Truman National Security Project

The Challenge of Intelligence Analysts

By Gail Harris | 12.7.12

The time was the early 1970’s and the U.S. was embroiled in the Cold War.  As stated in a National Security Agency publication: “For decades, naval aircrews waged a daily struggle against enemy air defenses to gain desperately needed intelligence regarding the military capabilities of the Soviet Union and its Communist allies.”  I was an intelligence officer for a naval aviation squadron and standing next to my Commanding Officer (CO) in the operations center.  The Soviets had just launched two fighters in an apparent reaction to one of our aircraft conducting reconnaissance operations over international waters.  My CO turned to me and asked:  “Gail do you think those guys are going to try to shoot our plane down?  What is the range of their air- to- air missiles?”  I replied:  “Wait, I’ll go get my book with the missile ranges in it and find out”.  He snarled:  “I can read stats from a book!  You’re here to tell me what I need to know NOW!!”

Fast forward to today and the continuing debate over Benghazi; many seem to feel either President Obama or his representatives (notably UN Ambassador Susan Rice) are lying, incompetent or this is another intelligence failure.  This brings me to what I’d like to blog about:  “What are reasonable expectations of fast intelligence analysis for quick answers?”

Bottom line up front:  Give them your initial take immediately, make sure they KNOW  you’re still looking at incoming intelligence reports, but you will update them constantly.   Here’s the philosophy I learned early in my career as a military intelligence officer.  The sole purpose of intelligence is to support the warfighter and/or decision maker.  Your job is to provide them with the information they need in the format and time they require to make decisions on foreign and national security policy to include military responses to what you tell them is a threat.  There is however, one major catch.  As alluded to, the initial intelligence analysis is usually based on very incomplete information.  Some would say:  “What do you mean incomplete information.  The intelligence community collects tons of data”.  That is correct but that is also one of the major challenges to good intelligence analysis.

In a 2007 article in Foreign Policy Magazine, then Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell stated:  “The U.S. intelligence community collects more than one billion pieces of information every day.  In that same year at a conference in Chicago, Dr. Michael Wertheimer, then Assistant Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analytic Transformation & Chief Technology Officer stated:  “Of the data we’re collecting, that is genuinely intel, not fluff – it’s already been filtered and selected – we’re only analyzing about one ten-millionth of the data we’ve collected today; one ten-millionth.”

The problem of data keeps intensifying.  A January 2010 article in National Defense Magazine made the following points gathered from senior intelligence officials:

“Military ‘Swimming in Sensors and Drowning in Data’”.

Unpiloted aircraft in the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan collects full-motion video.

žSatellites…take images from space.

Signals Intelligence experts eavesdrop on the chatter of insurgents who maybe planning to bomb civilian targets.

žAlso in the mix is low tech human intelligence – information gleaned by spies from informants or during interrogations

žSynthesizing all these collection disciplines and disseminating them quickly is the challenge facing the military.”

The first challenge for an intelligence analyst is to sift through hundreds of thousands of pieces of data looking for significant information.  You can’t just focus on today.  You have to relate data to what happened yesterday, last week, last month, last year, ten years ago, etc.  The intelligence community is constantly developing new hardware and software to assist with analyzing the huge amount of data but it will always remain a challenge.  Technology changes at the speed of thought and as new technologies develop so will the requirement of intelligence analysts to develop new techniques, tactics, and procedures for their work.  Intelligence types have always looked at open sources, but these days the importance of sources of information like social media are critical in analyzing events like the Arab Spring and the current crises in Syria and Egypt.  That means even more stuff to look at.

The second challenge is when relaying your analysis make sure the decision maker knows the limitations inherent in that analysis.  Think of a crisis situation as a puzzle with the various pieces of intelligence data being the pieces needed to complete it.  Rarely will you have all the pieces needed.  It is up to analysts to fill in the missing pieces of what they believe is happening based on his or her experience.  Often their beliefs will have no supporting data so you have to relay up the chain of command the gaps in your analysis.

Speaking before a Senate Committee in 2004, then Secretary of State, Colin Powell stated what he felt the role of intelligence was:

“Tell me what you know. Tell me what you don’t know. And then, based on what you really know and what you really don’t know, tell me what you think is most likely to happen… to do my job, I need both tailored intelligence support responsive to, indeed, able to anticipate my needs, and I need informed, competitive analysis. Precisely because my intelligence needs differ from those of the Secretary of Defense or the Secretary of Homeland Security or the Secretary of Energy, not to mention the unique requirement of our military services, I’m not well served, nor are they, by collectors and analysts who do not understand my unique needs, or who attempt to provide a one-size-fits-all assessment.”

As I said in an earlier blog, there is no doubt in my mind that numerous intelligence analysts knew from the beginning the attack on Benghazi was a terrorist attack.  The challenge is communicating that and the reasons behind that early analysis up the chain of command.  Many of the civilian leaders are lawyers and want analysis to be based on more than a “guess” based on very little information.  They want more supporting data.  I’ve blogged before about naval intelligence analysts basing their “guess” that the Japanese were going to attack Midway was based on being able to read just 20% of the Japanese Naval traffic.  That was the turning point in the Pacific war.  Imagine if their guess had been wrong.  It helps immensely if the analyst in question has a successful track record.  I’ve often said intelligence analysis is the cult of personality.

I’ll end by saying what my response should have been to my CO during that long ago incident.  First I would have given him the range of the air-to-air missiles right away without checking the book.  I should have stuff like that memorized.  Then I would have said:

“Sir, although the Communists have shot down some of our aircraft in the past resulting in the loss of 90 lives; no Navy aircraft have been shot down since 1969.  They may not have shot down any planes recently but there have been numerous incidents of aggressive behavior by their fighter pilots against Navy aircraft.  I would recommend first we ask our crew to make sure their navigation is not off and they are over international waters. It’s your call but I would also recommend aborting our flight.  If you will excuse me, I need to check the in coming intelligence reports to make sure the Soviets are not in an increased alert status.  They were not a half hour ago when I last checked the intelligence traffic.  I also need to make sure there are no reports the aircraft reacting to our plane are arming their weapons. I was told I would be called by the intelligence analyst tracking this if that would happen but I’d still like to double check just in case I missed the call.  I also need to check with the Air Force Intelligence types to see if the Soviets are reacting to any of their aircraft.”

I should mention that for intelligence types specializing in support to military operations it is not uncommon to make suggestions to the warfighter concerning the movement and placement of their forces based on your intelligence analysis.  I’ve spoken to intelligence folks who support the President and his staff and other senior civilian leaders.  They say they don’t make policy recommendations; they just lay out the problems, background, and events surrounding a crisis.  Think I’ll end here.  As always my views are my own.

Gail Harris is a Truman Security Fellow