Intelligence 101: Circular Reporting

By Panjandrum / 14 February 2012 / Intelligence 101

‘Intelligence 101’ is (or is hopefully going to be) an ad-hoc series of articles on the fundamentals of the analyst’s trade. Feel free to suggest a topic.

Corroboration is important in the intelligence world for obvious reasons.

A man told me that the village headman keeps 200kg of explosive under his cow shed’ is a completely different prospect than ‘Seven different sources indicate that the village headman keeps 200kg of explosive under his cow shed’.

So far so simple, right? But what happens if six of those people only ‘know’ this information because they were told by the seventh? That, in a nutshell is the problem known as circular reporting, and it’s why HUMINTers become positively obsessive about their sources’ sources (and their sources’ sources’ sources, and… you get it) .

But it’s even more embarrassing when one branch of your organisation uses a document produced by another branch to corroborate their own reporting, only to find that the corroborating document was a re-hash of their own initial report. This should (theoretically) be easier to prevent – simply by referencing the source of every piece of information. But as we know, large organisations don’t always work like that.

It’s not only in the Intelligence World that circular reporting messes things up. In 2008 someone who was clearly very bored (not me) added a few spurious details to the entry about a Cypriot football team. (“a small but loyal group of fans are lovingly called ‘The Zany Ones’ – they like to wear hats made from discarded shoes” etc etc). When the team then played Man City, a particularly lazy journalist lifted the text into his story. Under Wikipedia rules, any factual statement in an article has to be verifiable against a reliable source such as the mainstream media… which of course it now was.

This particular problem was overcome when Private Eye* started reporting on it, and Wikipedia changed their guidelines: ‘To avoid this indirect self-referencing, editors should ensure that material from news organisations in not the only the only existing source outside of Wikipedia’. But this makes it quite difficult to verify anything, because most information on Wikipedia is picked up from the media…

* Read more in ‘Private Eye – The First 50 Years’, by Adam Macqueen. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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