The Editor Hates Words

Growing up I loved writing. More to the point, I loved words. Lots of words. But when I joined the IC I came to appreciate the philosophy “less is more.” It took years of practice, but I must have mastered the art because my fellow analysts began calling me the editor who hates words.

I don’t so much hate words, as I hate so many words, and so many sentences, and so many paragraphs. Intelligence findings are complex and nuanced, and a policymaker has a limited amount of time. So analysts need to convey their meaning quickly and succinctly.

Using active voice, eliminating qualifiers, and simplifying words streamlines narratives and helps make complex analyses more digestible. At the same time, we want the narrative to flow smoothly, so it’s a good practice to use synonyms, as appropriate, and vary syllables and sentence length.

Here’s a little game to master the self-edit. Try the “social media challenge.” Write a sentence that includes all of the elements of your thesis (the who, what, where, when, why, and how). Now, trim your sentence to 140 characters or less while maintaining the integrity of your message.

Of course, this is just a fun exercise. Conciseness is good, but there is a balance between writing tightly and writing so tightly that we lose context.

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

Crafting An Intelligence Question

Revised 29 January 2022

A good intelligence question leads naturally to an analytical thesis. It is distinguished from a research question in that a research question elicits facts; an intelligence question elicits analysis.

The answer to an intelligence question offers a “what” and a “so what.” The “what” is a factual statement that might derive from your initial research; the “so what” puts the event (or series of events, or virtually any other data set) into context and perspective, and explains to the customer its meaning and significance.

For example, if you want to understand the evolution of terrorist targeting, you may begin with a research question such as:

What types of targets did terrorists attack during the first five years of the decade versus the latter half?

Your research will likely lead to a straightforward finding. For example, you may have found that as time passed, terrorists chose more easily accessible targets:

During the first half of the decade terrorists sought “hard” targets, such as military bases and secure facilities, but during the second half of the decade, they chose “soft” targets, such as shopping centers and movie theaters.

There is no analysis here; it is merely a factual statement that sums up the change in types of targets over the decade. An intelligence question takes a factual statement such as this to a deeper level by seeking the reasons or causes behind it. For example:

Why did terrorist targeting change during the first and second halves of the decade?

Now you have a launching point for your analysis. You will brainstorm possible reasons for the difference, eliminate those with too many inconsistencies to explain the change, and draw a conclusion about what most likely accounted for the evolution. Hypothetically, you found:

The change in the types of targets chosen by terrorists between the first and second halves of the decade may be partly explained by increased security at “harder” targets that restricted or removed access and persuaded terrorists to choose “softer,” or more accessible, venues.

This statement presents a fact, a “what,” which is terrorist targeting evolved between the first and second halves of the decade, and then adds analysis, the “so what,” which is a possible reason for the change was increased security and restricted access to harder targets.

Here are a few other recommendations that might help:

  1. A good intelligence question is narrow and specific, but at the same time, broad enough to robustly explore the topic in the space recommended for the type of product you’re writing. 
  2. Beginning a question with “why” or sometimes “how” will generally lead to analytical findings/conclusions. 
  3. Examining trends can be a successful approach in developing original analysis. Have you noticed an upward or downward movement in your area of responsibility, or a new, unexplained phenomenon? What might be contributing to this change? 

Analysis should meet the needs of a consumer, so keep your customer at the forefront at every stage of your analysis. Crafting a narrow question directed at a specific audience might offer more value than a broad question directed at a general audience.  

Hello, Readers

Welcome to the new iteration of The Intelligence Shop. Some of you may have visited the previous site where I focused primarily on the analyst’s role in the Intelligence Community: researching and collecting data sets, analyzing, and writing. I will still do that here. But, I’d like to address a broader audience, focusing more generally on critical thinking skills.

If you visited before, you’ll find some redundancy, since I’m freshening up the original posts, and then re-releasing them. Of course, I’ll add new material along the way, as well.

Hello to any former visitors, and welcome to new ones.

And thanks to all for visiting.

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