Strategic Warning Intelligence: History, Challenges, and Prospects

  • Published

Strategic Warning Intelligence: History, Challenges, and Prospects by John A. Gentry and Joseph S. Gordon. Georgetown University Press, 2019, 274 pp. 

In Strategic Warning and Intelligence, authors John A. Gentry and Joseph S. Gordon present a work that combines history with the unique perspective of actual practitioners—an evaluation of past developments with an eye toward practical application that is valuable for members of today’s intelligence community. Specifically, the authors intend to address the “nature, performance, and challenges” of strategic warning as conducted by national-level intelligence services, particularly focusing on the US intelligence community (p. 7). 

The stated purposes of the book are several, namely to (1) “present a history of the development of the strategic warning function, (2) outline the capabilities of important warning analytic methods, (3) explain why strategic warning analysis is so hard, (4) discuss the special challenges warning has in dealing with senior decision makers, (5) assess the state of warning generally in the world, (6) evaluate why the US in recent years largely abandoned strategic warning for a focus on current intelligence, and (7) recommend warning-related structural and procedural improvements in the US intelligence community.” The authors also intend for their work to fill a “significant gap” in intelligence studies literature (p. 1). A review of the relevant literature and the authors’ engagement with that literature appears on pages 1–7. Gentry and Gordon’s specific contributions, as stated, include addressing a lack of emphasis on strategic warning successes and their evaluation, the role of personality traits in strategic warning analysis and deception, and the “strategic warning intelligence-like” activities of NGOs and businesses (p. 6–7). As former intelligence analysts themselves, with compelling experiences in the US intelligence community in both domestic environments and overseas deployments, the authors bring firsthand insight and authority to the work, bridging the gap between traditional history and a more practical study (p. 273–74). 

Following an introduction for definition and foundational concepts, this task is undertaken in three phases. Part one explores the operational and institutional history of “major intelligence warning entities.” Part two—the largest—examines operational challenges, how intelligence personnel have addressed these challenges, and how warning processes are evolving. Finally, part three evaluates the current state of strategic warning and speculates about the prospects of strategic warning intelligence in the near future. This organization is particularly effective in achieving the authors’ purposes, and while readers of more traditional historical monographs will find the practical nature of the book a bit unfamiliar, the authors faithfully adhere to this structure and thus display admirable follow-through. The introduction, in defining strategic warning intelligence and covering other important concepts, distinguishes between strategic and tactical warning (p. 12) and discusses “cry wolf syndrome.” This syndrome appears as a recurring theme throughout the book (p. 18–19). 

A particular strength of the book is the inclusion of four case studies in the second chapter that the authors evaluate and use to illustrate many of the challenges that “confront warning specialists and the decision makers they support” (p. 27), which are detailed in later chapters. Specifically, the four cases examined are Plan Barbarossa in 1941, Operation Overlord in 1944, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and the National Intelligence Estimate 15–90 in 1990 that highlights growing problems in Yugoslavia (p. 27–48). The chapter ends with a summary of lessons the authors draw from these case studies, including the importance of individual psychological factors, leaders’ point-of-view, the significance of leaders’ situations, expertise, intelligence institutions, the quality of intelligence personnel, and the fact that “deceivers have learned all of these lessons—and more” (p. 49–50). Accordingly, the authors subsequently examine these lessons in detail. 

Types of government warning institutions, four specific institutional examples, warning methodological issues, various methods and techniques, and cognitive, psychological, and character issues are examined in turn. The authors follow these topics with an exploration of warning intelligence producers other than traditional intelligence community organizations, a chapter on dealing with senior consumers, institutional issues, and finally the future of strategic warning intelligence. In keeping with their stated purposes, the authors do not restrict their work to a purely academic realm. Gentry and Gordon offer reasonable arguments and suggestions throughout, such as their belief in a hybrid warning model as an effective warning system (p. 61), the importance of proper timing for sharing strategic warning intelligence with policy makers (p. 126–27), and the idea that successful strategic warning must include analysis of threats and opportunities—not simply examination of military threats (p. 227). 

All told, Gentry and Gordon present an important and valuable work. The analysis, conclusions, and recommendations they provide are well supported by personal experience and rigorous research. Students of intelligence, strategic warning, military and diplomatic decision making, and the history of all three would do well to include this volume in their library. 

Philip C. Shackelford 

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."