Policy and You: A Guide for Intelligence Analysts

February 5, 2019

It’s 3:30 pm in a dimly lit cubicle farm somewhere in Northern Virginia. You are a strategic, all-source intelligence analyst and have been sitting at your computer all day eagerly awaiting feedback from U.S. policymakers on the analytic masterpiece you finally published last night. You spent weeks, if not months, perfecting the piece. Today is the day to soak up all the kudos.

You crafted a clear and compelling analytic framework and employed sophisticated analytic techniques to identify key drivers and future scenarios for the security and political situation in a critical foreign country. Your document survived multiple attacks from the “good idea fairy” of comment and suggestion during coordination and review and circumnavigated the “happy-to-glad” editorial circuit several times over to emerge almost entirely intact from your original draft. It is well-written, strongly argued, logically flawless, thoroughly sourced, and has shiny graphics. And today it was prominently featured in policymakers’ morning readbook. From the White House to the Pentagon and over to the State Department, your policy consumers are going to love it. As your managers and cubicle mates begin heading out the door (traffic is really picking up on the Beltway), you remain wedded to your achievement award– and challenge coin-adorned desk, waiting for that vital policymaker feedback to come in. But it never does.

Your office briefer informs you that most of your customers were in meetings all day and took only a quick glance at the book. A few read your piece “with interest,” i.e. scanned the topic sentences to get the gist. Others skipped the brief altogether. And tomorrow’s book is already full with the next round of products. You gave weeks of time and thought to your piece, but policy customers gave it only a minute. Frustrated, demoralized, and facing a 10-mile, two-hour commute home, you log off for the night (4:45 pm). As you begin your 30-minute walk to your car, your mind drifts to the existential: If intelligence analysis is written but nobody reads it, does it exist?

Sadly, this dramatic scene occurs too frequently in cubicle farms and parking lots across the U.S. intelligence community, and it is one I have reenacted many times in my career. But I have also seen great intelligence officers routinely deliver timely, relevant, and high-impact analysis to policymakers. Based on the insights of former intelligence and policy officials and my own experience, I offer this “how-to” guide for analysts to be more relevant to U.S. national security policy and better serve policymakers. Like episode one of this series, I focus on the working-level of the national security bureaucracy. Starting with frequently asked questions, I seek to provide analysts a better understanding of who these policymakers are, what they do, and what they need from intelligence. I then offer a simple eight-step program for analysts to adopt to do their part in bridging the intelligence-policy divide.

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What is policy?

Answer: Policy is what your analysis informs. For you, it is both the position the United States adopts on a national security issue and the process that generated the decision.

Policy is the U.S. objective, guiding principle, or course of action the president and cabinet-level  officials of the National Security Council select toward a foreign country or issue; e.g. should the United States engage and encourage political opposition against an authoritarian regime? What arms do we provide to a partner nation, and how far are we willing to go to support their military operations? It is this senior-most level of policy deliberation that you are accustomed to serving via the intelligence community’s flagship product, the “President’s Daily Brief.”

But a given policy is just the culminating tip of an iceberg of process leading up to a senior-level decision: yes, the interagency process, orchestrated through the National Security Council system (in most administrations). At the heart of the process is the interagency policy committee, where assistant and deputy assistant secretary-level officials (typically) debate, hone, and tee up policy options for the Deputies Committee, then the Principals Committee, and then the full president-chaired National Security Council meeting to consider for decision. But even before the interagency policy committee comes the sub-committee, where the real grunt work of policymaking is done. Working-level policy directors analyze the state of play, generate potential policy responses, assess their pros and cons, advocate for their department’s equities, and set the table for senior officials to formalize options and recommendations.

It is here, at the interagency political committee level and sub-level, where analysts can have the most impact and inform policy from the ground up. If policy impact is what ye seek, let the interagency process be your guide. Know the process. Trust the process. Embrace the process. Dare I say, love it.

Question: Where are the key policymakers in this magical interagency process?

Answer: The National Security Council, the State Department, and the Defense Department. But it goes much deeper than that.

While many departments and agencies play key roles for specific issues, such as the Department of Energy for nuclear proliferation and the Treasury Department for counter-terrorism, three policy entities form the core of the interagency policy process: the National Security Council, the State Department, and the Defense Department. But within these broad policy kingdoms are a myriad of policy fiefdoms, and the issue you analyze is likely spread amongst them.

The National Security Council is divided into senior directorates by region (e.g. Middle East or East Asia) and function (e.g. counter-proliferation or humanitarian assistance). Senior directors serve as special assistants to the president, orchestrate the interagency process, and oversee a staff of directors specializing in specific countries or issues. Senior directors may play the role of policy arbiter, seeking interagency consensus or taking neutral positions on various options to serve up to deputies, or policy advocate, promoting a particular course of action, with many shades in between.

The State Department is organized into assistant secretary-led “bureaus” reporting to an undersecretary, with Political Affairs at the heart of day-to-day foreign policy. Regional bureaus typically lead the State Department’s interagency team and provide the diplomatic perspective on how various policies would impact bilateral relations and the spectrum of U.S. interests. But for any given policy, the State Department’s functional bureaus will also have a voice, such as for humanitarian aid or weapons sales. As will the bevy of special envoys for cross-cutting issues. And the secretary’s staff.

The Defense Department is (at least) two entities: the civilians of the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the uniformed military of the Joint Staff. Assistant and deputy assistant secretaries provide the interagency the security perspective on policy options, assessing the impact on defense relationships and regional strategy for their swath of the globe. The Joint Staff provides policymakers military advice, on the services’ ability to operationalize and execute the military aspects of policy. Far from a “Defense” monolith, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Joint Staff differ not only in what they wear but also, not so infrequently, in what they think about a given policy.

Yes, with broad competing alliances and a kaleidoscope of shifting factions amongst them, the policy combatants in the Situation Room can sometimes resemble the conflicts they cover. But for intelligence analysts, understanding who the key players and sub-players are for their issue across the interagency is critical in identifying potential policy customers and generating analytic impact.

Question: But who are the people doing this policymaking?

Answer: They’re just like you! But with way more to cover.

Well, senior directors and assistant and deputy assistant secretaries are not really like you. They are (typically) highly qualified political appointees and career civil servants of ambassador, senior executive service, and general officer rank. They also have great parking spaces. But they are like you in that they are (typically) experts in their field, with deep expertise from academia, think tanks, or previous government service. The breadth of their portfolios and endless demands from the interagency and their own principals, however, leaves little bandwidth for any one issue.

But the sub-interagency policy committee level? They are just like you — in rank, experience, academic training, and area knowledge. At the State Department, desk officers in D.C. are a mix of civil and foreign service officers that help craft foreign policy, while embassy-based foreign service officers implement it in the field. Policy directors in the Office of the Secretary of Defense are primarily civil servants, joined by political appointees and interagency detailees to fill in gaps. Joint Staff J5 are field-grade officers, serving a hardship Pentagon staff tour before heading back to the field or to command. National Security Council directors are mostly the same folks as above as detailees comprise much of the staff. The working-level wonks are also like you in that the essence of the job is the same: to read, write, and brief on their topic.

Where they differ is the amount they have to cover and the speed at which they have to do it. While you cover the military of one country, your policy peer may be responsible for all military, political, and economic policy for that and maybe several other countries. While you spend two to three weeks crafting a piece of “current” finished intelligence on that army’s battlefield performance, your policy director may have two to three days, or even hours, to draft policy options on all U.S. military and economic support to the country and then drive it through the interagency process for decision and action.

The mid-level policymaker needs your knowledge and perspective to help them steer through the fast-moving policy churn and put urgent policy choices into the bigger strategic picture. But they need your analysis to be relevant to the policy state of play, and they need it early and often throughout the process. They need you and your expertise in the room. Don’t let it arrive too late.

Question: Why don’t they read my stuff?

Answer: Because they have a lot of stuff.

Your policy peer’s day is a whirling dervish of staffing, representing, writing, and briefing across multiple issue areas and sometimes international codes. They attend or “+1” their boss at interagency meetings, integrate key takeaways into a “readahead” paper before a deputies or principals committee, craft their own position or analytic “white” paper, and brief it all to their principals, who often make the director’s analysis their main argument in the Situation Room. They staff said principals for their ceaseless engagements outside the interagency — writing talking points for meetings with foreign leaders, setting agendas for bilateral negotiations and multilateral forums, and travelling with their boss to provide real-time expertise. They also coordinate with offices across their organization, from public affairs to congressional outreach, legal counsel, and budget. And they write it all up.

Their inbox is bursting from not only the endless paper trail accompanying the above meetings, but also a firehouse of informational and intelligence “traffic.” Policymakers receive diplomatic cables and military reports from the field, relevant journalist and think-tank pieces, finished intelligence from the alphabet of intelligence agencies, and often the same raw intelligence that feeds into your analysis. They receive all of this daily and across multiple classification levels and systems.

You, the analyst, are thus competing for the policymaker’s time and bandwidth and need to make clear your analytic value added. Is it a strategic lens to see through a crisis? Critical insight on a foreign leader? While some policymakers will read your analysis regardless, others may start to tune you out after one redundant piece, anodyne bottom line, and lackluster briefing too many or if you provide analysis that is routinely overcome by events, irrelevant to current policy deliberations, or just as easily found in a newspaper.

Eight Steps to Policy Relevance

So how can intelligence analysts be more relevant to the U.S. national security policy process? Consider adopting the following eight-step program for analytic impact. Drawn from the insights of former senior intelligence community, White House, State Department, and Defense Department officials, these steps can help you determine what to write, who to write for, how to write it, how to deliver it, and how to forge a fruitful, lasting partnership with policymakers.

  1. Take the initiative: Policymakers, as you know, may lack intelligence on intelligence. They may not know who in the intelligence community does what, who does what best, and how to reach those that do. Tell them. Explain who you are, what you cover, what you produce, why it’s unique and relevant, and how to stay connected. Even better, offer up tailored analytic products and deep-dive briefs, particularly for policymakers new to the gig. Yes, you’re an analyst, but you’re an intelligence officer first. Recruit them.
  2. Know the policy, know the process: Now that policymakers know who you are, get and stay inside the policy loop. Get on policymakers’ email chains and dissemination listervs. Know when a policy is being reviewed, what options are being considered, and when and where the interagency will be meeting to debate them. Know which offices within the National Security Council, State Department, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Joint Staff, and other departments are the key players, what are their equities, and what type of intelligence and analysis they will find most relevant and helpful.
  3. Be strategic, be ready for the tactical: The policymaker lives in a day-to-day, sometimes hour-by-hour world. Help them zoom out from the near-term crisis, put fast-moving events into context, and cut through the tactical fog to the strategic horizon. At the same, while policymakers say they don’t want their intelligence to be a “classified CNN,” they inevitably ask for just that during a crisis. Be on top of the military and diplomatic state of play and have the most up-to-date information to field short-fuse taskings for urgent policy decisions.
  4. Provide opportunities, pull no punches: Your over-worked, myopia-riddled policy peer is dying for creative ideas on how to make a policy effective. Don’t be afraid to give them. You are well-equipped to assess partners’ amenability and adversaries’ vulnerability to courses of action without slipping into policy prescription. Yet proximity can breed familiarity and even sycophancy, with policy access inviting policy influence and objective analysis sliding into policy validation. Resist at all costs the urge to soften a bottom line because it is inconvenient for policymakers. The last thing they need to succeed is for the intelligence community to be a bunch of yes-men.
  5. Market your material: Do not just wait and hope that your analysis makes it to the policy customer. Reach out to them or their senior staff directly and tell them when a particularly important piece of analysis is coming. “Tee up” the piece, explaining what it is and why it is timely and relevant. To maximize your audience, consider creating multiple versions of your product at different classification levels. Policymakers often complain about intelligence being overclassified, but you know best what is classified and at what level.
  6. Hit the road, hold your ground: Reading and writing is fine and good, but for real impact, take your analysis right to the policymaker and brief it. Customers appreciate you making the arduous cross-town journey and may get more out of a one-hour deep dive than from weeks of readbooks. If they disagree with your analysis, lean in and embrace the debate. They may have a different perspective or alternative analysis that is compelling and useful. Alas, some policymakers will dispute your analysis no matter what you say, viewing it as a critique of their policy. Be professional but stand your analytic ground. While they may be an ambassador, assistant secretary, or general officer, you are the expert and know the material better than they do. Besides, the Situation Room can handle a little bureaucratic infighting.
  7. Get on the ground: Get outside of Washington and spend some time in the foreign field. Being on the ground will give you a firsthand perspective on how policy is implemented and operations are conducted — and how intelligence analysis is used to help execute them. Field experience will give you credibility back home with policymakers inclined to dismiss your analysis as the work of just another Beltway analyst. It will also help you build connections across the interagency, creating future customers when you are back in Washington.
  8. Get in the saddle: Potentially more hazardous than the war zone, consider a policy tour. Serving as a briefer will give you firsthand insight into how customers use (or don’t use) analysis. Even better, a policy rotation as a country or issue director provides a full-on policy and interagency immersion while expanding your breadth of expertise. You will also serve as a critical bridge between policy and the intelligence community and unlock new customers for your teammates back home. Yes, there will be times when the policy churn is disorienting and their ad-hoc-at-best internal processes bewildering. But the policy experience can also be exhilarating and provide critical lessons and vital connections to last an entire career.

Conclusion

Now that you know who policymakers are and how best to serve them, you, the analyst, simply do not have the time to ponder the existential — and certainly not while crying in a parking lot at 5 pm. You are putting the final touches on a paper that provides realistic scenarios for the country you cover, clear-eyed implications of possible courses of action, and actionable opportunities for policymakers. You generated this tailored but objective analysis based on the series of interagency you briefed. You were invited to these meetings because when crisis hit, you reached out, stayed late to walk your policy peer through the intel picture, and wrote a next-day analytic product that was critical in informing the White House’s response. As you head out the door, you grab your passport because you take off the next day to go brief senior U.S. diplomats and military commanders in the country you cover, and who are grateful for the custom intelligence support you routinely provide.

You have mastered the art of being in the room but not of the room, gaining access and audience to the inner-most sanctums of U.S. foreign policy while maintaining the strictest of analytic integrity and independence. You are no longer just another nameless intelligence monkey churning out generic product. Because you, my analyst friend, are relevant to policy.

 

Brian Katz is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow. 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. This does not constitute an official release of U.S. Government information. All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the U.S. Government. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. Government authentication of information or endorsement of the author’s views. This material has been reviewed solely for classification.

Image: Central Intelligence Agency