We are living through an unprecedented historical event in which the President-Elect of the United States has been elected, according to American intelligence agencies, with the help of an elaborate influence operation conducted by Russia. What’s more, intelligence services in NATO countries have expressed concern about Russia having kompromat, or compromising information for blackmail, over the President-Elect. There is more information to be revealed by intelligence agencies in short order, and judging by the President-Elect’s press conference yesterday, this story to emerge will be hotly contested and politicized. The American people will be forced to interpret the now-threatened legitimacy of the Trump presidency through the lens of covert intelligence and its reporting. Very few people have experience in this area enough to know what’s happening right now.
For this reason, I want to offer an introduction to what intelligence analysts do, how assessments get made, and how democratically-elected officials and the military get vital information about our national security. I’ve been an intelligence practitioner for twenty years. My background is in competitive intelligence, the use of collection and analytical tools first pioneered in national security, applied to business decisions. What we’re seeing is the process of intelligence analysis, played out in public in real-time. Since this subject is brand new to so many, I’d like to briefly cover how intelligence works in a basic sense, who does what, and how we arrive at recommendations for decision makers.
Principles that guide intelligence analysis
First, you start with ignorance and work from there. You have some assumptions about the world, but you know to mistrust them, seek to challenge them. Now you need sources and analysis.
Sources are where we get the building blocks of our analysis: it could be documents, audio files, sensor data, anything that tells us about the story in which we are interested. All sources are inaccurate in some measure. Humans are biased; computers malfunction; sensors misfire. In the intelligence game, all of your sources are a pain in the butt – hard to locate, incomplete, not necessarily reliable – but you still need to come up with a picture. So you collect even more sources that are inaccurate in some manner.
Understand that I’m not claiming that intelligence is built on falsehoods. This isn’t to say a given source is lying, or the computer is wrong – but all analysis begins with the assumption that no source is complete or worthy of full confidence. That is why you need a broad range of them before you ever make a recommendation to your customer. This is why governments (and businesses) use multiple sources and methods, play them off against each other. This diversity of sources improves the clarity and reliability of the picture you’re painting for decision makers.
In terms of United States national security, intelligence is produced by of a number of agencies, each with their own missions. Here are just a few of the seventeen.
The Central Intelligence Agency, the most famous, focuses on human intelligence, or HUMINT: spies talking to people and reporting back.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency collects satellite imagery and produces various types of maps.
The Defense Intelligence Agency analyzes the military capabilities of potential adversaries, from the number of tanks and missiles they have, to how they might employ them.
The National Security Agency collects signals from networks of all sorts, from radio to phone calls to Internet traffic. (This is somewhat controversial at times.)
After 9/11, we decided that these agencies needed to share their insights more, so the Bush Adminstration created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to coordinate insights from all of these various groups. But the separation of these agencies remains very important when it comes to producing high quality intelligence products. Each agency looks at the world through a different lens, which provides diversity that can help reduce blind spots. The job of the DNI is to take all of these blurry pictures, see the commonalities, and inform policy makers on what really matters most.
When looking at intel in advance of a huge decision, you want high levels of confidence to make sure that the picture emerging from your intelligence analysis is increasingly reliable. To say the picture is getting clearer while maintaining the necessary skepticism, you ask for more sources, more corroboration. Too much is never enough.
Let’s say you have five sources on a given subject, and they all say roughly the same thing. Even though you are not necessarily calling your prior five sources wrong, you still ask for as many sources as you possibly can when a major decision is on the line. If your customer is the CEO of a company, and you’re doing competitive intelligence, you might be giving insights about about a billion-dollar acquisition. In the case of national security, the stakes are much higher. You need high confidence and you get that confidence from seeing a bunch of pictures get less blurry from a wide variety of sources and methods across multiple agencies. If you don’t have enough sources to warrant high confidence, you make that clear when you deliver your product to the client.
The seriousness of the current moment
Right now, the Director of National Intelligence, Jim Clapper, says that he has very high confidence in the intelligence that indicates Russian influence on the 2016 election. That language is extremely compelling. These agencies would neither brief the president nor inform the public in such strong language were it not for overwhelming data and analysis. That goes for the Russian interference in the election, as well as for the issue of kompromat on the President-Elect.
And this story seems to be accelerating. The NSA has just been given the authority to reveal intercepted communications that were collected on American soil, a rare occurrence that pertains to the issue of Russian intelligence and the Trump campaign. Moreover, the Department of Justice has informed the American public that it is investigating the role of the FBI in the 2016 election. There undoubtedly will be more stories about intelligence agencies and top secret information yet to come. We are in uncharted political territories.
To be a well-informed consumer of news, it will be necessary to understand this somewhat arcane field and how it takes unknowable situations, flawed sources, and somehow produces a view of the world that helps us make decisions for the good of the nation. I’m here, on Twitter, and on Facebook for any reading recommendations or questions you might have.