Intelligence warnings about the threat and impact of a global pandemic – check.
Community concern about the politicization of intelligence assessments – check.
Intelligence warnings about the threat of Russian influence and cyber operations – check.
Inefficient reorganizations leaving the community in a weakened posture – check.
Intelligence warnings about the threat of domestic violent extremists – check.
Each example describes intelligence products or events that have already materialized; the lack of customer response therein portends a troubled future for U.S. intelligence officers without a better approach by those elected or assigned positions of intelligence oversight and authority.
Intelligence officers understand that they will face a harrowing set of challenges each day, predicated on the topics they’re assigned, and the bureaucracy they’re in. Some challenges are structural in nature, whereas others are cognitive. For most, it’s just part of the job.
I vividly recall having to review historical images of chemical warfare victims within my first week of federal employment years ago and have had to evaluate the worst of humanity, and nature, ever since while maneuvering within the legal authorities afforded by Executive Order 12333. For all the glamor created about the community in public forums, there is a stark adjustment most analysts and collectors face upon entry.
But intelligence officers still execute their role and produce dire predictive assessments that unfortunately come to pass in devastating fashion. The business of intelligence is about bad people doing bad things, and unfortunately business is good. This is certainly the case over the past several years. Regrettably, SolarWinds, COVID-19, and the date January 6, 2021, are terms that will now live in U.S. infamy. Publicly available intelligence products that warn about the underlying factors that produced the outcome exist. The hard part for the analyst is producing those assessments, rarely gaining customer feedback to enable improvement, and then watching the outcomes unfold, powerless to do anything.
In parallel, new administrations and appointees cyclically arrive, and immediately want visible activity to prove their value in the position. This almost always entails some form of re-organization. What few assume, despite decades of evidence to the contrary, is that appointees won’t occupy their positions long enough to drive the activity to proper completion, leaving in their wake a chaotic scene that intelligence officers must struggle through while fulfilling their professional role. The amount of time and tax dollars spent in this endeavor is significant. If ever there was a need for a Congressional Research Service study on an issue, it would be an aggregated evaluation of past community re-organizations to evaluate their true worth.
To compound these challenges, add in the heightened examples of concern analysts have about maintaining the objectivity of their judgments, and we’ve created a perfect storm of problems for even the most faithful, and professional intelligence officer. A recent study highlighted the environment, and perceptions analysts faced over the last several years in this arena. The result could be a complete degradation of the workforce.
In this case, I have absolutely no intention of communicating granular solutions to these numerous challenges; my goal here is to simply summarize these issues and describe the environment we’re living in. Providing real solutions, however, is the role of those elected or assigned positions of intelligence oversight and authority to perform the job expected of them. Whatever solutions we have already conveyed, they are clearly not working.
Everyone involved in the intelligence ecosystem needs to improve.
The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Intelligence University, the Department of Defense or any of its components, or the U.S. Government.
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