Last month The New York Times published an op-ed by B.R. Myers about the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il that tacitly addresses the limits of red teaming. In the essay, Myers discusses why observers have misinterpreted the dictator and how security analysts often incorrectly link events to thoughts that in actuality are groundless.
Myers, for example, notes that “North Korea watchers who speak no Korean can confidently tell the rest of us what motivates Kim Jong-il.” These supposedly expert analysts assert that North Korea is destitute and frightened of us and that Kim Jong-il blusters when he wants money or concessions.
Myers offers another perspective:
If, however, we assume the perspective expressed in the North Koreans’ own official writings, things look very different. The first step is to regard not the devastation of the Korean War but the victories of the late 1960s as having defined the country’s relationship with Washington. That was when the North detained the crew of the American spy ship Pueblo for almost a year and shot down an American reconnaissance plane, killing all 31 people aboard. Every North Korean schoolchild knows that the United States did a lot of saber-rattling but ended up doing nothing.
The author states that thinking we know our adversaries just by “putting ourselves in their shoes … assuming that everybody thinks like we do” is a faulty premise. Red teamers need to realize that this mental projection provides an incomplete portrait of an opposing system. An example of how such a biased thought process unravels would be to play chess against yourself.
At first glance, playing chess against yourself seems rather simple, but after several moves, you realize that it is impossible to play the game without projecting your thoughts on any given position. The game unravels. You find it impossible to play against yourself truthfully and fairly when you can interpret actions and assign intentions before and after the fact.
Myers suggests that modeling enemy behavior with the question “how would I attack or approach this scenario?” is incomplete and yields superficial analysis. The answer to this question often addresses less about how an adversary will move but more about the inherent biases or flaws that we see in our situation given our (presumably complete) knowledge of our internal blue team systems.
Myers concludes by mentioning how it is important to understand not only what Kim Jong-il exclaims to his foreign adversaries but, more importantly, what he discusses internally and how he explains himself to his own people: “For far too long,” says Myers, “American diplomats have treated Kim Jong-il’s political culture as his business. It is ours as well.”
This concluding idea by Myers has great application to red teaming. Red teamers need to address not only how opposing systems seek to portray themselves to the outside world but also how they communicate and rationalize to their followers and subordinates. Deeper analysis consists of realizing how opposing systems function internally and how to deconstruct their decision making process. For this reason, red team analysts need to fully immerse themselves in the language, culture, politics, and mindset of the organization they are analyzing. Presuming that the opposing side will act or think like you do is faulty thinking and insufficient analysis.