On whom should intelligence training focus

I’m taking part in a pilot training program for intelligence analysts and while listening to the instructors discuss the context and origins of the course I was struck by what may be a flaw in how the federal government understands intelligence work occurring at the state and local level.

This particular training was informed by the experience of intelligence within the federal intelligence community.  As a result, it’s central premise was (explicitly stated) ‘teach people to be better analysts and you’ll get better outputs’.  I certainly think that’s true up to a point but have come to believe that the true source of drag within state and local intelligence is among the managers and customers on intelligence.  Overwhelmingly (based on my personal observations and talking with analysts all over the country) those two groups are what impede the rigor, quality, relevance, and timeliness of intelligence products the most.

There are several reasons for this that all act to reinforce each other.  Customers tend not to have much exposure or orientation to the value of intelligence and how to use it.  Managers, likewise, have minimal experience in the intelligence field and so tend to treat their analysts like data entry clerks to produce fancy police reports.

On a broader scale, intelligence shops tend to be in agencies that don’t have a mature intelligence culture combined with high levels of aversion to change and risk taking.  Think how leaders in the Soviet military were terrified of taking initiative lest they risk their careers (or a one way ticket to Siberia) and you’ll get a good feeling for how these shops are run.

And so there’s only so much bang you’ll get from your buck by training analysts in more and more structured methodologies.  So, discussions about ‘would this work for you’ are great but not super relevant if there’s no chance the shop the analyst is working in would entertain using that technique.

So, recently I was talking to one of these managers and we were discussing his/her desire for a ‘daily product’ to go out to the center’s customers.  I thought it was interesting that rather than a discussion about intelligence priorities and gaps, threats, or other value to customers, the only purpose of this product was to (and this is an approximate quote) ‘let our customers know that we’re out there filtering information for them every day.’

Two things hit me upon hearing that.  First, the center isn’t ‘filtering’ information for their customers.  Most law enforcement agencies have multiple streams of information and what this center (again, common with most such centers) does is just repackage and forward the same information that agencies are already getting, sometimes from two, three, four or even more sources already.

The second is that this particular manager (and quite probably others as well) essentially see the issue in terms of marketing.  They’ll be successful if the can get in enough email inboxes frequently enough that people will know they exist.  Really?  More than a decade since 9/11 and the enlargement of domestic intelligence and success is getting name recognition based upon the number of times you get get into their inbox?  Why not just start selling Viagra and be done with it?

What needs to happen (yet probably won’t because it’s too sensitive a subject) is for DHS (no one else will do it) to demand intelligence centers adhere to tough standards of production and be staffed with qualified managers and staff.  That means real, effective evaluations (which, I’ve been told, are currently more along the lines of a handshake and the old honor system).  The way they do that is to wield the checkbook.  You want to run your shop as a cut rate CNN whose most commonly used tools are ‘cut’ and ‘paste’?  No problem.  Get all your funding internally and knock yourself out.

I won’t hold my breath, however.


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