Only at the movies is intelligence information presented in a way that is instantly comprehensible and incontrovertible. In the real world it doesn’t happen that way because intelligence is not an event but a process. Analysts receive bits here, pieces there, over an extended period of time. To borrow a computer industry word the analysis process is iterative – analysts formulate hypotheses that they test and retest. They continually add to their base of information. It’s all judgment: including what they evaluate as solid information here, discarding what appears to be wrong. Nothing is black or white. Meanwhile analysts and their colleagues continually challenge assertions. Once they reach a logical conclusion they attempt to extrapolate possible enemy options. It is difficult enough to evaluate capabilities (i.e., can the enemy do this thing?), but the analysts must also make their best estimates of intentions (i.e., will the enemy do this thing?). Both are difficult, the latter exceedingly so.
The intelligence process never stops: information is gathered, reported, collected, analyzed, disseminated and new questions levied on those who gather it. Intelligence analysts have an insatiable appetite for information. They can never have sufficient amount and always fret over the quality. That indeed is their greatest anxiety: how do you know with certainty? A truly disreputable source could provide a key piece of information that completes the previously hidden puzzle. But can the source be trusted? Can the information be confirmed? Is it strong enough to be actionable? Only those few whose reputations and even whose lives depend on their answers understand the intensity of the intelligence process.
Only those who are ignorant of the complexity or those who wish to deceive the untutored would state or imply that intelligence is ever a certainty. The amorphous nature of intelligence information makes it vulnerable to inane accusations, especially when accompanied by the crystal clarity of 20/20 hindsight. Leavened with some partisan yeast it produces the spectacle of retreads like 9/11 Commissioner Ben-Veniste abusing National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice over her inability to predict the future accurately from an anodyne memo.
Probably the closest thing in civilian life to an intelligence analyst is an investigative journalist. Someone who makes a living digging out information - from often dubious or recalcitrant sources - and trying to tie it together into a coherent whole ought to appreciate what a complex process the intelligence analyst must sweat through in order to derive a solid product. That makes it doubly disappointing when the press appears to misunderstand totally an intelligence-based warning. After all, if they have been trained to do their jobs they surely must realize that a ‘best guess’ is as good as it normally gets. One has to wonder if their reporting on the intelligence process is itself skewed by their political bias. Let’s take a couple of examples.
The press has for the most part lauded the 9/11 Commission to the skies although it has carefully cherry-picked its way through the conclusions. The Commission concluded, among other things, that cross-agency communications, ‘imagination,’ and improved penetration of enemy sources were lacking and contributed to an intelligence failure for the September 11 attacks. Fair enough. In response the Bush administration working with Congress created a new Department of Homeland Security, passed the Patriot Act, and issued directives to remove many of the artificial ‘walls’ erected by well-intentioned but misguided bureaucrats that prevented efficient, expeditious inter-agency information sharing. Now, three years post-September 11, the situation in the intelligence community has improved dramatically. While a long way from ideal and though some institutions and agencies still cry for reform, it is an order of magnitude improvement.
Meanwhile, new information sources are opening. Our commitment to the war against terror worldwide has convinced all concerned – enemies and allies – that we are serious. A country like Pakistan that was drifting into Islamic fascism has found the courage to side with America in the fight by our example of strength and commitment. As a result, information from previously untapped sources is pouring into our system. This new information is added to that already in the hopper. As a consequence analysts are able to confirm suspicions that had surfaced earlier.
During the intelligence process analysts almost never discover an iron-clad order to attack a confirmed target. That is a film script. Instead, a mass of information accumulates, some relevant, most not. Reports are sifted, weighted, given an evaluation and disseminated on the chance that they may provide the key to a puzzle that other analysts may be developing. In fact it may take years to reach the point that an analyst is comfortable making a forecast. And much of the information in the puzzle may have been on hand for a long time. If you have ever assembled an abstract jigsaw puzzle, for example, the design only becomes clear when the last few pieces are inserted. But does that make the first score of pieces you had fitted together earlier somehow unnecessary? All pieces are needed to make the puzzle clear: those that are fitted early make it possible to place those that are fitted late.
This is not an incomprehensible concept, especially to a community such as journalists who assemble puzzles as a career. For top line journals like the New York Times and Washington Post to imply, if not actually state, that the recent terror alert is ‘based on information three or four years old’ in an attempt to discredit the Bush administration for issuing the alert is the height of irresponsibility. They know better, pure and simple, and are counting on deceiving their readers who may not. It demonstrates a breakdown of journalistic ethics in favor of political gain. Moreover, it makes one question their common sense.
Are these people saying that it would be better to persuade the public that a terror alert is bogus, cause them to let down their guard and risk suffering an attack rather than acknowledge that the Bush administration may be doing exactly what they have been criticizing it for not doing? This is not harmless political spin. This intentional dismissal of a real threat derived over time from on-hand and recent intelligence information plays games with people’s lives.