Thursday, April 21, 2005

The New Intelligence Paradigm

A rather interesting document recently crossed my desk. It's a series of PowerPoint slides, based on a recent presentation by one of our National Intelligence Officers (NIO), detailing the planned paradigm shift in the Intelligence Community.

For those outside the spook world, NIOs fall just below the new Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the agency directors. They are the "bishops" of the IC, charged with translating broad doctrine and principles into marching orders for the intel masses. I won't identify the NIO who gave this presentation, which, BTW, was NOT classified. The briefing was apparently delivered in the D.C. area in late March of this year.

I believe the NIO's remarks are important, because they outline a major cultural change within our intel agencies, and the way the do business. As someone who labored in the intelligence salt mines for more than two decades, I must say that this paradigm shift is way overdue. Regrettably, it took the double debacle of 9-11 and claims about WMD in Iraq to finally prompt a change.

The NIO covered a number of key points in his talk, which lasted almost two hours. Some of the more salient observations are listed below:

-- To adapt to the changing intelligence needs of key consumers (read the President, SecDef and Joint Cheifs of Staff), an even higher priority will be assigned to current intelligence, with emphasis on the following qualities.

--- Timeliness: "If you have a bit of data, put it out."

--- Disregard for D.C. Political Agendas: "Let the chips fall where they may."

--- Keep the Customer Informed: "Don't get caught having not reported something important to policymakers.

--- Speed: Cut out internal staffing--very short suspenses--get the info to the right consumer ASAP

--- Initiative: "Don't wait for tasking; anticipate and produce without waiting for someone to develop a requirement. Don't wait to do long-term analyses; don't worry about end-use analysis

--- Risk Taking: Analysts and IC managers must be willing to take risks on incomplete analysis.

--- Provide Alternate Viewpoints: List as many alternate viewpoints as you can think of.

To anyone in the business world, these guidelines may not seem revolutionary. But in the IC, implementation of these concepts represents a new way of doing business. Too many agencies--and analysts--remain trapped in their own little comfort zone, worried more about empire building and resource protection than delivering essential intelligence for policy-makers and warfighters.

Will this approach work? Let's be charitable and say the jury's definitely out on that one. As the WMD Commission noted, intelligence agencies are extremely resistent to change, and they've ignored reform efforts in the past. Beyond that, there's the challenge of actually holding agencies and anlysts accountable. President Bush's refusal to fire George Tenent after 9-11 spoke volumes about the lack of accountability in the intel community. But there's a more serious accountability problem in the community's day-to-day operations. Middle managers are often inept, and analysts are often left to their own devices, producing as much or little as they chose.

A case in point: a former colleague of mine took an analyst job for one of the armed services after retiring from active duty. After about a month on the job, the section supervisor passed on his production plan for the year. As a senior analyst, with almost two decades of intel experience, this analyst was tasked to produce exactly five products in 12 months. And BTW, these products could be something as simple as a few paragraphs contributed to a larger study, or a one-page note for a current intelligence briefing. For this effort, my friend was paid in excess of $70,000 a year. As he noted (with only a touch of irony) one that production plan, it would have been cheaper to pay me by the word.

Being conscientious, this analyst exceeded his production quota four-fold, and quickly became a recognized expert in his field. But many of his co-workers barely met their quotas, and many didn't produce at all. More disturbingly, there was no effort to enforce standards, or even develop production plans within individual teams, or analytical sections.

The new intelligence paradigm represents a welcome change, but the devil's in the details. Without better mid-level management--and more dedicated analysts--the IC will be hard-pressed to meet new production requirements. Solving those problems may be the greatest challenge facing the IC, and its efforts to reform. The NIOs and other senior managers have the right ideas, but implementing them--and making them work--is a different story.


No comments: