argument, tossing these men and women, very disrespectfully, as rhetorical red herrings into the response hopper?

Contractors, like CGI and SAIC, spend tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of dollars vetting these applicants, testing their IQs, assessing physical and psychological fitness, probing subject expertise. These “contracted support” corporations also cull biometric data from each applicant, including, of course, DNA samples. By the time they’re done vetting you, they know pretty much every detail of your life (exercise habits, drinking habits, marital habits, reading habits) from the genetic level up. And they store your “life info” in their own privately owned data banks.

Interesting assertion, not borne out by any of the cleared jobs I've held. Employers collected information (by resume and interview) on subject matter expertise, of course, but the only other data collected were the now-standard (in many industries) urine test for drug use, conducted by an independent commercial lab. Vetting related to maintaining a security clearance have always been conducted by government personnel, or contractors specifically hired for the purpose, and not connected to any of my employers. No company has ever collected so much as a fingerprint, let alone DNA data, conducted any physical or psychological testing on me, or asked for any of the information listed above. Of course, the government collected all of that at one time or another during a previous life, and anyone with a Facebook page (I find myself an orphan in my family for not having one) broadcasts most of it to the world for free...can hardly blame that on companies!

The rest of Dr Quiggle's rambling missive -- the fact of holding a clearance, the increasingly public and online profile of everyone in the modern world, the desired talents and training of observers and analysts, and success in applying intelligence in irregular warfare -- suggests that in addition to a research assistant, a decent editor wouldn't hurt.

Why bother to bad mouth contractor databases when the US Government left theirs open to the Chinese and compromised the BI/SSBI of almost every clearance holder in the country? Good luck to the future of clandestine ops when every American kid is plastered all over social media beginning at age 12 - there is your open source tool for outing agents. Also, more contractors have died in the war on terror than college professors - show some respect.