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How Tight is Trump with Russia? Use Analysis of Competing Hypotheses to Decide

With FBI Director James Comey’s recent testimony confirming an active FBI investigation into whether associates of President Trump were in contact with Moscow, allegations continue to swirl around the true nature of the President’s relationship with Russia. Some see this as “sour grapes” posturing by supporters of Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton who still cannot accept the fact that Trump won the election. Others contend that a serious national security vulnerability may exist.

Advocates of either position believe there is nothing they can say that will get the other side to agree with them. But do not despair. One structured analytic technique—Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH)—has a proven record of convincing one’s adversaries to admit that they are wrong.

The traditional approach to deciding who is right is to list all the evidence and arguments that support each position and then decide who has made the strongest case. With the ACH technique you flip this approach, focusing instead on how much of the available information is inconsistent with each explanation of the behavior being observed. You then reject those explanations that have compelling inconsistent evidence. The remaining explanation—or hypothesis—that best fits with all the relevant information is most likely to be right. Usually, when people who have different positions on a given issue work the problem in this manner, they will often be persuaded that they were wrong when confronted with compelling inconsistent information—e.g., information that just should not be there if your favored hypothesis were to be correct.

Now it is your turn—How Tight is Trump with Russia?

Step 1: Generate a set of possible explanations of President Trump’s behavior—a comprehensive and mutually exclusive set of hypotheses that would explain his interaction with the Russians.

A: Strategic Vision. Trump’s pro-Russia stance reflects his strategic vision of the utility of forging a strategic alliance with Moscow to counter the threats posed by mutual antagonists such as China and ISIS.

B: The Bromance. Trump’s pro-Russia stance is a product of his genuine admiration of Russian President Putin and his no-nonsense style of governing.

C. Financial Vulnerability. Trump’s pro-Russia stance is driven by a desire to protect his financial investments in Russia and possible substantial indebtedness to Russian kleptocrats.

D. FSB Recruitment. Trump’s pro-Russia stance is evidence that Russian intelligence has recruited Trump to serve either wittingly or unwittingly as an agent of Russian influence in the West. The FSB has developed sufficient leverage over Trump (or has sufficient material to blackmail Trump), hence he is strongly inclined to promote Russian policies and support Moscow’s positions.

Some of these scenarios might look familiar. Charles Krauthammer in a 17 February Washington Post column offered two scenarios that defined the ends of a spectrum: 1) Trump as the great dealmaker who charms Putin into a Nixon-to-China bargain to destroy the Islamic state and relieve some of the financial burden of the European partnership, and 2) a Trump leadership team that is compromised by tainted business or other activities known to the Russians to whom they are now captive. Krauthammer says: “I believe neither of these scenarios, but I’m hard put to come up with alternatives. The puzzle remains.” A good strategy for solving the puzzle is to apply the Analysis of Competing Hypotheses technique.

Step 2: Make a list of all the information, key assumptions, and absence of evidence that are relevant to the issue.

Make a list of all relevant information such as all statements by Trump or his close coterie about issues that are of direct interest to Russia including NATO, the coherence of the EU, the status of Crimea, the failure of Moscow to retaliate when sanctioned by the previous US administration, etc.

Step 3: Assess each item of information to determine if it is Consistent or Inconsistent with each hypothesis. The hypothesis with the most compelling set of relevant information that is Inconsistent is the least likely to be true. The hypothesis with the least Inconsistent data is most likely to be correct.

Evaluate each item of evidence against each of the four hypotheses. Ask yourself: “if this hypothesis is correct, would I expect to observe this item of evidence?”

  • Count up all the Inconsistent items of relevant information for each hypothesis and rank the hypotheses from most to least likely reflecting how many Inconsistents each hypothesis has.
  • Starting with the hypothesis with the most Inconsistents; assess whether the Inconsistents make a compelling case for dismissing that hypothesis.
  • The most likely explanation for Trump’s behavior will be the hypothesis with the least—or no—Inconsistents.

More information on the Analysis of Competing Hypotheses technique can be found in Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, Chapter 7, available here.

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