Spy Novel Uses 'Chekhov's Gun' To Explain Why It's So Hard To Be A Spook

Gun wall iranREUTERS/Morteza NikoubazlAn Iranian cleric walks past a mural on the wall of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran February 21, 2007.

University of Pennsylvania sociologist and former CIA Graduate Fellow Dr. Bridget Nolan’s wrote a fascinating
dissertationon information sharing within the post-9/11 intelligence community.

One section discusses how the work of counterterrorism analysts is characterised by “extreme yet constant uncertainty” because of “a paradox between a deluge of complicated information on the one hand and a perceived lack of proper access to information on the other.”

To make this point, Nolan cites a story from the book “Intelligence: A Novel of the CIA” by Susan Hasler, which she calls “
the single most accurate depiction of CIA’s [Directorate of Intelligence] culture I have ever read.”

Here’s the excerpt:

I have always been a great lover of Russian literature, but my tenure as a [counterterrorism analyst] has led me to reconsider Chekhov’s admonition: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

How sensible and neat. How it satisfies our psychological needs. And how it leads us to false conclusions, false expectations. This is how the art of [counterterrorism analysis] differs from the art of fiction. In fiction there is a pistol above the mantel and it must go off.

In our world, there is an AK-47 above the mantel, a basket full of grenades on the table, a half kilo of plastic explosive under the couch cushion, ricin in the candy dishes, and sarin in the air vents. And none of it is significant, because in the end it is the pistol hidden in the drawer that kills you.

Nolan then writes: “Thus, the process of fighting terrorism is already much more difficult than the average member of the public understands.”

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