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What should we expect of our spies?

American agents found Osama bin Laden, but were wrong-footed by the fall of the USSR, the Arab Spring and Iraq’s lack of WMD. What counts as success?

The IRA’s mortar attack on Downing Street in 1991. Picture: NI Syndication

When I worked at America’s National Intelligence Council, overseeing the production of the National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs), I took comfort from being told that you could outperform professional weather forecasters simply by assuming that current conditions would continue. If it was fine, predict fine weather until it rained, then predict rain until it turned fine. That would more often be accurate than the forecasters’ predictions, based on data, theory and history. And if they, with all their tools, could not predict the weather, how could anyone expect…

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