From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Jeannie Johnson

Culture matters. At least that’s what Jeannie Johnson, assistant professor of political science, argues in the methodology she devised for intelligence analysts.

When Culture is Missing

By Kristen Munson

One question changed the course of Jeannie Johnson’s career at the Central Intelligence Agency.

IT WAS 1999. JOHNSON, AN ASSISTANT professor of political science at Utah State, had just been tapped to serve at the U.S. embassy in Croatia. The NATO bombing campaign over Serbia was at its peak. Most of the elite runners registered for the Belgrade Marathon had pulled out of the race because the threat of more attacks loomed. Yet photos surfaced of dozens of individuals running the course wearing black target signs on their backs.

“Who are these Serbs?” the U.S. ambassador yelled while pounding the table.

The question rolled over in Johnson’s mind. She had worked as a member of the Balkan Task Force trying to project the behavior of Serbians and Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic during a potential bombing campaign against Serbia. Combined military and intelligence reports predicted the mission would take three days. Serbian leaders didn’t fold for 78. No one expected this reaction by the Serbian people on race day. Johnson wondered if perhaps they should have.

“It was the epiphany moment that changed my track,” she said. “Until that, I was reared in traditional political science theory, which is culture doesn’t matter.”

But the images of Serbians defiantly running showed it does. Upon returning to the United States, Johnson began examining how the intelligence community reviews data. Analysts were using broad national profiles in its investigations, creating reports based on a profile of a nation’s elite, but not accounting for variations in its population. Johnson realized this could prove disastrous in foreign policy decisions.

“Every culture has a lot of competing narratives in it,” she said.

Analyzing the wrong one may come at the expense of the nation’s reputation, treasure, and human lives. Johnson began working to develop a methodology that could be applied to any group and yield defensible, actionable results. Her goal was to devise a better forecasting system to prescribe targeted security strategies that reduce surprises in the field and highlight planning deficiencies. Johnson knew it had to be manageable for the intelligence analysts who must sort through a barrage of material every day. She also understood their recommendations could be flawed if they don’t examine the role national and organizational cultures play in the formation of security policy into their reports.

“I’ve been a line analyst,” Johnson said. “I knew this is missing.”

She spent the next six years delving into the realm of anthropology, exploring accepted views on culture, and developing the framework. In 2007, she sent a draft to Matthew T. Berrett to review. He was serving at that time as the director for the Office of the Near East South Asian division and she prodded him for three months to read it. At the time, the country was steeped in its military commitments in Iraq and an insurgency had metastasized that no one seemed to have predicted. One evening Johnson’s office phone rang at 9:30 p.m. She picked up and the two began collaborating to refine the predictive model.

They began introducing the methodology to junior analysts who were not already entrenched in previous intelligence procedures. During intelligence briefings with President George W. Bush, the junior analysts proved themselves to have a depth of analysis that surprised even the most seasoned intelligence agents, Johnson said.

They were examining potential conflicts through a different lens. Instead of focusing on the rhetoric between opposing factions, they were studying the traditions behind them. They understood how leaders talked to each other. When the methodology was applied to actual conflict scenarios the junior analysts would see their predictions play out in real-time.

“In this position your analytical tool either works or it doesn’t,” Johnson said.

It did.

The methodology—which Johnson and Berrett call cultural topography—uses a looping feedback approach to collect cultural data for political and security analysis. Instead of proving or dispelling a hypothesis, the goal is to answer one question: how might this be useful to the intelligence community?

Cultural topography begins with identifying an issue of strategic interest, and the issue itself may change as more information is learned throughout the process. The next step involves selecting an actor for focused study and amassing a range of cultural influences on that group. The analyst then applies four different perspectives to augment the results, including identity—the character traits a group assigns to itself; norms—accepted modes of behavior of its members; values; and perceptual lens—how the group gathers its views and information about others in the world. The idea is to pinpoint culture-specific patterns and determine where they arise. For instance, is the trait one shared across a nation, a specific ethnic group, or a generation?

Johnson and Berrett spent four more years sharpening the methodology before publishing it for the intelligence community in 2011. The research protocol is now being used in various offices within the Department of Defense and across the intelligence community. However, Johnson also teaches it in classrooms at Utah State. Students in her Strategic Culture class select an issue of national security to research and assess it using the tenets of cultural topography.

Piper Blotter, ’09, a graduate student in the political science department, enrolled specifically because of Johnson’s work. While investigating different master’s programs, she did not find many with a specified track for studying strategic culture. Blotter believes the field is simply going to grow as more people understand its value.

“This kind of research is actually useful,” she said. “You can use it to make a real difference. That’s important. That’s why we do this. As a political scientist that’s why I want to do it.”

Blotter was first exposed to the field as an undergraduate in Johnson’s Strategic Culture course. The Pentagon had recently released a study warning that Mexico was at risk for becoming a failed state because of its government’s tenuous control over drug cartels. Blotter’s group researched the various Mexican drug cartels and found each had its own signature and culture. During the semester she held an internship with the Cultural Intelligence Institute where she shared its findings.

“It’s neat to have a classroom experience that had broader applications,” Blotter said. “You realize that what you are doing could have impact in the real world, not just sitting on a dusty shelf.”

Mike Burnham,’13, a dual economics and international studies major, enrolled in the class to engage in research and gain a different perspective on international relations.

“I knew she was going to work us,” he said. “Jeannie gets the best out of her students…It can be a painful process at times.”

Students describe working with Johnson as a two-way street: If you work hard, she will work hard for you. She tries to open doors for them in the policy world and many have benefited from her advocacy. Students have served posts in embassies around the world and been recruited by various intelligence agencies. Johnson herself was recruited while attending Utah State in the 1990s.

When pressed to find a research topic, Burnham decided to study how the Internet shapes violent movements. He was familiar with conversations about lone wolf terrorists using the Internet as a tool, but was there truth in any of them?

“It’s something that’s talked about a lot but never really explored in depth,” Burnham said.

He visited online forums that were considered hubs for terrorists in the Middle East hoping to learn more about their beliefs and use of the Internet. However, many sites were protected and difficult to access, operating by invitation only. Burnham changed tack and began exploring how white supremacist groups in the United States utilized the Internet. These networks proved easier to crack.

“On any given day, at any given time you would find hundreds of people online,” Burnham said. “The Internet is organized around ideas. It’s easy to connect with likeminded people. In the real world we are organized by geography. We are friends with people who live close to us.”

He was surprised by people’s willingness to share their opinions with him. But anonymity allows people to say things they wouldn’t in public, often without consequence or question. For instance, someone curious about a particular philosophy logs onto an ideological forum and finds themselves in a supportive environment to voice opinions with others who share the same views. The Internet can create a polarizing effect where the company we keep online can reinforce what we believe, Burnham said.

“In the real world there is diversity by necessity,” he said. “Anonymity is the central driving entity of the Internet. Without it all this would fall apart, but good luck getting rid of that.”

Johnson passed his research paper “Anonymity Catalyzes Radicalization Among Internet Community” up the chain where it was examined by a cyber security firm abroad and security agencies in the United States Burnham is now studying nationalism, partisanship, and identity politics. He is applying the same methods to examine the effect of the Internet on partisan behavior.

“I think it’s dangerous in real political dialogue,” he said. “You fail to see [the other side] as human beings with rational thought.”

Both he and Johnson were slated to present their work at a conference of the Cultural Intelligence Institute in Washington, D.C., this spring. However, it was cancelled due to sequestration cuts. Nevertheless, Johnson continues to work with members of the intelligence community and Department of Defense to improve cultural research methods and analysis. She regularly presents her work at the military command centers across the country and was recently invited to give a talk to the Marine Corps. Johnson warned organizers that what she had to say might not be well received.

She points to her doctoral dissertation “Assessing the Strategic Impact of Service Culture on Counterinsurgency Operations” which used the Marines as a case study to showcase her methodology, and argues that they and other American military groups have a “weird, self-imposed amnesia to counter insurgency,” Johnson said.

In other words, we forget our history. We forget what didn’t work in the past and why. And then repeat the same mistakes. She quotes Sun Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher and general, who said “in the military—knowing the other and knowing oneself, in one hundred battles no danger,” and contends that Americans do not often remember the second part of the adage.

“Americans think they know themselves,” Johnson said. “We think we are very rational in our military actions. We aren’t. We are ahistorical. We don’t pay attention to our own history. We reinvent the wheel a lot. We have to get over that or we are going to spend a lot of lives figuring it out.”

As Johnson worked to refine her methodology and research her dissertation, she found herself bouncing between military briefings on the war in Afghanistan and reading letters of generals in Vietnam giving their accounts of the situation on the ground.

“It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” she said. “What they reported and what generals in Afghanistan were saying were eerily similar.”

One set of readings particularly struck a haunting chord. In 1968, William R. Corson, a commanding officer in Vietnam published the book The Betrayal. He had directed the Combined Action Program—one of the few arguably successful missions in the conflict—where U.S. Marines served with the members of the South Vietnamese militia to flush out insurgents in villages. The book brought to light the military and cultural miscalculations made in Washington about operations in Vietnam.

In it Corson also introduced the concepts that made his operation work. He incorporated the same elements Johnson and Berrett recommend; he just called them different things. The copy on her desk is literally dog eaten—portions of the binding have been torn off by the canine of the Marine who gave it to her. Dozens of pink post it notes flag pages of interest.

“It was like a voice from the dead,” Johnson said.

More so, it gave her confidence that the methodology they were developing worked. It had already been applied in a kinetic environment. Yet somehow, its message was lost.

“We have been so successful at duping ourselves,” Johnson said. “Vietnam wasn’t that long ago. Yet people in charge, many who served in Vietnam, are repeating the same mistakes.”

There are several reasons this happens. One involves the biases in American culture. Johnson notes in her research the U.S. military’s preference for conventional warfare rather than small-scale operations that require less boots on the ground. Another is the country’s “unsinkable optimism” which permeates Americans’ understanding of the economy, politics, and foreign relations. Johnson suggests it can lead to efforts to achieve the impossible, or an unwillingness to invest in those that take time, money, and manpower.

“We don’t very often articulate to our policymakers ‘that is going to cost you generations of time,’” she said. “Our ‘can do’ anything attitude, like being the first to walk on the moon, colors our view of the world and what we can accomplish. In the past, military engagements have involved an effort to change a region’s culture, behaviors and belief systems. Most of the time, that doesn’t work.”

Johnson knows changing how the United States evaluates foreign policy is not going to occur overnight. Almost everything she advocates goes against the grain from academic, military, and intelligence standpoints. But it helps that she is working with someone on the inside of the intelligence community who can nudge the methodology forward.

“We are swimming against the tide in every arena,” Johnson said.

It may be worth a try.