Smarter Intelligence; Is Reform Possible?
Byline: Philip A. True, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
The release of the September 11 commission's report, the earlier Senate Intelligence Committee's highly critical assessment of the intelligence community's performance prior to the Iraq war, and the Bush administration's imperatives to act with an election near at hand strongly point toward change in the CIA and the intelligence community overall. The September 11 commission's major recommendations are structural and include installing a national intelligence director and staff (which would control budgets and personnel) and creating a National Counterterrorism Center.
But changes that move the organizational boxes do little to address a major analytical shortcoming: the reliance on "inherited assumptions." In a speech to CIA employees last February, CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence Jami Miscik termed this failure to re-test assumptions and conclusions reached in the run-up to the Iraq war the "single most important aspect of our tradecraft that needs to be examined."
Assumptions drive analysis. Analysts and policy-makers alike assumed that Iraq, despite U.N. restrictions and inspections, maintained a minimal weapons of mass destruction program and that after U.N. inspectors left in late 1998, it would renew efforts to upgrade its WMD capabilities. This failure to challenge a basic assumption, as Ms. Miscik noted, also suggests that alternative scenarios (which turned out to be closer to the truth) were not seriously examined.
Why are faulty judgments made? Faced with a daily flood of diverse information, analysts construct a "reality," a so-called mental model, rooted in basic assumptions, of what the analyst believes is happening. But simplified strategies to process and evaluate information also leads to mental errors, or cognitive biases. As Richard Heurer states in his recent book, "The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis," cognitive biases "are particularly pertinent to intelligence analysis because they affect the evaluation of evidence, perception of cause and effect, estimation of probabilities, and retrospective evaluation of intelligence reports."
Analysts work in a minefield of conflicting information. Does the imagery showing trucks at an identified but supposedly closed bioweapons facility mean that renewed production is imminent? Or are the trucks those of looters motivated by profit? Is the human source, who may have a serious drinking problem, telling the truth? Or is the source merely telling us what he believes we are looking for? Or is the source controlled by a group with a particular policy agenda and thus pedaling disinformation?
Can intelligence analysis be improved? And how? It can, but analysts and managers alike need first to recognize the limits of the mind - the cognitive pitfalls - to evaluate the many variables present in complex intelligence issues. More information is seldom the answer, though certainly actionable intelligence from reliable sources is golden. …