Analysis, Not Opinions

An intelligence analyst may be a subject matter “expert.” This expertise could be derived from years of service, formal education, or intimate knowledge of a topic, such as growing up in the country of his or her assigned portfolio. Still, when it comes to answering an intelligence question, the role of the analyst is to provide that answer through tradecraft, not opinion, however considered that opinion may be.

Intelligence analysis is a specific discipline that takes decades to master. Analysts are trained to answer questions through formal techniques whose purpose is to eliminate reliance on opinions along with the negative qualities that accompany them, such as mirror imaging, mindsets, and bias. Analysts take themselves out of an equation, rather than put themselves into the middle of one.

An analyst may be asked for an opinion within a given area of expertise. The person making the inquiry, or even the analyst him or herself, may feel an answer should be provided forthwith. But a spontaneous response will likely be based on opinion. It may come from an educated place, but the result is still a mental shortcut.

Analytical tradecraft takes a more rigorous approach: the development of an intelligence question; research; the exploration of alternative hypotheses; and the invalidation of those hypotheses with too many inconsistencies to be probable. The purpose is to reach an objective, defensible, and retraceable conclusion.

Here is a personal example that shows the pitfalls of opinion and the benefits of formal methods. In 2007, a security camera in a local metro station caught a subject spilling a substance–later identified as mercury–onto a subway platform. Some members of law enforcement who viewed the tape called the incident a test of security in anticipation of an act of terrorism. Others said it was a harmless accident. For context, there had been multiple high-profile attacks against transportation systems in Madrid (2004), London (2005), and Mumbai (2006), that collectively killed close to 1,000 persons and injured several thousand more.

On the surface, the incident was indeed suspicious. The potential target was a prominent US transportation system; there had been several attacks against transportation systems around the world in the three years leading up to the incident; and the subject’s behavior, as seen on CCTV, was atypical. But this initial assessment was influenced by recency bias and mirror imaging.

Upon the request of local authorities, a formal analysis was launched. Initial brainstorming found at least a dozen scenarios that could equally account for the facts of the case. Analysis also uncovered multiple less obvious, but critical circumstances from the tape that were overlooked. Ultimately, the Analysis of Competing Hypotheses found all but one hypothesis–accidental release–could be eliminated because the evidence did not support them. Subsequent investigation, including identifying and interviewing the subject, confirmed it was a harmless act.

Adhering to analytical tradecraft, declining any incentive to reach a preferred conclusion, and similarly, not yielding to pressure to satisfy a particular audience, are key to building long-term credibility as an analyst.

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