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03 March 2008

RAND views analytic tradecraft

The new RAND study “Assessing the Tradecraft of Intelligence Analysis” has been out for more than a few days now, but deserves an in depth look by those that may have merely given it a passing glance. It was brought to our attention by the Analyst’s Corner, which has become increasingly consistently interesting (although we knew it would be, given the earlier writings of its author.)

What is interesting is that the report is very much a snapshot of a transition period – one might even be temped to say one that was taken at the height of the revolution in intelligence affairs. We agree with our virtual colleague Michael Tanji in his statement thatThe dominant pattern in the U.S. intelligence agencies has been not stasis but almost constant revision, even to the point of disruption.” It is for this reason we have tended to look upon the cottage industry of intelligence reform with great suspicion, as too often of late we have had more than our fill of academics and other outsiders writing in with inspiration from what those in forward deployed locations often call the good idea fairy.

However, RAND’s study brings to the debate a number of important concepts, that while not new, certainly need to be circulated more widely. In part, this is due to the commendable methodology chosen for the study, in conducting formalized interviews across the community, targeted against not merely the ever changing organization charts (which as RAND itself noted “names have been a moving target”, given reorganization), but against the National Intelligence Priorities Framework and the Analytic Resource Catalog.

Among these critical concepts are the emphasis that analytic tradecraft is about the management of tradeoffs. There are few other human endeavors where this is not true, but for too long the community has focused on the ideal state, rather than maximizing the best possible outcome from the existing states. The ideal picture approach is very much an academic conceit, and assumes a mythical power to create organizational change simply by redrawing organograms or renaming offices under some centralized directive from on high. The real community simply does not respond to such abstracts in the clean and dispassionate fashion that many reformists would wish for. These tradeoffs are also one of the reason initiatives which begin organically within the working level line analysis shops are the most successful, as they allow those with the greatest stake in the outcome to balance their tradeoffs to the best possible effect.

The RAND study addresses interesting aspects of the increasingly dominant focus on current intelligence at the expense of longer term deep analysis. It also touches upon the issues of compensation and human resources that we have so often mentioned in these pages. We are quite pleased to see an increasing recognition of the importance of targeting analysis as a distinct discipline within the field – and given the delay between the interviews and the release of the public paper – one that we feel has been increasingly internalized within the community.

Collaboration and data sharing issues are discussed, but fall far lower in the spectrum than discussions of intelligence quality and value – quite in line with our own experiences.

The need to strengthen analytic training and education throughout the community is likewise emphasized, with the idea of a standard curriculum model again surfacing. We are aware of at least one quite promising effort in that regard, that goes far beyond what is typical academic fare; and hope to see further aspects of the model developed for mid-level and journeyman class analysis audiences in future iterations.

All in all, the RAND study is an excellent contribution to the literature which we are grateful now sees the light of day. There is much food for thought, which we will no doubt revisit again in due course. We did initially give pause upon a day’s reflection, fearing our agreement with the paper stemmed too much from a potential echo chamber effect of seeing similar views reflected back at us. However, these are things that are rarely formally captured in discussions of reform or the future of intelligence (at least, those written by outsiders). It is important to get them onto the table in a more formal setting – for as much as we believe in the value of the blog, it is a different vehicle for inquiry and scholarship than that of a more rigorous study approach.

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