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Thursday, January 26, 2023

PERSPECTIVE: Upon Learning from Intelligence Ups and Downs, Success Depends

It’s often been said that there are no policy failures, only policy successes and intelligence failures. An inaccurate and unfortunate part of our cultural lexicon, the latter half of the reference represents what the professional intelligence officer is forced to subscribe to the moment they gain their security clearance. But they shouldn’t, and it’s dangerous to focus unilaterally on such a small sampling of case studies, however impactful, describing intelligence “failures.” It negatively affects their training regimen, cognitive framing, and overall ability to better meet their mission and improve the quality of analysis. That’s not to say that the intelligence community shouldn’t devote significant efforts to study the failure of 9/11, for example, but it shouldn’t be the only model for improvement, which is exactly what’s been happening in many of their training schools since that fateful day.

The reference is exacerbated by the fact that our leaders rarely communicate the successes these professionals have daily, from “tip of the spear” operational intelligence activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the impact briefers have supporting the National Security Council to affect policy. The general public is lucky enough to read a highly filtered manuscript published by former clandestine officers decades after the fact. If the truly covert nature of the Osama bin Laden raid had been maintained, it might have been years before the intelligence roles the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense played were significantly revealed to the public. Despite the fact that the operation quickly became overt, much still remains classified and shielded from a broader audience.

Despite all of this, you won’t find a prouder profession dedicated to their mission, craft, and country.  The modern intelligence officer is guided by Principles of Professional Ethics that reflect the core values common to all elements of the community and distinguish them as “intelligence professionals.” The seven principles include mission, truth, lawfulness, integrity, stewardship, excellence, and diversity.  We would be lucky to find such lofty ideals in other vocations.

There’s the occasional, and unfortunate, “Snowdens” of the world, but they are rare indeed and don’t describe the overwhelming majority. Recall that the fundamental groundwork for the discipline in the U.S. was formed by none other than George Washington, known as Agent 711 in the Culper Spy Ring, as our country’s foremost spymaster. He of all people realized the impact timely, insightful intelligence can have, and how to properly use, and learn from it. One could argue, as I do, that part of today’s problem is that the community doesn’t adequately balance the bad examples that become more publicized with the overwhelming good examples it should also learn from. Over a decade ago, Robert Sutton, a professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University, summarized several organizations’ activities and findings on this subject for the Harvard Business Review. His review reinforced the argument that people learn at a higher rate when they discuss both success and failure.

All of this leads to a rare, but publicly revealed success story that will likely be downplayed, or further politicized, instead of properly studied as part of a better model. The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) recently completed their 16-month review resulting in the “Summary of Initial Findings on 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment.” The Intelligence Community Assessment, titled “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections,” is a community coordinated product prepared by the National Intelligence Council under the auspices of a national intelligence officer. President Obama, in December 2016, tasked the intelligence community with writing the assessment, based on initial intelligence reporting.

For the review, the SSCI evaluated the intelligence community’s primary judgment, analytic assessments, sub-claims, utilization of evidence-based reasoning, and tradecraft. All were deemed reasonable and appropriate given the circumstances, to include the manner by which analytic differences were managed. The committee did provide additional feedback that the community should consider for improvement: the incorporation of more historical context of Russian interference in U.S. domestic politics.

Depending on the definition applied, an intelligence analyst’s goal is to inform or ethically persuade decision-makers through the utilization of logical argumentation, and the objective application of analytic tradecraft standards, detailed in Intelligence Community Directive 203. The intelligence community does not make policy, but instead provides a unique type of information that must compete with other forms for the consumer to consider before deciding on any further action. In this case, that is exactly what occurred, according to the review.

I personally recall the product not only because of its unique importance at the time, but because some of my students chose to review and analyze a version of it for a class project at the National Intelligence University. The SSCI’s findings, much like my students’, verify what the community has long been charged to improve in its analysis since the fateful attack on 9/11. Now it’s time for the broader intelligence community to better publicize its successes, such as this one, learn from them, and integrate those cases with the failures to continually improve the overall quality of analysis. Ultimately, that is what’s mandated to best serve the American people.


Dr. Brian Holmes is the Dean of the Anthony G. Oettinger School of Science and Technology Intelligence at the National Intelligence University in Bethesda, MD. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not imply endorsement by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, its component organizations, or the U.S. Government.


The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

Brian Holmes
Dr. Brian Holmes is the Dean of the School of Science and Technology Intelligence at the National Intelligence University in Bethesda, Md. Dr. Holmes served as an all-source intelligence analyst and Branch Chief in the Defense Intelligence Agencies’ (DIA) Counterproliferation Support Office from 2006-2010 before accepting a managerial position in the Directorate for Analysis’ Staff Operations Division. He was a Direct Commission intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, serving from 2007-2011 and reached the rank of Lieutenant (O-3). For three years he supported the Afghanistan-Pakistan Task Force as an all-source intelligence analyst in DIA’s Directorate for Intelligence (J2). From 2012-2016, Dr. Holmes chaired the Emerging and Disruptive Technology, Geostrategic Resources and Environment, and Weapons of Mass Destruction concentrations in the School. He serves as an executive representative to the Scientific and Technical Intelligence Committee (STIC) under the auspices of the National Intelligence Council, and directly supports Intelligence Community Directive 204 (National Intelligence Priorities Framework). He primarily focuses his research on dual use technologies, and the translation of emerging research and development into advanced materials for military systems. From 2016-2017, Dr. Holmes served as the Associate Dean of the School of Science and Technology Intelligence.

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