The U.S. Intelligence Community Wants Disruptive Change as Long as it’s Not Disruptive


The senior defense department official walked up to his whiteboard and made a bunch of scattered black marks on it.

Addressing the intelligence officers seated at his conference table he said, “This whiteboard represents my area of responsibility. And those black marks represent what you have collected data on.” His tone increasingly revealed his frustration as he continued, “Now, every time I say I need to understand that board as a whole you ask me to identify specific knowledge requirements so that you can task your collectors. Well, even if I knew — which I don’t — and even if you could actually collect it all — which you can’t — it would never even be close to sufficient. Sure, the grains you do collect may help a planner here or an acquisition guy there. But for me — a strategic leader — not so much. In sum, this whiteboard would remain mostly white.”

He paused for effect and then said solemnly, “This then illustrates our conundrum: You always believe the solution to our knowledge deficiencies is more collection, I believe the solution is more thinking.”

This story may be apocryphal, but it has circulated for several years now in American intelligence circles. Its longevity is a testament to its power in portraying what is now an inconvenient truth: that the intelligence community was designed for — and its legacy mindsets, structures, and behaviors remain fundamentally geared for — a strategic environment defined by a closed problem set (the Soviet Union) that demanded classified collection in order to gain relevant insight.

Of course, the world has largely moved on. Today, the globalized — interconnected — world is wide-open and awash in what is sometimes termed “U3” — ubiquitous, useful, and unclassified — information. Moreover, it is precisely this U3 information that is the key to understanding the complex (expansive, open, and networked) challenges (think political and economic contagion, pandemics, terrorism, climate change, mass migration, growing influence of Russia and China, transnational crime, proliferation, cyber-security, etc.) that now characterize and dominate the strategic environment.

Admittedly, closed problem sets demanding classified collection still exist. However, the existence of such problem sets hardly precludes strategic (i.e., contextual) understanding if the intelligence community doesn’t let its compulsive fixation with them prevent it from thinking creatively about all the U3 information it already has available. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happens. Consequently, creative thinking — thinking that is holistic in that its practitioner imaginatively synthesizes the myriad connections and/or relationships that characterize the “white spaces” — remains deficient within the intelligence community.

There are several specific ways in which the obsessive focus on secrets contributes to this cognitive deficiency. The first is the fact that classified collection unavoidably brings with it the corollary rule of “need to know.” This in turn fosters compartmentalized — reductionist — views of the issues at hand. Such narrow mindsets can’t help but be antagonistic to the development of truly holistic ones.

Second, classified collection inevitably breeds hierarchy so as to control the flow and distribution of information. Such hierarchical organizational structures both reflect and reinforce the narrow perspectives mentioned above by contributing to the creation of narrow and discrete analytic accounts that are unavoidably detrimental to the development of holistic viewpoints.

Third, and finally, the intelligence community’s nostalgia for its experience with classified collection during the Cold War — when it had a relative monopoly on good information — continues to cause analysts to confuse exclusivity of information with relevance to decision-makers. Consequently, analysts are now conditioned to behave as if it’s the secrets they build their analyses around that guarantee the relevance of said analyses rather than the underlying thought.

Now, none of this is to say that the intelligence community doesn’t appreciate the need for greater creativity and more holistic perspectives. Indeed, there are numerous initiatives — wargames and simulations, the quadrennial “Global Trends” report, red cells and strategic offices, “open-source,” “anticipatory intelligence,” etc. — that suggest this. The problem, however, is that these efforts always seem to remain somehow distinct from, supplemental to, or constrained by the “real” — that is to say, secret — work of the intelligence community. At best, such initiatives are tolerated as long as they don’t disrupt the prevailing classified collection business model. At worst, these initiatives are celebrated — erroneously — as evidence that the intelligence community has successfully evolved and innovated.

Put differently, the intelligence community really is interested in the idea of disruptive change — but only so far as it’s not disruptive.

To change this situation, the intelligence community must get over its now illusory belief that its value-added comes mostly from information to which it alone has access — secrets. Instead, it must recognize that in an interconnected age its value-added will derive more from the ability to help decision-makers understand the strategic context, and how that context potentially enables or hinders any decisions and actions that they or others might be considering. And before the intelligence community howls that “anyone can do that,” it should note that this new role will still require classification at times — but due to the discretionary requirements of the policy process, not its own collection imperatives.

It is, of course, understanding of the strategic context that the official, mentioned in the opening anecdote, was seeking. Still, the intelligence community remains unconvinced. To illustrate, consider how that anecdote was received when recently told to a large group of analysts and analytic managers. After a moment of seeming incredulity, a senior analyst spoke up and said, “I don’t really care what that senior leader thinks intel should provide — he’s not an intelligence officer and doesn’t know anything about what constitutes good intel.” The group laughed heartily in collective endorsement.

The analytic tradecraft specialist who had just told the story stood quietly for a moment — disappointed but not surprised. He then responded, “You’re right, he’s not an intelligence officer. However, you’re also wrong in that he does, in fact, know one — perhaps the most important — thing about the intelligence he’s receiving: It’s not helping him.”


Josh Kerbel is the Chief Analytic Methodologist at the Defense Intelligence Agency. He writes often and openly about the intersections between government (especially intelligence) and globalization. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not imply endorsement by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.