October 12th, 2012
06:16 PM ET

Spy chief gets Zen

By Pam Benson

You usually don't associate spying with being Zen, but that's exactly what the nation's chief intelligence officer did this week at an intelligence gathering in Orlando, Florida.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was the keynote speaker at the annual Geoint Symposium and what the audience of intelligence officers, contractors and academics heard probably rank as one of the more unusual presentations.

Clapper unfurled some "heavy philosophy" as he told the audience what intelligence professionals could learn from motorcyclists. And he tied it all together with a reference to Robert Pirsig's nearly 40 year old best seller, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," which is more a discourse of life philosophy than motorcycles.

It's all, Clapper explained, about finding the elusive "Truth."

These initial comments set up the body of his speech which focused on what he feels is his primary mission as DNI–the integration of all facets of intelligence gathering.

Here are Clapper's remarks:

"I'm especially pleased to be here in Orlando.  Actually  these days I'm pleased to be anywhere outside Washington.  Walt Disney didn't pick this place by accident.  The weather here is usually perfect, so it's a great place to do things outdoors... things like riding a motorcycle.

Now, I'm not a biker, but buying a Harley, and riding across America has crossed my mind once or twice – especially lately. Sue always uncrosses it for me. In fact, the closest I'm allowed to come to a motorcycle is my Harley-Davidson pen.

But, I believe there's profound wisdom that comes from old bikers – in life, and for intelligence.

You may have heard a few of their wise musings:

-A  bike on the road is worth two in the shop.

-There are old bikers, and there are drunk bikers, but there are no old, drunk bikers.

-The only good view of a thunderstorm is in your rearview mirror.

-Never be afraid to slow down.

-Only bikers understand why dogs love to stick their heads out car windows.

-Pie and coffee are as important as gasoline.

-Never mistake horsepower for staying power.

-Well-trained reflexes are quicker than luck.

-If you really want to know what's going on, watch what's happening at least five cars ahead.

-Everyone crashes; some get back on; some don't; some can't.

-If you think your head is only worth five dollars, get a five dollar helmet.

-And last but not least: Maintenance is as much art, as it is science.

All this brings to mind a best-selling book written some 40 years ago, called "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."

It wasn't really about Zen.  And it wasn't really about motorcycle maintenance, either.   It was a philosophy book – about the search for "Quality," and what that really means.

I think that book, and bikers, have some important insights for what we all do, because I think it can help us all better understand intelligence integration, and why, I think, we need to pursue it.

One important theme in the book is the attempt to reconcile what's called the "classic" mode – reason, science and fact – with the "romantic" mode – imagination, art, and feeling.  In a nutshell, putting together logic with creativity and innovation.  And when you think about it, the profession of intelligence is a unique amalgam of science and art.   It rings with the theme of this year's symposium: "Creating the Innovation Advantage."

Anyway, back in ancient Greece, around the time Socrates was still a kid, there was a split in the way academics started thinking. Before then, there was no division in western thought between: Good and truth. Mind and matter. Subject and object. Form and substance.  Those are all man-made divisions, and they started right about then.

"Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" argues that Quality, and Value, and Truth, are what actually exist in the real world.  And I think you could easily extend that thesis to intelligence as well.

We split Intelligence into HUMINT (human intelligence), SIGINT (signals intelligence), and GEOINT (geographic intelligence) – any number of INTs – even as we try to improve them.  But those are all man-made constructs, too.  We refer to them as stovepipes, silos, or cylinders of excellence.

But we actually achieve the highest Quality and Value when we put them all together.  That brings us closer and closer to the Truth, to perfect Intelligence,  acknowledging, of course, that we'll never achieve absolute perfection, the absolute "God's eye, God's ear" certitude about events – past, present, or future.  I would ask that you hold that thought, since I'll come back to it later.

And even if we figured out every secret, there will always be unsolvable mysteries.   But the more we can bring everything together, and the closer we can actually integrate intelligence from different sources, the nearer we'll get to that always elusive Holy Grail – Truth, and Quality.

So – some "heavy philosophy" to explain why I feel so strongly about intelligence integration as my primary focus as DNI."

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Filed under: Intelligence • James Clapper
soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. bikermatching.com

    hello.nice to meet you!i want to offer you a biker dating site "bikermatching.com".there are many more people who like riding and make friends . hope you will like it.

    October 23, 2012 at 2:25 am | Reply
  2. Mike

    @Stan...you are an idiot he is actually quite intelligent and has the history to prove it. Maybe you should read his bio or work in the IC if you wanna know more about it

    October 19, 2012 at 11:23 am | Reply
  3. Ed M.

    In the re-released edition the author notes in the epilogue that his son was killed in a random street attack, which somewhat sours the entire message of being aware and prepared.

    If you can't help your own son survive, with all this wisdom, what's the point?

    October 14, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Reply
  4. Variable

    I suppose it could have been worse. He was just saying nothing while trying to be entertaining. At least he didn't reveal anything confidential to the world at large. We've had more than enough of that already by other people.

    October 14, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Reply
  5. Tom J. Atwood

    Clapper sagely acknowledges a problem inherent in science–which often must use inductive logic, where it is required that you connect the dots to create a picture based on imperfect or incomplete information. In deductive reasoning, if your premises are true and your reasoning is sound, your conclusion is true. But intel coming from human agents or patterns in sensor data is not always a matter of simple deduction. This is the point he addresses, and he does it artfully with the reference to Zen, etc.

    October 14, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Reply
  6. StanCalif

    Is Clapper the "best" we can come up with? This guy is an idiot!!! No wonder our "intelligece" is so flawed!

    October 13, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Reply

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