Analysts as operatives

I’m a fan of Bob Baer even if he does always treat analysts shabbily (read his See No Evil…it’s really good).  His article about the bombing that killed the CIA agents in Khost is quite good and worth the read but allow me to focus on one part in particular:

The CIA’s other breed of agent—a much lesser animal in the eyes of the operatives—was the analyst. Analysts spend their careers at headquarters writing reports. Many have Ph.D.’s, and they’re smart in a bookish way. You’d find their desks stacked with The Economist, Pravda, Le Monde. They always seemed to be shabbily dressed. When they did get out of Washington, it was to attend an academic conference.

The one thing all analysts shared was a disdain for the operatives and their cloakand-dagger pretensions. As far as they were concerned, the operatives’ “tradecraft” was a lot of hocus-pocus. Operatives were cowboys—and of questionable utility.

Rivalry between analysts and ‘operatives’ is nothing new and one area where, I think, analysts could improve.  While I don’t think that analysts need to be full fledged operatives who can field strip an AK-47 blind folded, run a criminal investigation or other such duties I do think they miss an opportunity by not spending at least some time ‘in the field’.  Doing so provides valuable insight into what operatives do and how they do it, what sort of information they can provide to analyst queries and and what sort of information they might want form analysts and the best format for delivering it.

Maybe even more importantly, such experience provides the analyst with credibility among operators that they have difficulty gaining through their ‘traditional’ work.  So, for example, the one bit of my resume that gets me the most ‘street cred’ when I first meet law enforcement agents is the fact that I spent 10 months in Afghanistan.  The fact that I carried an M-16 checks some box in their mind that we’re at least similar and therefore what I have to say may have some relevance to them.  I’ve seen other analysts (at least as qualified as me) never even get the chance to be heard because they were ‘just civilians’.  As one career officer told me, ‘I’ve been doing this job for almost 20 years and have worked with my partner for 10.  What’s some person who just graduated from college and never been on the street going to tell me about my job?’

While some analysts get offended by that question I think it’s totally fair.  Part of the answer is in building skills that the officer (or his agency) can practically use but the other part is building that trust.  And, as and soldier will tell you, one of the best ways to build trust is through shared experiences.  Analysts out at the field to debrief officers at 2am after a meeting with an informant or out conducting surveillance, or doing other field work can be invaluable in that regard.

By contrast, I don’t think the reverse situation (having operators work as analysts) has the same potential for synergy.  I’m just not sure analytical work (even collaborative) is really conducive to building esprit de corps, especially among those who are probably predisposed to ‘hands on’ activities.  In the quest for influence analysts are going to have to have a wider skill set to overcome the organizational pathologies they find themselves the victims of.  So, it will be they who need to get out into the field.

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2 responses to “Analysts as operatives

  1. I agree completely. Plus, sitting at a desk can get boring. Getting out in the field freshens things up.

    “As one career officer told me, ‘I’ve been doing this job for almost 20 years and have worked with my partner for 10. What’s some person who just graduated from college and never been on the street going to tell me about my job?’”

    My answer to that question was “I don’t know anything about your job but I know a lot about this group of criminals.”

    • That answer is completely valid but I find that it gets a more receptive ear if the analyst has built up some additional credibility via some sort of field work.

      It’s getting to the point where the officer is even open to a reply to that question rather than it being a dismissive statement.

      And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with the fact that getting out into the field can be fun and interesting as well. Work need not equal boring or drudgery….

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