Espionage Files: Why Tradecraft Will Not Save Intelligence Analysis

The other day I watched a 2 hours special that 48 Hours did back in May titled “The Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs” combined with another HBO documentary from 2013 about the CIA and Terrorism called “Manhunt: The Search for Bin Laden“.  These two documentaries show the in-depth process of how raw intelligence from the field becomes actionable CT “policy”. I highly recommend you guys watch these to understand how human error, bias and pure political motive can “taint” the intelligence process. The CO needs to really grab hold of Intel Gathering and Dissemination as a skill-set. -SF


Since the failure to disrupt the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the wild overestimate of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs, the U.S. intelligence community embarked on a quest to remake analytic doctrine. The focus of this effort addressed concerns about analytic tradecraft, the methods and techniques by which intelligence analysis is produced. Fifteen years on, improving analytic tradecraft became an industry feeding off intelligence services from Washington and Ottawa to Canberra and Bucharest as well as corporations everywhere. However, focusing on analytic tradecraft distracts from the uncomfortable truth that intelligence is not about its producers but rather its users: the ones who rely upon it to make decisions. Kicking the tires of the analytic enterprise is a good thing, but, just as with a car, tires will not help if the problem is the engine. Tires may bound a car’s performance in some basic ways, but they are hardly the most important determinant of how well a car can perform.

Former intelligence officials and scholars of intelligence have long criticized the fixation on organizational reforms whenever intelligence fails, because organizational changes do little to address underlying problems that can derail the intelligence process. Improving analytic tradecraft is much the same. Like structural reforms, analytic tradecraft is internal to an intelligence system. The problem and the solution are manageable without having to go beyond the boundaries of the organization or adopt a different government-wide approach to decision-making. Yet, just because it can be done with minimal fuss does not make it right.

The best analytic tradecraft that neutralized biases, systematized knowledge, and delivered a precise analytic product to decision-makers still cannot save intelligence from decision-makers.. The effort that many all-source intelligence outfits placed on improving analytic tradecraft demonstrates some fundamental misunderstandings of the intelligence process and how decision-makers use intelligence.

First, all-source analysis is not the pinnacle of the intelligence process. Reliable data is. As Sherman Kent wrote, “estimating is what you do when you do not know.” Put another way, analysis is the tool of last resort when efforts to collect the necessary information for decision-making have failed. Regardless of whether analysis sifts signals from noise or connects the dots, analysis attempts to provide by inference what cannot be known directly.

Judgment does not substitute for data. Analysts, by definition, serve in junior positions; they lack responsibility for action. In most countries, analysis is delivered without attribution to the author. Anonymous judgments from junior officials produced by arcane processes probably will not reassure a seasoned policymaker who deals primarily in personal relationships. Policymakers often rise to the positions they are in because they have demonstrated sound judgment and built long-standing relationships with their foreign counterparts. They are incontrovertibly more expert than a junior analyst in their mid-20s. Even if intelligence judgments are overrated, analysts still can help decision-makers find, organize, and appreciate data.

More importantly, intelligence judgments are too ephemeral for potentially costly policy decisions to be made on their basis alone. Policymakers at the top of most intelligence systems have little responsibility and no accountability for the intelligence that reaches them. What they do not control or for which they have no responsibility, they have little incentive in their overworked days to understand. So what are they supposed to think when an anonymous report from an agency without responsibility for policy arrives on their desk seemingly out of nowhere suggesting Iraq is making preparations to invade Kuwait or Iran’s government will collapse?

Read the Remainder at War on the Rocks