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25 October 2007

The forgotten art of descriptive analysis

Descriptive intelligence analysis is not typically considered real analysis by many academics, who usually represent the work as the bottom rung of a pyramid in which their attention remains focused on the supposed “higher echelon” tasks. These same academics tend to ignore current intelligence of all sorts, and all too often also intelligence activities conducted at the tactical level – their interest being limited largely by their lack of understanding of any products other than the most famous national and strategic FINTEL such as the PDB or NIEs.

But stop and think for a moment about how many times one encounters in the practice of the profession complex, multifaceted situations with literally decades worth of reporting that must be summarized – and in a few pages or a few minutes' briefing, convey the essence of the thing in order to even begin to understand events that transpire in the world. This is by no means an easy task, and typically may be as difficult as the kind of push for predictive intel that we see for the larger and better understood issues. That descriptive analysis seems mundane in much of recent literature is very much a product of those who work from unconscious bias and stereotypes of situations, without real depth on an account. One could even say that most of the real intelligence challenges in Iraq, since the start of OIF to the current Awakening, have been in first understanding and describing complex dynamics and personalities in order to more positively leverage the multinational capabilities to good effect. (There is a reason efforts like the Human Terrain System have been created in order to aid in better description of complex targets within the cultural environment.)

The lack of respect accorded to some of the most common and critical tasks within the community has also led to the dismissal of a whole range of environments and tradecraft which have grown more common even as they are less discussed. The proliferation of new watch centers and the growth of the fusion center concept has created new demands for real time, 24/7 intelligence support – often relying on new sources of information not previously considered by the intelligence community. After all, the needs of homeland security are far different than foreign intelligence in many cases, particularly when one examines all hazard issues and matters of greater state / local / tribal concern than the traditional CT focus. There has been simply no real effort within the intelligence studies academia to understand these environments, and to examine the changes in tradecraft wrought by new collaborative technologies, organizational structures, and functional processes that have come to be considered best practice in that world. Despite the dozens of centers, and the thousands of analysts, operators, and watchstanders employed in this segment of the community, it remains virtually unknown in the literature of the profession – not least of which because it would involve examining issues perceived to rank at the low end of some notional representation culled from decades past. And it is not just a homeland security thing - there has been an equally important growth in joint intelligence operations centers and fusion task forces within the national intelligence side of the house.

We sincerely hope that some bright young thing in one of the new academic programs will soon take an interest, and focus some much needed attention on this area.

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