Robert Hanssen Spy Case Illustrates The Difficulty of Overcoming Mindsets

Major intelligence failures are usually caused by failures of analysis, not failures of collection. Relevant information is discounted, misinterpreted, ignored, rejected or overlooked because it fails to fit a prevailing mental model or mind-set.

Richards J. Heuer, Psychology of Intelligence Analysis

Focusing on a single scenario early in an analysis can lead to a mindset that is difficult to overcome. Even when confronted with contradictory evidence, we justify our beliefs and assumptions and stand firm. The problem can happen when we’re working alone. But it can also happen when members of a group fixate on and then jointly support a single hypothesis. The Robert Philip Hanssen spy investigation illustrates the inflexibility of mindsets.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, the CIA and FBI lost a significant number of human assets who were being operated against the then-Soviet Union. Task force members assigned to identify the perpetrator considered the mole could be an FBI employee, but “poor document controls and violations of the ‘need to know’ principle” made it impossible to determine who had access to the compromised cases. A final report on the matter was inconclusive. Nevertheless, the determination was made that the spy was not an FBI employee.

The focus turned to the CIA. Analysts compiled a matrix of compromised cases and operations and began comparing names of persons who had both placement and access. By process of elimination, a list of 200 shrunk down to a single name: CIA counterintelligence officer Brian J. Kelley. The sole focus on Kelley was “due in part to the suspect’s ambiguous and sometimes suspicious behavior and in part to a belief that this individual had emerged as a lead suspect as a result of an objective and scientific process.”

For the next two years, Kelley was subjected to surveillance, covert searches, and technical monitoring, efforts that resulted in no conclusive evidence of espionage activities. Investigators sent a “foreign agent” to his home; Kelley reported the contact to the FBI. Agents found a map in the search of his home that represented a local park where a KGB agent had been sighted; Kelley explained it was a map of his jogging route. Agents administered a polygraph; Kelley passed. According to the OIG report, the squad “was so committed to the belief that the CIA suspect was a mole that it lost a measure of objectivity and failed to give adequate consideration to other possibilities.”

Reportedly, “several” senior FBI officials held doubts about the findings. Still, they allowed a report to be forwarded without modification to the DOJ under the assumption the DOJ would decline prosecution due to lack of evidence. As prosecutors were reviewing the matter, new, unequivocal evidence identified FBI supervisor Robert Philip Hanssen as the spy.

This case illustrates how mindsets can lead to a failure of analysis. Agents and analysts focused on Mr. Kelley because after deciding he was the mole, they dismissed inconsistencies that didn’t support their theory. Here are a few pointers to help deal with and overcome mindsets:

  1. Practice mental flexibility early. The longer a theory is allowed to linger the more deeply engrained it becomes and the more convinced we are that we’re correct. This is why brainstorming is a good first step. Consider multiple hypotheses as equally plausible until inconsistencies rule each of them out.
  2. The goal is to prove a hypothesis wrong, not right. Inconsistencies are points that require further analysis or investigation. Never minimize, justify, or dismiss them.
  3. Dissenting viewpoints offer valuable perspectives. It may be uncomfortable to be the only person in the room who sees things differently, but dissenting viewpoints are valuable. They prompt discussions that can expose flaws and strengthen arguments.
  4. Delineate your assumptions. An assumption is something you accept as true without proof. If you structure your analysis around an inaccurate assumption, you’ll invalidate your findings. You may also damage your credibility as an analyst.
  5. Always seek to apply a structured thinking technique. When earnestly applied, structured thinking techniques are arguably the single most effective tool analysts have to overcome mindsets and reach objective conclusions.

Also see: Informal Versus Formal Problem Solving

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