Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Analytical Challenge

By Melissa Boyle Mahle

Several days ago I attended a luncheon hosted by the Association of Former Intelligence Officers at which Central Intelligence Agency Deputy Director of Intelligence (DDI) John Kringen spoke. I was struck by the lack of dynamism Dr. Kringen emoted. It could be that public speaking is just not his thing. I hope it is not an indication of where the DI is these days.

In his prepared remarks, Kringen spoke about the challenges to analysts today: the push for actionable intelligence, the information explosion, personnel problems, and poisoning impact of partisan politics on intelligence. These are all challenges, appropriate to mention, but are they the big issues that the individual analyst must face? They are certainly management problems. But what does the GS 13 analyst worry about?

First of all, there probably are only a handful of GS 13 analysts—meaning mid-level careerists—since the CIA got out of the hiring business in the 1990s. Analysts, according to Kringen, have an average of 3.5 years of experience. So the mid-level analyst probably devotes a disproportionate part of his or her day mentoring new analysts. This is a good thing for the new analyst, but hard on the mid-level analyst who probably wants to do some deep thinking about his or her accounts.

Secondly, 9/11 and the Iraqi WMD lesson learned (there is an assumption here) is that analysts must deeply and broadly know their issue. This means that analysts must work the same account for years to gain the texture that only experience provides. While GS 13 analysts are told they must become true experts, they live in an organizational environment of upheaval. Bureaucratic structures are changing in response to intelligence failures, the committee review structure that selected out creativity is being dismantled, alternative analysis groups are being put together in each component, and the entire organization is under threat of being moved out of the CIA and placed in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Okay, there are not enough of them, there are not enough hours in a day and they live in chaos…what else? Tools. In terms of technology, they live in the Dinosaur Age! I remember when I started at the CIA in 1988. At home I had an IBM computer working from DOS and big floppy disks. It had the processing speed of a snail. At work I had access to a Wang (not one on my desk—that was accessorized with a typewriter). The Wang made my IBM look like a Cray. When I left the CIA, technology had improved but not by much. I had no access to unclassified information at work—the internet and email was considered hostile. PDAs were banned from Langley because of the security threat they posed. CIA-proprietary search engines (which started off more advance than commercial ones) were so slow and inflexible that they were more of a burden. The problem is not that technology has yet to be invented that will be useful in the intelligence world. The problem is that “security requirements” make it so difficult to piggy-back on commercial technology. The CIA still looks at technology through a fear optic. So our GS 13 is in a constant battle with his or her computer to get it to retrieve the information needed in a timely and dependable way.

CIA analysts conduct “all source” analysis. This means that technically the analysts should be able to look at all intelligence produced by the intel community and the open source information as well. Analysts reach across organizational lines remains limited outside the counterterrorism area. The analyst working Russia, for example, has not more access to FBI reports today than five years ago (and I hasten to add that FBI agents have no more access to FBI reports than five years ago given their continuing failure to fix their information management systems.) The final coup de grace: they still don’t have routine access to all CIA intelligence. The super secret HUMINT intelligence remains compartmentalized to a hand-select few because the HUMINT folks still live in the mentality of the Cold War (beware: the enemy has penetrated us!).

The politicization that Dr. Kringen mentioned is one challenge the individual analyst must face with trepidation. The realities are messengers of bad news get shot all the time. My heart goes out to the analysts working the Middle East. There are not a lot of good trends to analyze. For the intellectually honest, unbiased analyst, writing assessments on Iraq must be tough because the war is not going the direction of the political spin. It makes me think about how the mid-level analyst survived during the Vietnam War when the circumstances were similar. The big difference, in my view, was CIA senior leadership. The DCI and DDI stood up for the analytical judgments even though the White House and the civilian leadership at the Pentagon disagreed with them. The lesson from this is politicians will act as political animals—expect it. CIA management should not.

I think we should really appreciate that fact that we have smart analysts working in the intelligence community, new hires and experienced career officers. Expectations are steep; failure is not an option. I just hope that creative minds are at work in CIA management to help them realize their full potential and overcome these daunting challenges.

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