Understanding Intelligence

By Roger Davies / 3 October 2012 / In the News, Intel Analysis, Intelligence 101

This article in “The Atlantic” has some interesting remarks about how intelligence is used and highlights some comments on weaknesses in ‘knee-jerk” instant analysis. It also has some interesting comments about how analysts hedge their bets.  Some specific comments:

  • A lot of “first contact” intelligence is wrong. I agree wholeheartedly.   In any major terrorist incident, its always worth, if possible, delaying one’s assessment 48 hours until the real facts filter through.  The first reports will usually be driven by some journalist making things up, because his editor insists they get the story “out first”. Analysts should actively resist such pressures from their managers.
  • Intelligence analysts always hedge their language – yes, I suppose that’s true but usually only because their managers insist they say something and wrongly hold them to account if they are wrong.  The author of the article describes the qualifying phrases as weasel words… I think that’s a little harsh. Rarely is intelligence 100% certain and it is wrong if it is presented as such.
  • The intelligence community’s production time lines are ill suited to our 24/7 news cycle.  Well, yes, but if your consumer of intelligence wants to read the papers rather than read cogent intell reports he’ll always get dross first, quality later. Intelligence analysts should resist becoming journalists and just doing “reportage”. Their job is to analyze and that will always take time.  Speed is different from quality.  If the consumers don’t recognize this then they are then ones that are foolish, not the thorough analyst who produces analyses when it’s done.  If politicians jump to the tune of the 24/7 media, then they’ll end up looking foolish. That’s not the intelligence analyst’s fault, it’s the politician’s fault.  But politicians aren’t renowned for accepting their errors, (are they?), and they’d rather blame their intelligence analysts. That’s life.

Analysis is what we do, not “reportage”.

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