In Other Words

Intelligence Test

Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 46, No. 3, 2002, Washington Few government initiatives of the last decade have been less successful than the many attempts to reform the U.S. intelligence community. Boards of inquiry have come and gone, but intelligence has become bigger, not better. Despite endless discussions about the nature of the global information age, ...

Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 46, No. 3, 2002, Washington

Few government initiatives of the last decade have been less successful than the many attempts to reform the U.S. intelligence community. Boards of inquiry have come and gone, but intelligence has become bigger, not better. Despite endless discussions about the nature of the global information age, no one knows how to reshape the Cold War information leviathans to match the complexity of current demands.

U.S. intelligence has long been known for its love affair with big analysis, a capability embodied in the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence (DI), established by academic luminaries at the start of the Cold War. One of the CIA’s academic legacies is an excellent in-house journal, Studies in Intelligence. In a provocative article, Carmen A. Medina asks whether the CIA’s model of intelligence analysis is failing. Medina, a DI officer, argues for a revolutionary overhaul. Accompanying her article is a riposte by Steven R. Ward, another DI officer, who sees incremental change as the answer.

Medina argues that the current core DI activity remains reading current intelligence reports and using them to develop analytical reports for policymakers. This model flows from the Cold War experience with closed societies, when only intelligence analysts had unique access to information and the special skills to interpret it. Over the years, the only substantial changes to this process have been to allow policymakers to exert more "pull" by requesting specific reports, and to create thematic centers focused on issues such as terrorism and drugs.

But information overload is now the name of the game. Medina stresses that not only does the DI have easier access to more information, but the DI’s customers — policymakers and military personnel — also have at their fingertips an abundance of information. Thanks to the growing availability of "open-source intelligence" such as online specialist newspapers, di staffers must compete with the analytical skills of their own customers. In a 1998–1999 survey, half of DI customers admitted they read raw intelligence (whether communications intercepts or field operative reports) for themselves. And they receive this secret traffic as soon as, if not before, the analysts do. So, what services can analysts provide to their customers?

Like all good reformers, Medina is sensitive to power. She defines the DI’s central challenge as "providing real insight to smart policymakers" — focusing on key players in main agencies. Future analysts, she argues, will work alongside policymakers and their staffs. Quick answers to specific questions will replace old-fashioned intelligence reports; electronic intelligence chat rooms will facilitate this rapid back-and-forth. Medina courts controversy when she argues that analysts should join policymakers in taking risks and advocating bold policies. Can analysts abandon neutrality but retain their integrity? Medina argues that they can. Analysts, she says, will command respect because of their professional insight, rather than their objectivity. But she is curiously silent on the kinds of risks analysts should and could take.

Medina’s colleague Ward takes a different tack. He questions her prescriptions, suggesting they merely represent current best practices. Ward concedes that higher level policymakers are increasingly self-feeding, but he argues that most of the policymaking community is not. More fundamentally, he doubts Medina’s central assertion that policymakers can be their own analysts. Policymakers have only "two eyes, two ears, and 24 hours in a day." The best raw intelligence is rarely available to those outside the orbit of the National Security Council. Moreover, because of the overabundance of information, policymakers need the filtration service offered by analysts as never before. Also, many of the United States’ important foreign intelligence partners, including the United Kingdom, Japan, and Israel, who have smaller analytic arms, still value the traditional analysis they receive. One suspects this last point is more important than Ward can say in an open document.

Hitherto the landscape of U.S. intelligence has changed at a glacial pace. Wartime has been the only exception to this rule. War provides the dynamism to overcome bureaucratic inertia; it also provides unique opportunities to test new models and methods. What new model will emerge from the war on terrorism? The discomforting reality is that no single model, new or old, will serve as a touchstone for the new century, which has been characterized by lateral thinking regarding terrorist weaponry and surprise attack. In all wars, the winning factor in intelligence has not been models but quality of personnel. Commendably, the CIA has placed a high priority on maintaining a highly skilled workforce. In May 2000, CIA Director George Tenet opened the Sherman Kent School for Intelligence Analysis in Washington, D.C., specializing in honing advanced professional skills.

If the DI is to succeed, future analysts will need to be polymaths, with more languages and greater flexibility than ever before. The cia must emphasize training and recruiting the brightest and most dynamic officers in an environment where the corporate world offers higher salaries. But the CIA is moving in the right direction. These articles show that the CIA knows that to succeed in the struggle against terrorism, U.S. intelligence needs to become better, not bigger.

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