Spy agencies are worst at learning from past, say experts

From The Guardian:

Intelligence agencies more than any other professional body have “official amnesia” and repeatedly fail to learn the lessons of the past, a panel of espionage experts has said.

Christopher Andrew, the writer of an authorised history of MI5, said intelligence chiefs ignored or did not know about historical mistakes, and the reason was obvious: the operations were always secret.

Referring to friends and Cambridge colleagues who had worked at Bletchley Park, he said: “None of them knew that what they had been doing in the second world war, breaking Hitler’s codes, was much what their colleagues had been doing at the beginning of the 19th century, breaking codes with equal success. No profession is as ignorant of its history as the profession of intelligence.”

Andrew said neither Herbert Henry Asquith nor Woodrow Wilson, the UK prime minister and US president respectively during the first world war and two of the most highly educated people to hold office, knew anything about intelligence. If George Washington had used intelligence in the same way Wilson later did, the American success in the war of independence would have taken much longer, he said.

. . . .

Rory Cormac, an academic in international relations, said he had searched laboriously through 50 years of archive material looking at how intelligence services operated and had found them doing one thing for a year, realising it did not work, and then people moving on and the service going back to what it had been doing. “They are constantly failing to learn from their mistakes.”

He said he was in Whitehall last week and offered some suggestions but was rebuffed.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

4 thoughts on “Spy agencies are worst at learning from past, say experts”

  1. You can’t learn from the past if you’re not allowed to know the past.

    And heaven help us if the other guys/gals learn of what we tried and failed at – they might just figure it out and use it against us!

    And it took ‘a panel of espionage experts’ to figure this out?

    “He said he was in Whitehall last week and offered some suggestions but was rebuffed.”

    Nobody’s interested in what any armchair ‘experts’ might want to say, anyone can look ‘back’ and see errors and mistakes – it’s looking ‘forward’ and spotting trouble before it hits that’s the trick.

  2. They are constantly failing to learn from their mistakes.”

    I suspect they have learned a great deal from their mistakes, and have used that knowledge to improve operations.

    I’d like to see these analysts show exactly how some specific mistake at time X could have been avoided by knowing about another mistake at time X-Y.

  3. They are constantly failing to learn from their mistakes.”

    Exactly what did they fail to learn?

    I suspect they have learned a great deal from their mistakes, and have used that knowledge to improve operations.

    I’d like to see these analysts show exactly how some specific mistake at time X could have been avoided by knowing about another mistake at time X-Y.

  4. 1. The source is the Grauniad, a paper whose contact with truth is tangential and fleeting.

    2. How would they know? Assuming just minimal agency competency at keeping secrets, how would anyone not bound to silence know this information?

    3. Despite Andrew tossing around the names of Washington and Wilson (crap be upon him), the focus of this screed is British intelligence, the people who gave us Kim Philby.

    4. I freely admit that my experience is limited, but this is contrary to my experience.

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