The scenario: The government of North Korea has collapsed following the death of Kim Jong Il. Three factions are struggling to fill the power vacuum. The threat of civil war looms.
The assignment: Sort through the raw intelligence and prepare a half-page brief outlining the situation and suggesting a course of action. You have three hours.
Those are the basics of the first PIPS-CIA Crisis Simulation Competition held at William & Mary in February. Thirteen intelligence analysts from the Central Intelligence Agency came to campus to conduct the event, which pitted eight five-student teams in an intellectual and analytical experience that one participant said made him feel as if his head would explode.
“Usually the CIA will do a simulation two or three times a year with just a single school, Dennis Smith explained. “We proposed to them a competition-type simulation involving multiple schools. It was kind of like a Model UN for the intelligence community. They loved the idea and brought us a new scenario.”
Smith is visiting assistant professor of government at William & Mary. He and Amy Oakes, assistant professor of government, are co-directors of PIPS—the Program on International Peace and Security. PIPS is an elite program that draws on high-performing students from the College’s government, public policy and international relations programs to grapple with sensitive and important global issues.
In addition to William & Mary, participants in the crisis simulation came from Norfolk State, Sweetbriar College, the University of Mary Washington, University of Richmond, Washington College, Old Dominion University and Virginia Tech.
1:10 p.m.: First document dump
The scenario was introduced at 1:10 p.m. to the eight teams sequestered in rooms at the Sadler Center and the Cohen Career Center. It came in what the CIA analysts called a “document dump” —a stack of double-sided pages containing raw intelligence. Each team had a single copy of the report, a white board and had a mentor—one of the CIA analysts.
The raw intelligence was fragmentary, contradictory and larded with red herrings and uncertainty. It came from sources ranging from news stories to reports shared by British and South Korean governments. To add to the verisimilitude, the CIA built a number of curves into the scenario. At unexpected intervals, the door would open and more raw intelligence would come in.
While the teams and their mentors tried to make sense of the scenario, the faculty associated with the teams gathered in the Cohen Center’s lobby. One of the CIA analysts distributed copies of the document dump their students were dealing with. The faculty read through the intelligence and, one by one, looked around at their colleagues. Smith finally said what the rest were thinking: “I’m glad it’s them in there and not me.”
During the competition, the faculty spoke with the CIA analysts who weren’t serving as mentors. The analysts introduced themselves using first names only, their offhand manner suggesting that the name they’re using didn’t necessarily appear on their birth certificate. One confessed to being a William and Mary graduate, and at least two others talked about the College in a way that suggested the familiarity of an alumnus/a.
The analyst who prepared the scenario was on hand and spoke with the faculty about his goal of making the simulation as close as possible to a day in the life of Central Intelligence Agency analysts. It’s their job to interpret and distill raw intelligence. Their work is funneled up the CIA command and is further distilled into the agency’s daily security briefing for the U.S. president. The analyst noted that while the scenario had a plausible geopolitical basis, many elements, such as the identity and politics of the three competing North Korean factions, were completely fictitious.
'Only bad options'
“This is a very fast-moving simulation with multiple parts. Things aren’t clear. You don’t have clear evidence, like a satellite image of a tank coming in,” the analyst told the faculty. “And it’s a no-win situation. You’re left with only bad options.”
As the CIA was telling the faculty that the scenario contained no right answers, the eight teams of contestants were finding it out the the hard way. The William & Mary team consisted of Emily Pehrsson ’13, Julia Zamecnik ’11, William Shimer ’13, Lindsay Hundley ’12 and Katie Mitchell ’13.
Their assignment was to focus on the regional implications of a North Korean civil war. Shimer noted that they weren’t even given a definition of “regional” as a basis for interpretation. “Our interpretation was Russia, China, Japan, the Korea peninsula,” he said.
As the William & Mary team sorted through the intelligence reports, they noticed differences among the goals and strategic alliances of the factions. One group had considerable Russian support; a second faction was close to the Chinese government. There was credible evidence that Chinese troops were already on the Korean peninsula.
“The third group was seeking international legitimacy. They had coordinated humanitarian missions with South Koreans who were moving food and water in,” Shimer explained. “There also was a probable assertion that they had nuclear material, too. Based on their previous actions, we figured that if this group won they were the most likely to reach out to us.”
Each team was to deliver a written brief and to send a representative to deliver an oral briefing—just as it’s done in the agency, the analysts pointed out. Shimer was elected to deliver the oral briefing from the William & Mary team. He left his team to spend 10 minutes with a senior CIA analyst who took the part of the director of national intelligence during the simulation.
“I went in to present my part and I was interrupted many times with questions. They were trying to challenge what I knew and what I didn’t know,” Shimer said. “I think I did a pretty good job fielding the interruptions. In the end, I wish I could have spent a little more time on my main points. Some of the questions pushed me away from that.”
Meanwhile, back in the conference room, the rest of the William & Mary team finished their half-page brief and delivered it, on deadline, while Shimer was on his way back from his oral briefing. “I hope the written brief said essentially the same thing that I said,” Shimer said. “But I don’t know; I didn’t get to see the final version.”
To accommodate oral briefings from eight teams, there were two “directors of national intelligence,” each of whom received oral briefings from four teams. The three senior analysts reviewed the written briefs from all eight teams. The top two teams in each group engaged in a “brief-off” in front of the entire CIA contingent. The winner—by what the analysts all described as a “razor-thin” margin—was declared to be the team from Norfolk State. Smith points out that the experience was more about the simulation than the competition.
“It wasn’t designed a recruiting event. It was designed to be an educational event,” Smith said. “It was designed to teach analytical skills and the importance of knowing how to deliver a brief. I talked to students from all the schools. They all said that it was the most intense experience that they’ve ever had. One student told me that he felt like his brain was going to explode with all the facts he had to juggle in his head.”