Useful Intelligence Production

Intelligence production is costly in terms of both money and time, yet feedback on products is rare. Are customers satisfied, or is the analysis not always being read?

I was thinking about the issue when I came across Ambassador Robert D. Blackwill’s interview with former CIA analyst and trainer Jack Davis.* Even though the article, “A Policymaker’s Perspective On Intelligence Analysis,” was based on talks conducted between 1991 and 1993, the Ambassador’s opinions are still applicable today.

In Ambassador Blackwill’s words:

  • There is a mutual lack of understanding between policymakers and analysts. Policymakers have no idea what analysts do, so they don’t know how to task them. In turn, analysts cannot respond to a policymaker’s needs because they don’t understand the role of the policymaker. 
  • The low utility of intelligence products results mostly from their generality, to include the National Intelligence Estimate, National Intelligence Daily, and most DI analytical production. These analyses have neither the focus nor the detail to inform policymakers. Tactical and strategic policy memos that summarize what foreign leaders hope to gain in negotiations with the United States are useless because they are based on issues about which decision-makers are already well-versed.    
  • Useful products are specific, tailored analyses about the domestic goings-on in countries involved in a negotiation, such as internal pressures a leader faces. Information about national issues, but also, provincial and state matters, is crucial. [As an example of a beneficial intelligence product, Ambassador Blackwill described a tailored daily cable EURA analysts provided to him that offered late-breaking developments in pertinent countries. It was particularly effective because analysts adjusted their hours to ensure morning delivery in whichever time zone the Ambassador traveled.] 
  • Simple and concisely written products are preferable to long analyses filled with the “words and complexities” analysts love. “Unvarnished” reports are more valuable than the diluted versions that result from layers of review and revision. Briefings are good because they offer the opportunity for questions. Confidentiality and trust between analyst and policymaker are vital. 
  • Ideally, an analyst would spend 40 percent of his or her day on collection and building expertise, 30 percent on analysis and writing, and 30 percent “assuring impact on the policymaking process.” 
  • The management piece is an equally important part of the intelligence analysis equation. Managers should spend “enough time establishing and keeping up effective links to the policymaking world that they begin to feel guilty about not having enough time for their other duties.” 

Ambassador Blackwill’s observations recall the words of former CIA Deputy Director Martin Peterson: “Every intelligence product must be rooted in a strong understanding of the audience [for which] it is written.” As long as the audience is the focus, intelligence production will find a receptive and satisfied readership.

*In Memoriam: Jack Davis

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