By Sabrina Barwick, Staff Writer
Two Wednesdays ago, on October 16th, Carmen Medina, former CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence, author, and avid user of Twitter, spoke to a full audience of members of the Phoenix Committee on Foreign Relations about her experience and knowledge gained in her 32 years working at the CIA. Medina is thoroughly well-traveled, having visited countries throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Central America. She began her lecture stating that she went from “typewriter to Twitter,” having joined the social media platform in 2008, before it gained the popularity it has today.
During her engaging dialogue, Medina shared big lessons in thinking. She became an expert on the concept of thinking during her time at the CIA (important, seeing as it is an intelligence agency) and applied concepts well known in STEM curricula to experiences we all have encountered.
In her first big lesson in thinking, she shared with the audience that “everything stays the same, until it changes. Also known as inertia.” The CIA works to inform policy makers of power changes before they occur; because, once they occur, any and all bets are off (example: Trump removing US military troops and abandoning the Kurds in Syria).
A second big lesson in thinking she provided is that worst case scenarios are often automatically considered unlikely to occur, even by the most seasoned intelligence officers. Medina explained that the impact of an event and the probability of the same event occurring are on completely different axes. A recent example of this is the fact that hundreds of ISIS fighters have escaped from prisons in Syria due to the power vacuum and uncertainty created by withdrawing U.S. troops. This was one of the worst-case scenarios for this specific foreign policy action, but how many individuals were certain that this would be the outcome?
Finally, Medina proposed that our ability to know anything is a function of our tools for knowing. While she shared with the audience a lot of the knowledge she gained from her professional experience, she connected much of it to her personal interests. One of her interests, and an example relevant to this final big thought, is her reflection on the advancement of technology in cosmology. We only know as much about the planets, galaxies, and stars as our technology allows us. For Galileo, while the technology he utilized was considered advanced during his time, his knowledge regarding the stars was significantly limited in comparison to what we know today due to the advancement and development of telescopes and related observational technology. This example demonstrates that although we may believe we have a grasp on a particular area of study, it’s likely we have far more discoveries on the horizon as our tools become more complex.
In addition to the big thoughts Medina discussed, she proposed a handful of foreign policy topics that we should consider more often. The most surprising of them all was her suggestion that we should worry more about the discovery of alien life. As mentioned above, our tools to research galaxies have improved exponentially. This fact, compounded with the recent discovery of additional exoplanets, she argued, increases the likelihood that we will soon have to consider policy implications or business opportunities with extraterrestrial markets in mind.
As it’s difficult to summarize the extent of Medina’s knowledge, wisdom, and humor into a few hundred words, anyone seeking more from her should read the book she co-authored, Rebels at Work, or explore her blog, Recovering Fed.