Toward a More Constructive Conversation between Policymakers and Intelligence Analysts
Dear policymaker, if an intelligence analyst had the chance to offer you candid feedback about your relationship, what would they say? This question is largely hypothetical because intelligence analysts like me are primed to be deferential to policymakers. It is not in our nature to challenge you or critique your consumption of intelligence. And we recognize that the intelligence business is a customer-service one. Without policymaking and military clients, there is scant need for our services — whether providing warning of a military invasion or offering unique insight to shape a bilateral meeting with a foreign leader.
Sometimes this customer-support role is frustrating or even creates conflict. Consumers often offer insufficient feedback or, worse, sometimes place unwarranted blame on intelligence community when bad things happen. The purpose of this article, then, is not to vent, but to encourage a constructive conversation about the relationship between intelligence analysts and policymakers.
My reflections mostly apply to intelligence relationships with national-level policymakers in Washington and other senior-level intelligence consumers, such as military combatant commanders. Those who have supported tactical military or law enforcement operations, however, will likely see some familiar themes. I can recall several instances when I offered tactical intelligence briefings to Air Force pilots who were not particularly interested in what I had to say — an early career lesson on the importance of zeroing in on relevance to my client.
Beyond simply my own experiences as a long-time member of the intelligence community, I’ve drawn on seminal works by scholars as well. In 2008, Richard Betts argued that policymakers are sometimes dissatisfied with the intelligence they receive and intelligence analysts are sometimes frustrated by the apparent misuse or disuse of intelligence. The late Robert Jervis went a step further in 2010 and argued that conflict between policymakers and intelligence officers is guaranteed because they have different needs and perspectives. Finally, my reflections are in the same spirit as Brian Katz’s clever intelligence guide for policymakers and Martin Petersen’s timeless piece on the things he learned over his 40-year career as an intelligence professional.
With that, here are the things I want to tell policymakers but am too afraid to say. In short, we have a different role than you do, we will inevitably make mistakes, and we still need your trust.
We’re Not Here to Agree With You
It’s not our job to agree with you, help you acquire more funding, or justify your policy position. Sometimes our analysis will achieve those things, but that is not our purpose. Intelligence is supposed to provide you with insight, decision advantage, or warning. The result, then, is that we are on the same team but play different positions — a framework intelligence pioneer Sherman Kent perfectly called the thinkers and doers.
We cannot tilt intelligence to your policy goal because we operate according to a set of analytic standards that ensure we don’t drift into your decision-making lane. Intelligence Community Directive 203, which outlines these standards, says our analysis must be objective and independent of any political consideration. These analytic standards afford intelligence professionals a degree of independence and help to keep our analysis dispassionate. If our analysis run counter to your policy goals, we promise it’s not because we are out to get you. This point is crucial because it can lead to considerable tension in our relationship. I once had a mid-level military officer in a combatant command tell me we needed to “sing from the same sheet of music,” which was his oblique way of suggesting that our intelligence analysis needed to conform to his objectives. I politely pushed back.
We also know that the intelligence community is sometimes a convenient scapegoat. One common example is in 2009, when an al-Qaeda-linked man nearly detonated a bomb on an airplane over Detroit. According to critics, the intelligence community didn’t connect the dots about the man’s terrorism ties. But this grossly oversimplifies the complex intelligence process and ignores the functions of the broader national security apparatus. It’s of course your prerogative to scapegoat us, but please first understand the challenges and complexity of our work. We ultimately don’t seek the spotlight or expect you to recognize us when we get things right.
Getting Things Wrong Is Inherent to the Process
We will miss the mark more than you would like. Missing the mark can mean a lot of things, from an assessment delivered too late to a so-called intelligence failure. Intelligence failure is a tricky term but is generally invoked in cases where the intelligence community cannot provide detailed warning or delivers an inaccurate assessment. The causes of these shortfalls vary and often include breakdowns in the cognitive process. When these failures occur, which some say are inevitable in this business, we break down the film to identify what went wrong. Robert Clark argues that intelligence analysts learn more from their failures than they do from successes. This is also why I wrote in 2020 that analysts must have humility to understand the limits of their knowledge. When we miss the mark, we conduct a thorough lessons-learned process. The intelligence community has institutionalized this through the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence that provides a space for scholarship on intelligence, including lessons learned from past activities. The Defense Intelligence Agency recently established its own lessons-learned program.
Another reason we get things wrong is that our resources are spread thin as we seek to maintain global coverage and be responsive to your requirements. This global coverage seeks to allocate finite resources to cover the highest-priority targets and use the residual capacity for lower-priority ones, all while being nimble enough to shift to surprise pop-up issues. You can help by being more selective in what questions you ask us. We want you to ask us questions. We will answer nearly any question you pose to us, but these may create tradeoffs that distract us from answering more important questions because many questions take us hours to answer. By the same token, we really shouldn’t serve as research librarians. Our job is not to count how many times a terrorist group has attacked a location or to calculate the volume of narcotics seized at a border post. And some questions we cannot answer because they drift into the policy realm or because we simply lack the data.
Figuring out how often we must get things right is a topic of debate. 100 percent accuracy is not feasible, but 30 percent — the batting average of a successful baseball hitter — is arguably too low. We need to ultimately manage your expectations about what we can provide and the reasons why we sometimes fall short. Betts writes that one of these reasons is that intelligence entails a fight against cunning outside enemies who are seeking to circumvent our efforts. And perhaps no-one has better reframed the goal of intelligence better than intelligence veteran Jack Davis, who said the purpose of intelligence is not to be right, but to narrow the range of uncertainty for decisions that must be made.
Give us the opportunity to help you to understand the intelligence discipline and its limitations. We know, 18 agencies are a lot, and you may not be familiar with more than the CIA. This can be intimidating and tricky to navigate. Now you understand how we feel about understanding the State Department’s bureaus. Moreover, our craft is a bit nebulous to outsiders. You hear us talk about things like “tradecraft,” “INTs,” and something called the “intelligence cycle.” Professor and former analyst John Gentry says policymakers should develop a better understanding about what intelligence can and cannot do in order to establish realistic expectations about intelligence. We would relish the opportunity to talk through some of the intricacies of our profession. The next time you interact with an intelligence professional, consider asking them one thing about their profession that goes beyond the intelligence topic of the day.
We can also help you understand the language of intelligence and why it sometimes seems wishy-washy. Uncertainty is ubiquitous in the intelligence business and entails things like incomplete, contradictory, and false information. This uncertainty shapes how we communicate with you, including our use of probabilistic words, such as “likely,” to be clear when we are making an assessment. Sometimes we will offer you an alternative explanation of an issue, not because we want to cover our rears, but because we want to give you additional perspectives. And we understand that it can be frustrating when you see that one intelligence agency does not agree with the assessment of another. This can be frustrating to us too, but this lack of agreement, which manifests in the form of a dissent, stems from the incredibly complex issues we cover. We learned some tough lessons after the Iraq weapons of mass destruction debacle that involved “flimsy, dated intelligence and flawed analysis,” according to intelligence veteran Mark Lowenthal. We take the analytic tradecraft standards seriously. And Congress mandates that we use them.
We Are Working to Earn Your Trust
We crave your trust and are constantly working to earn it. This may seem obvious, especially after acknowledging our shortfalls. We know we don’t have a monopoly on information and that we must compete against other sources of insight you have. Our insight is unique because it is underpinned by rigor, collaboration, standards, and sound processes. We know trust takes time to earn and work diligently to pursue it. By the same token, our officers need opportunities to demonstrate that trust to you and we work hard to prepare them for those moments. We also need more feedback.
One way we earn your trust is to go to painstaking lengths and rigor to publish assessments and prepare briefings. We know you pull late hours in the office and rarely have time to read. And we begrudgingly understand intelligence may be “optional equipment” for you. Many intelligence analysts arrive at work before sunrise to scour the overnight intelligence or update talking points for the morning briefing to ensure currency. Some were in the office late the night before to finish edits on an intelligence assessment that published the next day. These are not reasons to consume our work, but testify to our thorough, rigorous processes to produce structured analysis that include multiple safeguards aimed to maximize quality. This also speaks to the seriousness that we place in our work and our obsession with timeliness.
One final strength we offer is deep expertise that we hope you will see as an asset to help you to understand the complex challenges facing our country. Many of our analysts will serve decades-long careers that will transcend the duration of your term or tour. This tenure means that our officers are very smart on their portfolios, with many having studied their target area for a decade or more and spent time in the region they cover. Most analysts also have the luxury of specializing in a region or functional area. This long-term expertise — a key reason that the United States has an intelligence capability — means intelligence analysts provide continuity that bridges administrations and political appointments. Beyond expertise, we are committed to continuing education through a robust catalogue of courses and graduate studies available to intelligence analysts.
So why should you take notice of these things, particularly when you have so much on your plate already? In short, because the relationship we have with you is crucial and will affect intelligence community staffing and, by extension, the quality of support we can provide to you in the years to come. More than 20 years after 9/11, the intelligence community (and its policy customers) has endured successive crises: Afghanistan, Iraq, the Arab Spring, South Sudan, Syria, and most recently Russia, to name a few. For career intelligence professionals, this has implications for burnout and lingering questions about the impact of their work. We do not need you to coddle us with praise. Instead, we ultimately seek to manage your expectations about our role and the limits of intelligence, and educate you about our capabilities, so that we can continue to serve you and advance U.S. national security as a close team.
John Mohr is a former Air Force officer and a 19-year veteran of the intelligence community who previously served a tour as a director on the National Security Council staff. He also teaches Intelligence Studies at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
The views in this article do not reflect any official position or opinions of the Defense Department, the Defense Intelligence Agency, or the University of Colorado.
Image: Executive Office of the President of the United States