Intelligence and You: A Guide for Policymakers


It’s 9:00 pm somewhere in the trenches of the national security bureaucracy. You are a mid-level policymaker and are scrambling to prepare for the big National Security Council meeting in the morning, when principals will debate and decide the U.S. course of action for the crisis du jour. You need to write a ‘read-ahead’ paper and be able to convincingly brief your principal and maybe even the National Security Council on the state of play in the conflict, policy options based on that analysis, pros and cons of each option, and to ultimately make a recommendation. You, however, have not been reading your intelligence — and you do not even know where to start.

Sure, your intentions were good. But the time-sucking reality of recurring crises, endless paper churn, non-stop meetings, and ensuring you are invited to said meetings (with the correct location and a speaking role) overwhelmed you. You have cancelled more morning briefs than you have held. Piles of unopened daily intelligence readbooks spill out of your safe. You can barely remember the names of the analysts supporting you, let alone how to contact them (they went home for the night hours ago, FYSA). You’ve skated by through weeks of interagency meetings with your three trusty talking points, but now, when the analytic rubber hits the policy road, you realize you do not sufficiently understand the issues at play, nor what options the United States could or should pursue to address them. You, my mid-level policymaking friend, lack intelligence.

This scene is, unfortunately, not uncommon in Washington. I have experienced it first-hand in the policy and intelligence communities. But I also know how easily avoidable and eminently fixable it is, having seen policymakers effectively use intelligence to make smarter decisions. Based on these observations and experiences — both good and bad — I offer this “how-to” guide for policymakers to become better consumers of intelligence. While principals are well served with the President’s Daily Brief and an army of analysts and briefers, in this article, I focus on the mid-level policymaker — from country director to assistant secretary, desk officer to ambassador, action to general officer — and how the workhorses of national security and foreign policy can more effectively use their intelligence support.

Starting with “frequently asked questions,” I seek to illuminate key concerns and challenges facing intelligence-deprived policymakers, before diving into seven “healthy habits” for policymakers seeking to bridge the divide with the intelligence community and exploit the incredible analytic resources at their disposal.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Question: What is all of this “intelligence” in my refrigerator-sized readbook?

Answer: Intelligence, for you, is insight.

Specifically, intelligence is insight, derived primarily from classified sources, into what foreign actors are doing, why they’re doing it, what they’re likely to do in the future, and what it means for U.S. interests. Your book is probably filled with two types of intelligence: raw and finished.

Raw intelligence is just that — raw, unanalyzed reporting from the various means of intelligence collection: a signals intercepts (SIGINT) of terrorist plotting, human intelligence (HUMINT) from a source inside an adversary leader’s inner circle of their strategy ahead of negotiations, or satellite imagery of enemy troop movements toward an ally’s border. Raw intel can provide critical, timely insight into adversaries’ thinking and actions, but is typically just a snapshot in time of a complex, fast-moving issue.

Finished intelligence means all-source analytic products. Analysts sift through the various streams of raw reporting and, leveraging their subject matter expertise, integrate it into an analytic story answering strategic questions for policymaker; e.g. what are the prospects for a partner military to defeat an insurgency in next two-three years? Good finished intelligence spells out the implications for the United States, helping policymakers think through its impact on U.S. policy.

2. Question: Can’t I just read all of this in the (*insert mainstream media publication here)?

Answer: You cannot.

Tactical, day-to-day military and diplomatic updates? Sure. But understanding adversaries’ plans, intentions, motivations, and decision-making? No. These are the types of things adversaries try to keep secret, and they require intelligence to truly understand. They also require subject matter expertise from analysts who have religiously studied the actors, can see their behavior within historic context, and can better anticipate where it’s going.

Respected and rigorous press, think-tank, and academic publications are certainly useful tools for policymakers to follow the current state of play and build broad knowledge. Indeed, your analysts, too, nerds that they are, likely read those very same articles, and perhaps integrated the open-source reporting into their analysis. But they are no substitute for real intelligence (Sorry, War on the Rocks).

3. Question: Who are these analysts stuffing my readbook? Why should I trust their judgment?

Answer: They’re just like you! But with actual expertise.

They probably went to one of the same one of the same 10 graduate schools as you, but instead of the policy route, they chose intelligence, to master high-impact analysis in its written form.  Their job is dedicated to understanding the specific topic you are reading about. For years.

Analysts spend their first couple years learning the business of intelligence and honing their tradecraft while deepening their subject matter expertise on their country, terrorist group, or other area of focus. The analysis they produce reflects their organization and discipline.

While several intelligence organizations produce all-source analysis, their focus and comparative expertise reflects where they serve. The Defense Intelligence Agency does military analysis while service intelligence organizations focus on their specific domains. The State Department’s intelligence shop specializes in diplomatic and political analysis, the Treasury Department’s on financial intelligence, and the National Counter-Terrorism Center on — obviously — terrorism. The CIA covers all of these disciplines but from a broader, strategic perspective for senior policymakers.

As they develop, analysts select career tracks based on particular disciplines and home offices within their organization. Key tracks include military, political, leadership, economic, terrorism, and cyber analysis, with sub-disciplines within (e.g. ballistic missiles or counter-terrorism finance). Home offices are organized by region (e.g. Middle East, Southeast Asia) or by functional area (e.g. counter-terrorism, weapons proliferation, cyber).

4. Question: How come the intelligence community never gives me what I need?

Answer: Did you ask them?

Policymakers often complain about their intelligence support. The morning readbook does not contain the type of the intelligence and analysis they need. The assigned briefers lack the expertise to sufficiently field their questions. The frustration mounts until the policymaker checks out, no longer reading their book or taking briefs.

Well, to the frustrated policymaker, I ask: Did you actually tell the intelligence community what you need? Did you explain to the briefer and their home office leadership what types of products and briefings you find most useful? Analysts do their best to anticipate policymaker needs and tailor their products accordingly, but they are not mind readers (yet). Tell them what you need, and they will deliver. It is their job.

5. Question: Why doesn’t the intelligence community support my (*insert policy, operation, diplomatic moonshot, etc.)?

Answer: That is not their job.

Indeed, it is the opposite. The intelligence community is there to inform the policy discussion, help policymakers think through an issue, and play out the international responses and after-order effects of U.S. action. But the intelligence community does not take a position on policy and is rightfully firewalled from decision-making. So, no, the analysts are not trying to undermine you.

But if their analysis seems to suggest — tacitly and unintentionally — that your policy or operation is doomed to fail, perhaps you should revisit your assumptions and the course of action they, for you, informed. The intelligence might indicate that your policy is going nowhere.

Seven Healthy Habits of Intelligence-Consuming Policymakers

Are you convinced your intelligence book is worth reading and briefings worth taking? Good. Now consider adopting the following “healthy habits” of proper intelligence consumption into your policymaking routine, based on observations from my career and the insights of former White House, Pentagon, and State Department officials I have worked with.

  1. Focus on the Strategic

Resist the urge to “play analyst” and keep your read focused on strategic, finished intelligence. This will trim down your book and read time significantly. Avoid getting bogged down in operational and tactical detail unless the intelligence is imminent and urgent, as analysts will soon incorporate the raw intelligence into a bigger analytic picture for you. Sure, the details of these reports can be titillating, but reading too much into one report, from one perspective, can lead policymakers to jump to terrible conclusions.

  1. Know Your Analysts

Learn the analytic tribes — by organization, home office, discipline — and where the strengths are in the intelligence community for certain issues or topics. This will help ensure the analysis you receive is from those with the most expertise. If not, actively seek it out.

  1. Know Your Analysis

Know what you are reading. Learn from analysts the mechanics of how each product was made — from intelligence collection to analysis to dissemination. Get an insider’s understanding of how a finished piece’s “bottom line” is reached via inter-intelligence agency coordination, and interpret what a sometimes wishy-washy analytic line is really trying to say. Know how to “read between the lines” in a report, which can provide critical context on the information’s reliability and definitiveness.

  1. Dive Deep

Do not just take your mornings briefs. Set aside time for “deep dives” with the experts on specific issues and roundtables for variety of perspectives. Avoid having too many managers or requesting the most senior people just because they are senior; the real experts are the analysts in the trenches. Debate them. Analysts will relish the opportunity for well-informed but no-holds-barred discussion on the issues they care about most with the people who can actually affect them.

  1. Loop Analysts In

Share your unique insights as a policymaker with analysts. Keep them in the loop on interagency discussions so that their analysis is relevant to policy considerations. Give them readouts of your big-shot meetings, overseas boondoggles, and streams of reporting that they may not be seeing. Not only will this help fill in analysts’ intelligence gaps, it will also ingratiate you as a great customer. In other words, turn the tables on the intelligence community, test your own intelligence skills, and recruit them. Why?

  1. Task Them

Request specific analytic products, tailored to your needs, be them a “blue sky” think piece or same-day tasker. Analysts you have previously looped in and made time for will bend over backwards to meet your demand. To increase your odds of a thorough, timely, and tailored product, ensure that you consistently provide feedback — both good and bad — on their products. The intelligence community wants to know if their products are relevant and impactful. If they are not, help them adjust course.

  1. Red Team

Bring those pesky nay-saying analysts into your inner sanctum and have them “red team” your policy. Have some humility and accept that there is no perfect diplomatic gambit, clinical operation, or magic bullet. Work with the intelligence community to identify weaknesses and risks in your policy that adversaries could exploit and brainstorm opportunities to which the enemy is vulnerable. Bear in mind not to cross the intelligence-policy firewall, but exploit the expertise at your disposal.


With your burning questions answered and healthy habits adopted, you, the mid-level policymaker, have recovered from your lackluster performance at last National Security Council meeting and are ready for the next one. You now understand what is in your noticeably trimmer, strategically focused readbook. The book is now filled with tailored products, based on your consistent feedback, from the analysts you routinely invite to deep dives and debriefs. When the National Security Council agenda hit, you already had good sense of the state of play, can quickly game through how potential policies would play out, and have honed in on realistic options that have a chance to succeed. The analysts are eager to stay late and come in early to help you prep, and look forward to your meeting readout to inform their next round of products. You have successfully bridged the formidable policy-intelligence divide. Because you, my policymaking friend, now have intelligence.


Brian Katz is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is a career civil servant in the national security field, serving in a variety of positions across the policy and intelligence communities over the past decade.

Disclaimer: The author is an employee of the United States government, currently on leave from his employment. All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis in this work are those of the author and do not reflect an official position or views of the United States government.

Image: Wesley Farnsworth