An FBI intelligence product intended for internal use only was recently leaked to the public. The piece received criticism from some outlets for its content, but also for its sourcing.
The problem with its sourcing came down to two issues: the product used popular magazines as a primary means of support for its premises; and the magazines chosen had a political bias. The reliance on these publications to underpin analytical findings damaged the product’s credibility.
It’s fine to include popular magazines as part of general research for an intelligence product. They might present a complex topic in a more digestible format, introduce terminology, or offer tangents you’ll want to explore as time permits. Depending on the material, popular magazines may be suitable to offer background information in the body of a paper; however, they are generally not suitable to back your actual analysis.
Unlike popular publications, “scholarly” or “trade” publications and outlets used to be generally accepted as valid support for intelligence work. But recently, virtually all entities are taking political positions, and their leaning—whether right or left—is being incorporated into their work. The bias may be easy to spot, or it may be more subtle, but it’s likely there, and you’ll need to identify it and keep it out of your final product.
The message that is pressed upon private and public institutions at present, and indeed all citizens, is that neutrality is a negative, even a “harmful” quality. In our personal lives, it is a philosophy we can accept or reject based on our individual beliefs, but neutrality is an actual requirement for analysts on the job. Unless and until there are modifications to rules of tradecraft, intelligence analysis must be objective and, per ICD 203, “independent of political considerations.”
Here are some tips to help us meet that obligation.
- Publications categorized as popular, scholarly, or trade can all be subject to bias. Gather facts from them as appropriate, but conduct independent research before including facts gleaned from any in your analysis.
- Think tanks, non-profits, or for-profit advocacy groups generally have an underlying ideology that factors into their public work. Again, review and consider their analyses, but draw your own conclusions.
- “Fact-checking” Web sites and organizations are not independent of slant, thus are not a reliable means of determining the veracity and reliability of data.
- Just because an entity or individual is well-known, has a large following, or has an established presence does not make it a legitimate source to support intelligence products.
- It’s fine to refer to lists compiled by entities (i.e., hate groups), but conduct independent research and then compile your own original list using defined criteria.
- If a popular publication states a fact, find it on a site that offers valid support for an intelligence product (i.e., for a crime stat, go to the original reporting agency).
Independence, curiosity, and contrariness now, more than ever, are the traits of a first-rate analyst.