Intelligence Analysis 101 (part 2)

(Here’s part 1 if you’re joining us late)

Ok…pens down.  So, you’ll remember this picture:And the questions associated with it were:  Do you agree with the interpretation of the ad?  Why or why not?  Do you agree with the analysis?  Why or why not?  If not, please provide an alternate explanation.  What recommendation(s) do you make to your boss?

The interpretation of the ad was totally off base.  In fact, the ‘analysis’ provided was so bad I’d argue it belongs in a hall of fame somewhere.  At least George W. Bush had ‘Curveball’.  He might have had no credibility but at least it was something.  The interpretations that came in the alert had nothing.  Now, let’s talk about how one arrives at that conclusion (that’s the good stuff).  As an aside, if you’re teaching entry level analysts (or anyone for that matter) this can be a pretty good way to introduce the workings of Analysis of Competing Hypothesis.

  1. The ad itself.  The cost of a full page ad in both the NY Times and the Washington Post will run into tens of thousands of dollars (perhaps with a total price tag into six figures).  I don’t know if you’ve seen animal rights activists but they aren’t exactly awash in money.  Assuming they pooled their money or had a rich benefactor though, there are still problems with the ad itself.
    1. Show me the money! You probably aren’t going to be able to pay for this ad space anonymously and with cash so the people taking it out are going to leave a paper trail.  Groups like ALF derive their strength from their anonymity and if they were going to give it up it would probably have to be for a pretty big payoff.
    2. The picture.  The iconography is all wrong.  Google animal liberation front images and you will indeed see pictures of guys in balaclavas but almost without fail they’re shown with animals.  The menacing garb is not the focus of the imagery.  The focus is on the act of ‘liberating’ those animals.  So, they balance the scary image of the dude in camo and face mask by having him coddle a cute bunny, usually holding it and looking at it in a way to trigger images of parents holding an infant.  Whoever made this ad would be the same people who argue that the Mona Lisa is a great Italian landscape picture…oh, and I think there’s some chick in it.  They’re clearly trying to raise the fear factor by putting a guy who looks like a terrorist in the image but I don’t think that’s not how the ALF would picture themselves.
    3. The jacket.  I’m torn on the jacket.  Either it was a sloppy mistake (you aren’t going to find many animal liberation advocates wearing leather – and that’s an understatement) or it was a subtle ‘fuck you’ to the activists.  I guess it could be pleather though…
  2. The message
    1. Who’s the target demographic?  If the point of the ad is to intimidate the business community (well talk about messaging problems below), why not place the ad in the Wall Street Journal or Business Week?  Who are these people targeting?
    2. What are they trying to get their demographic to do?  Are we to believe they’re going to spend a huge wad of cash to get people to go to a website?  That’s it?
    3. There’s NO WAY anyone sympathetic to the cause of ‘animal liberation’ would ever, EVER describe the activities of LSRI as ‘vital pharmaceutical research’. Really, you’re more likely to hear that the local B’nai B’rith is planning a lecture series on the valuable research into humanitarianism done at concentration camps.
    4. People tend not to refer to themselves in the third person.  Hence, if the ad was done by animal rights activists, this sentence wouldn’t read this way:  NYSE employees were reportedly threatened by animal rights activists whose campaigns had already targeted businesses connected to LSRI. But instead would read something like:  ‘In addition to targeting businesses connected to LSRI, we’ve also been targeting NYSE employees.’
    5. While not complementary to the NYSE, this isn’t exactly a revolutionary calling to free the animals or protest animal testing.  The message calls the NYSE cowards for bowing to pressure from animal liberation activists.  It doesn’t even work as gloating.  It only makes sense if you are unhappy with the fact that the NYSE caved into pressure, which one can assume, would not include SHAC or other animal liberation advocates.

I won’t get into a detailed tear down of the analysis since that part was fabricated by me to provide a composite example of the types of alerts and warnings commonly used.  I will say that there’s nothing in there that would have been out of place or unusual at that time in that ‘analysis’.  But allow to highlight some serious concerns with this sort of ‘analysis’ in general terms.

  1. You have no idea how the analyst came to their conclusion.  Blanket statements without supporting facts loaded with unexamined assumptions.
  2. Mealy-mouthed qualifications.  Ye old ‘we have no specific information…’ has become the nervous tic of the intelligence community.  It’s the refuge of people who want to cover their ass in the event something goes wrong and absolves them from having to do real intelligence work and follow through.  It’s especially maddening when seen (as it usually is) at the bottom of a warning threatening the end of civilization and life on earth.  “Warning:  If three dozen nuclear weapons were detonated in the largest U.S. cities simultaneously, there could be catastrophic social, economic and humanitarian consequences!!!  Terrorists have indicated their intent to acquire such weapons and all agencies should remain on high alert!!!  Oh..by the way, we have no indication that anyone is actually close to acquiring such a weapon.  We just don’t want to get blamed for not warning you in case some evil overlord has been planning something like this in his hidden cave complex with the mole people.”

This was not a difficult nut to crack.  Really, I would consider this something an entry level analyst should be able to work through on their own.  If you’ve got an intermediate level analyst (more than a couple years on the job) who has difficulty with this, they need to see a career counselor immediately.

I’ve been accused of being a bit cynical regarding the progress (or lack thereof) of the capabilities of intelligence analysis within the law enforcement community and this has probably more than a little to do with that.  As I stated in Part 1, I used this as a training exercise and was taken aback at how poorly people did at this.  Preconceived notions about who the ‘bad guys’ are and a slavish (really quite inexplicable) deference to everything produced by other law enforcement agencies meant that it was difficult to even get people to consider that there might be alternate explanations.  When pushed, there seemed to be a tendency to try to retain as much as possible of the original analysis, and only grudgingly working at the edges.

Finally, it also highlighted another serious flaw in these sorts of ‘alerts’.  There is little in the way of procedure and almost nothing in terms of incentives to get agencies to issue corrections.  Corrections are a permanent and official record of a screw up which can be used to undermine your reputation and authority.  My observation is that the preferred way to deal with errors like this is to just ignore them.  Usually they’ll fade away without a whisper and you still get to use the alert as ‘proof’ that you’re providing cutting edge intelligence (We issued 500 intelligence alerts to our partner agencies the past fiscal year!).  Of course, the problem is that once you release that bogus information it keeps bouncing around, getting recycled, absorbed into cognitive frameworks throughout the community.  Until you see as much effort into putting out credible, reliable analysis and correcting mistakes as you do in fussing over the quantity of information being put out, intelligence analysis will struggle for relevance and credibility.

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