Archive for Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Tapping U.S. imaginations

August 4, 2004


The release of the final report of the 9-11 commission held few surprises for those who had been following its hearings over the past few months. Its catalogue of intelligence failures and bureaucratic misadventures is one that can only horrify most Americans. Its suggestions for a radical reorganization of American intelligence services are long overdue. It has been obvious for several years that the American military and intelligence services are having a difficult time in escaping from a half century's focus on fighting the Cold War to a new focus on fighting a war against terror.

President Bush's announcement this week that he will appoint a new intelligence "czar" is a good first step in this reorganization. But as many in the media have noted in the days following release of the report, the fundamental problem uncovered by the commission was more than a bureaucratic issue; it was a lack of imagination by the intelligence community. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice summed it up in her testimony before the commission several months ago: Before 9-11, virtually no one in the United States could have imagined that a small group of well-funded terrorists could succeed in doing what Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida managed to do on 9-11.

The key question, of course, is: How does government suddenly acquire the powers of imagination that it lacked prior to 9-11?

In a perceptive essay in the New York Times, one reporter asked whether any bureaucratic reorganization, even one so radical as that proposed by the commission, could solve this "imagination gap." The answer is, by no means, clearly "yes." But it is clear that the American people are depending on our government to protect us. If that requires closing this imagination gap, how do we go about doing so?

Perhaps, it is time to look to a rather unusual quarter for help. If what America needs today is people with imagination and the ability to think "out of the box" then I would suggest the best place to look for such people is among the ranks of those who make their living from their imaginations: authors of mysteries, detective novels, thrillers, and science fiction novels.

Think, for a moment of writers like Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov or Ian Fleming, Tom Clancy or Dale Brown. These are writers who wrote of devices and of techniques years before they became reality. In many cases, what these writers imagined actually inspired scientists and strategists to make real what had hitherto been fiction.

When one reads of the techniques used by Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, for example, one encounters procedures and tactics adopted by real detectives decades later. Think, for a moment, of Jules Verne's "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea." So prophetic was this novel of future developments in submarine design that the first American nuclear submarine took its name, Nautilus, from the novel.

There's no doubt in my mind that a reorganization of American intelligence and a reorientation of American strategic thinking will be necessary if we are to win the war on terrorism. But I also believe that we must not ignore an important resource we have in those whose imaginations are rich enough to enable them to envisage what for most of us is the "unimaginable."

Our government must find a way to use these men and women. Let them devise scenarios that the intelligence experts can then evaluate. Perhaps we might even consider that a study of their works should be a part of the training which intelligence agents and analysts undergo.

The fact is, there is no need for an "imagination gap." Our nation is richly endowed with people, from Steven Spielberg to Tom Clancy, whose imaginations and ability to think "outside the box" are great. It is time to enlist their aid in our battle against terror.

Mike Hoeflich, a professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the


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