Intelligence Gaps: The Known Unknowns

Intelligence gaps are the spaces in our understanding of a matter. They represent information that is not available for one reason or another, but if it were available, we could offer decision makers a more comprehensive and accurate analysis. In some cases, gaps can be filled by tasking investigators to reach out to their sources. But more often, it is information that was unattainable at the time the analysis was produced, and may not be available at all.

The most important reason to delineate intelligence gaps in work that is to be disseminated is to ensure customers understand the limitations of the findings. It is a means of being transparent with readers. But a compelling reason for seeking gaps in any intelligence product is it helps identify the weaknesses in the analysis. What don’t we know? Did we make unwarranted analytical leaps? Are we over-confident in our findings? Do we need to adjust our language? Seeking intelligence gaps is another way to approach analysis methodically in an effort to ensure a comprehensive and well-considered final product.

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

US Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld,12 February 2002

The acknowledgement that intelligence gaps exist is demonstrated in analytical writing through the use of hedge words, or estimative probability. No matter how much is known, or seems to be known, there could still be new information that alters the findings. That is why analysts use terms such as “appears to explain,” “is likely,” “seems to be consistent with,” and so forth. Of course, hedging comes with its own challenges, such as accurately conveying to the reader our level of confidence. The CIA offers this guidance to analysts incorporating words of estimative probability in their work. The guide assigns percentages from 0 to 100 to the degree of confidence in a finding.

A brief word about “unknown unknowns”: these cannot really be categorized as intelligence gaps because they represent circumstances we cannot envision, let alone delineate, because we have no point of reference. Mathematical statistician Nassim Taleb called these “black swan events”–outliers that are, by their nature, entirely unanticipated, but inevitable and highly impactful. Seeking black swans may be the more valuable space in which to conduct analysis, but at the same time, the virtual impossibility of the task comes from human inability to think in the abstract.

Ideally, assessments should be revisited periodically. If some gaps have been filled, either through additional investigation, source tasking, or other means, findings can be updated to ensure consumers have the most accurate and up-to-date information on which to base decisions.

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