When Intelligence Products “Go Public”

Caveat: This post mentions two controversial intelligence assessments that were leaked to the public. The purpose is not to offer an opinion on the quality of the assessments or on their dissemination. Instead, it is to suggest ways to strengthen intelligence products in the event they are held up to public scrutiny.

For intelligence professionals, what to write and how to write it is not as straightforward as it sounds. An intelligence assessment passes through several internal reviews and may meet agency standards, but if an audience outside of the IC gets a hold of it, it may be viewed in a completely different light.

In 2009, a DHS-produced assessment, “(U//FOUO) Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment” was leaked to the press. As public criticism became more vocal, the House of Representatives opened an inquiry demanding all manner of materials that contributed to the findings as well as the decisions that led to its writing. Then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano issued a public statement affirming the civil rights and liberties of US persons. DHS dissolved its domestic terrorism team, largely halted trainings and briefings on domestic terrorism topics, and hindered the release of similar reports. The senior domestic terrorism analyst, who was mostly responsible for the writing, stayed with the department for one more year before separating and opening his own intelligence shop.

In 2017, it was the leaked FBI-produced intelligence assessment “(U//LES) Black Identity Extremists Likely Motivated to Target Law Enforcement Officers” that caused controversy. Again, the public release led to a great deal of high profile attention and policy changes. FBI director Christopher Wray was called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the FBI was compelled to produce copies of the assessment along with other FBI-authored and disseminated products that mentioned racially motivated extremists. Ultimately, the FBI created new categories for domestic actors including the catch-all “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist (RMVE),” “anti-government/anti-authority violent extremist,” and others. As of February 2021, US representatives continued to express dissatisfaction with the terminology leaving the matter unresolved.

Having an intelligence product go public can be a harrowing experience. An assessment that ostensibly met accepted analytic standards during its internal review is now subjected to critique by news and social media, and scrutiny by persons outside law enforcement and intelligence circles.

For this reason, some agencies self-censor, choosing not to publish topics–however legitimate–if they might be controversial. Alternatively, they dilute a product’s language to the point of uselessness. All of this is understandable, but it is not helpful. Self-censoring leads to unfilled intelligence gaps, so decisions are made with less information. Watered-down language contributes to complaints that intelligence products offer little insight. In the end, it diminishes the value of intelligence work.

There is not much the intelligence professional can do if a home agency chooses not to publish. But if you are in a position to proceed, here are some pointers to strengthen your product.

  1. Ensure your topic addresses an intelligence gap/intelligence requirement.
  2. Provide defensible data from reliable sources to support your thesis. Delineate your sources; provide caveats, as needed.
  3. Apply a structured thinking technique, such as the Analysis of Competing Hypotheses, as appropriate.
  4. Use formal, dispassionate language, and follow your agency’s style guide for acceptable and consistent terminology.
  5. Assess whether your work meets the “New York Times test.” If your piece lands on the front page of the New York Times, or any other wide-ranging media source, can it withstand the pressure?

If you’re covering a legitimate topic, supporting your thesis with facts from strong sources, and writing to analytic standards, you’re in good shape–at least for the conventional channels of distribution. However, if your product breaches your agency’s walls, you’ll need the support of your intelligence management team and agency’s leaders. What happens here is less clear because politics may enter the picture. In theory, politics and intelligence work are not supposed to mix, but it is the sad reality they do.

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