Better Intel: Making Sense of the U.S. Intelligence Community's Creativity Dilemma

There are potential ways to expand the opportunities for more creative approaches to intelligence analysis. 

Most writing on how to improve the intelligence process makes a fundamental flaw in its reasoning: intelligence cannot be more successful than policy. No matter how insightful, no matter how accurate, no matter how creative, the U.S. Intelligence Community’s performance is bounded and defined by the success of the policy-making apparatus. The more energy the Intelligence Community puts into policy support, the more policy making defines the limits of intelligence. Any effort to improve analytic performance requires looking beyond intelligence analysts themselves and the logic they employ.

Josh Kerbel has written often and eloquently about raising the standard of intelligence analysis across the community, and his recent piece on analytic creativity in these pages is no different. Kerbel admonishes the Intelligence Community for not embracing a fundamentally different model of understanding how the world works.

The world has changed in substantial ways; however, a great many issues that directly concern the Intelligence Community have changed less than commerce, society and technology, as well as the speed of information. The veiled shroud of secrecy and disinformation surrounding Chinese-leadership politics is one. The status of Iran’s nuclear program is another. Traditional analysis of foreign policy and foreign military affairs remain important subjects of U.S. intelligence work. However much the world has changed, these traditional targets and others like them are not the subjects of some fundamentally different world, governed by any greater complexity than the world of yesteryear.

As much as observers might want to say that nongovernmental actors have eclipsed the nation-state in importance, the reality is that most U.S. government work revolves around interactions with other states. Terrorist groups, epidemics and climate change are only a small part of day-to-day policy work.

The Intelligence Community is constrained by both the institutions and people of policy creation and implementation. The White House staff, Defense Department, the State Department, the U.S. military services and combatant commands, as well as other policy departments all have their own routines and regular processes. The departmental focus of the agencies ensures their product gets tailored with inside knowledge of the department, feeds its processes and usually responds to its tasking. While this can create some analytic duplication, the focus and timing of intelligence analysis is more likely to reflect the narrower needs of departmental policy makers than the broadest interests of the government. Decision makers do not need the broadest interests of the government, but rather the specific information that fills in the missing pieces they require.

The U.S. Intelligence Community does not function as a community, all pulling in a common direction. Most of the sixteen intelligence agencies report to specific government departments, and only a few have a broad mandate and regularly support multiple sets of policy makers across the government—most notably the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. The “community” element largely comes from the pooling of intelligence information, not necessarily the agencies’ close coordination on operations and analysis.

Departmental control over intelligence shapes how and what work gets done, but it is the human factor that can actually distort intelligence. Since the Iraq WMD failure and the national failures preceding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, intelligence analysts have been force-fed practically oriented cognitive psychology to help redress the potential pitfalls of analysis. One of the most important dangers is that analysts develop mindsets or concepts through which they filter incoming information. The danger is that new information receives automatic credibility or dismissal as it comes in piecemeal.

The natural tendency in the busy, uncertain environment in which U.S. policy makers work is to seek information that confirms their original perspectives and/or their desired course of action. Even exempting the potential politically motivated blinders, these cognitive biases cannot be prevented by awareness. Correcting for biases requires structured ways of dealing with data and coming to decisions that slow down or remove the human brain’s ability to make connections and remember things that are not real. Protecting against these problems—or, in positive terms, encouraging rational policy making—underpins formalized policy procedures.

The stress and high tempo of policy making, as well as the fear of leaks also ensure that policy makers place a high premium on trust. This is one of the reasons why political campaigns work as bonding experiences for incoming administrations. Intelligence analysts usually lack these connections, and policy makers do not have a clear way to evaluate the claims made in anonymous papers. As CIA’s Harold Ford wrote of policy makers during the Vietnam War, most are “simply too busy much of the time to absorb the judgments of relatively junior, unknown intelligence officers.”