A Guide to Practical DIY Intelligence Analysis
People who work in intelligence analysis have challenges that most other knowledge workers don’t face. The scientist doesn’t normally assume that Nature is hiding something or playing tricks (although it probably seems that way sometimes). The historian will encounter self-serving or apologetic sources, and can deal with those as well. But the deceptions carried out in the intel world are on another scale entirely. The primary obstacle for the intelligence analyst is the constant possibility that someone is trying to deceive them with false information, misdirection, or good old fashioned secrecy.
I started this page because starting with the 2016 Presidential election, the explosion of “fake news” means all of us are now in the same boat. The tools of the intelligence analyst are becoming indispensable for the “alert and engaged citizenry” that President Eisenhower warned that we must all become when he delivered his famous Farwell Address.
What is Intelligence Analysis?
At the most basic level, it is the art and science of reading the world. The analyst works to assemble information from a variety of sources, vet them for accuracy, squeeze whatever insight can be gained from them—and no more. They then make an estimate of the status and intentions of whatever they happen to be studying. People often make the mistake of thinking that the analyst predicts upcoming events. This isn’t quite correct. They offer estimates of probability. Their job is to make sure that their client isn’t taken completely by surprise.
Analysts also look at past events or emerging trends, both to understand why something happened, and what might come about as a result. They deal in facts, even though they often have very few facts to work with.
The craft of the intelligence analyst encompasses the following skills:
- Intelligence collection
- Source vetting and evaluation
- Drawing conclusions and articulating findings
These skills map, loosely, to the stages in the “Intelligence Cycle”, which is how the pros do it. What you do as an ordinary citizen isn’t going to be so elaborate. But if you take the time to learn these skills and become familiar with these resources, you are much less likely to be caught unawares by trends or a sudden turn of events.
Another very important point is that the analyst values objectivity about almost all else. Their job is to provide factual information. They don’t write reports “to spec” in support of a pre-determined conclusion, at least not willingly. Good analysts are expected to resign if they cannot keep their work from becoming politicized; the politicization of the Intelligence Community (IC) under the Bush/Cheney administration dealt a serious blow to our intelligence capability, and it remains an open question whether the Intelligence Community has fully recovered.
Many people are surprised to learn that the vast bulk of intelligence gathered by the IC comes from publicly-available sources; “open source intelligence” or OSINT, if you want the industry term. Google is a good start, but you need to acquire some skill in using it. Most search engines, for instance, figure out your preferences (read: biases) and return results accordingly. You can, and should, turn off this feature to avoid getting skewed search results.
Search engines have a lot of little tricks that most people don’t know about. Look up some search engine tutorials and learn to use some of these tools. They can help you zoom in on specific facts and bodies of information that would otherwise get lost in the noise.
Journalists have a lot in common with intelligence analysts. They face many of the same problems. I highly recommend looking at Journalist’s Resource, which is a goldmine of tips, skills, and resources for journalists. It has a lot that is of value to the Citizen Spook. NOTE: I am trying not to let this page devolve into a list of links to information and research resources. Many other pages (such as this one) do that, and do it very well. This page is just a springboard to get you started.
But you can save a lot of time and trouble by regularly checking resources out there that compile and make reports and solid information available. Make up a Source Deck of reliable sources, and maintain it carefully. And how do you know whether a source is reliable?
This brings us to what is perhaps the essence of intelligence collection, otherwise known as…Another amazing source of information is—wait for it—talking to people. Journalists in DC who once assumed easy access to high-ranking officials are suddenly re-learning the art of cultivating sources. In the intelligence world, this is called recruitment. But you don’t really need to get all cloak-and-dagger here. There are thousands of experts out there, particularly in government, on every subject imaginable. Contact your nearby Government Documents Repository. By law there is at least one of these in every congressional district. They are a gold mine of information, especially if you need to find an expert on something, anything related in any way to government. And, don’t forget your local public library. They are some of our most important bulwarks against encroaching limits on our right to know.
When tsunamis of fake news started rolling over the internet in 2016, one of the purveyors of this garbage freely admitted to an interviewer that people of a liberal bent were less susceptible to it than others. They would check the stories, confirm their veracity (or lack of it) and tell their friends. More reactionary readers would spread new stories far and wide, no matter how transparently absurd. Vetting stories is not hard to do, but it does take a little discipline and some time. It also means you should make informed decisions about where you get your information. Including bad information for the sake of “balance” is both misplaced and irresponsible. Even if there are two sides to the story, some don’t merit consideration.
Processing and Analysis
Checking for Biases
We all have biases. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, even for intelligence work. The trick is to know your own biases and how they limit your ability to evaluate evidence. Members of the IC spend a lot of time and effort on identifying and compensating for personal bias; probably as much or more than any other knowledge field.
How do you get a check on your personal biases? Luckily for all of us, one of the CIA’s classic texts on intelligence analysis is available as a free download. Richards Heuer wrote The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis on the subject of how we fool ourselves through bias, illusion, and many other forms of wooly thinking. It’s not the lightest read in the world, but it is excellent. Start with this book. Better still, form a group to read it and learn how to use it.
Contrarian Techniques and the Ideological Turing Test
The great Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu famously wrote, “know your enemy as you know yourself, and in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.” This is usually read as a call to know the enemy “inside and out.” But like much ancient Chinese literature, carries multiple meanings. Another interpretation is that you understand your enemy well enough to anticipate his every move simply because you know how he thinks. For that, you have to get inside your opponent’s head. Intelligence analysts take this in an interesting direction by an exercise that goes by different names. One of them is “mirror imaging.” This is where two analysts who hold opposing viewpoints, switch sides and argue in favor of the other’s position. This is an excellent way to get people to consider ideas their biases would usually ignore. (Editor’s note: how often do you hear about academics doing anything like this? Yeah, me neither.)
Another form of this is something sometimes called the “ideological Turing test.” It centers on the question of how accurately you can articulate the viewpoint or philosophy of someone you disagree with. Watch for this in punditry and political analysis. Someone who can correctly state and explain an opposing viewpoint probably has a stronger position than someone who cannot. Make this habit, but don’t wallow in the shallow end of opposing ideas. Find the best exponents of contrary positions that you can. This is becoming harder, particularly as growing anti-intellectualism and superficiality in debate pushes out more thoughtful discourse—the intellectual equivalent of Gresham’s Law.
Structured Intelligence Techniques
A basic tool of analysis is, briefly stated, to line up your hypotheses, and then list every piece of evidence that has something to say, for or against. That hypothesis with the most evidence in favor is probably correct, or close to it. This is called Analysis of Competing Hypotheses or, more generally, Structured Intelligence Techniques. Once again Richards Heuer comes to our rescue with an excellent primer, A Tradecraft Primer: Structured Analytic Techniques for Improving Intelligence Analysis. He covers much that also appears in Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, but with less theoretical background. The primer “highlights how structured analytic techniques can help one challenge judgments, identify mental mindsets, stimulate creativity, and manage uncertainty. In short, incorporating regular use of techniques such as these can enable one to structure thinking for wrestling with difficult questions.” It isn’t comprehensive by any means, but it is more than enough to get you started.
Making Mistakes, Making Improvements
Intelligence analysis is not only trying to get at the facts when someone is trying to misdirect or deceive you, often there isn’t much information to go on. There will be mistakes. Analysts do their best to avoid them, but they do happen. At that point, one has to take a good, hard look at where things went astray, figure out how to avoid those mistakes in the future, and get back to work. Don’t bother trying to assign blame. Instead, study your mistakes. Study them more than you do your successes. How an analyst (or a journalist, scientist, scholar, investigator, etc.) handles mistakes is where expertise really forms. Don’t be afraid of mistakes. That doesn’t mean you should adopt an offhand, cavalier attitude towards them, just treat them as learning experiences.
Consumers of intelligence don’t usually have time to wade through a full report, so intelligence analysts use a format known as BLUF, which means Bottom Line Up Front. The report starts with a title that described what the report says; no click-baity titles that end with question marks or other such nonsense. After a one-line description of the subject comes three or four bullet points, each with one or two sentences that give the conclusions and findings. If the client reads that much and nothing else, they will at least have the general sense. If they want more, they can read more. This is a lot like the “pyramid structure” in journalism, where the first paragraph states who, what, when, where, why, and how. Each succeeding paragraph gives less crucial data. This style developed back in the days of print news, so that if an article was too long, one could simply cut from the bottom without rewriting the whole thing.
When an analyst writes a more in-depth report, they use a particularly bland kind of writing called “value neutral” prose. This isn’t the same “value neutral” as is sometimes found in the humanities where one seeks to avoid making any kind of value judgement about the subject under discussion. In intelligence writing, especially when the report considers more than one alternative hypothesis, “value neutral” means writing in a tone that offers no clues to the reader about the report’s final conclusion. If the report is written well, the reader won’t know the conclusion of the report until the very last paragraph. This avoids the possibility that the reader will be acting on anything other than factual information.
Writing this way is very, very hard to do well, and almost impossible to do perfectly and consistently. But if there is one thing that intelligence analysts pride themselves on, it is the quest for objectivity in their work. The wrong tone of a report can call that objectivity into question.
Another thing one finds in intelligence reports is estimates of probability, but couched as phrases such as “probably” or “almost certain.” In intelligence language, these phrases are used carefully and deliberately. One of the founders or modern intelligence analysis Sherman Kent, devised a scale that matches these words with numerical probabilities. Take a look at the table below to see how these words are used. Be careful; civilian news reports or reports created by non-government entities won’t be so consistent or precise unless they make clear that they are using this style of writing, or you can verify that their audience includes government agencies.
What Can You Do?
We have long ago passed beyond the point where our world is dominated by a few large issues. Today there are dozens of interacting forces affect our lives. Even something as simple as a one-page summary of an important issue, the rights of citizens on a particular issue, or some other question that is within the scope of your interests, time, and expertise—or your ability to acquire that expertise. You will notice, incidentally, that some of the problems that appear on a larger scale nationally and internationally, frequently display patterns that appear in local or regional settings. Experimenting with intelligence analysis will also help you view the daily news with new eyes; you’ll find yourself wondering how the reporters discovered what they did, or make educated guesses. Current events are going to become even more interesting than before.
A DIY Intelligence Bureau?
With the rise of political action groups such as those inspired by Indivisible, consider setting up your own “intelligence desk” as part of that effort. Social media makes it easy to stay on top of rapidly developing events, but it also helps to develop a long-term view of things, and cultivate a pool of people you can turn to for in-depth information that doesn’t always appear in the regular media. You may even find yourselves specializing in a particular area, and share what you know with others beyond your own group. Local media outlets might value your information—if it’s accurate and verifiable. For example, a strong study of local economic trends and forces could be helpful to local businesses. How is city money being spent? Are there projects in the works that overpromise, or are encountering unusual resistance or favoritism? Perhaps you can look for patterns of overreach and abuse by those in authority and carefully document them.
But whatever you do, follow three rules: Be honest. Be objective. Share what you learn.