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3 Key Components to Success for the Future Intelligence Analyst

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By Dr. Kathy Hogan
Program Director, Intelligence Studies at American Military University

To the public, the field of “intelligence” can be quite a mystery – often sensationalized or misinterpreted in an attempt to fill in gaps between what is visible and the unknown. Some think intelligence is cool and sexy, while others believe it is a nefarious and unscrupulous field. In truth, it is impossible to fully assess agencies or their practices when a complete picture is undiscoverable by design. Significant attention has been placed on some agencies for their decisions and practices. On the flip side, some context for these decisions and the contributions of these agencies will never be made public — or cannot be scientifically measured with judgmental “what if” scenarios. Living within this grey area can be a problem for those seeking to enter the profession. Let’s start by establishing a better understanding of what we know intelligence practitioners actually do on a daily basis.

Those of us within the field think of the world of intelligence as more science than art. In its simplest form, intelligence work requires the following three basic skills to be effective in the field.

Reading Analysis and Comprehension

In an academic intelligence program, students read peer-reviewed academic journals and books from a variety of sources. They’re tasked with deconstructing arguments by defining claims the author asserts and assessing the validity of the evidence presented. It is also important to be able to understand the context of conflicting arguments and to possess a certain amount of ambient knowledge about the subject matter. This is why many good intelligence officers are trained in the fields of geography, history, social science, political science, or linguistics; and then specialize in those fields so that they can truly assess the impact of what they investigate and provide analysis to others on the threat or outcome of reviewed materials. Students learn these skills by completing assignments that include literature reviews, short summaries of a book or short story, and content analysis exercises.


Communication is one of the most essential components of a successful intelligence analyst. The lack of quality can communication can lead to incorrect threat analyses, missed threats or significant geopolitical conflicts.

There are many types of written intelligence tools, ranging from a few paragraphs in a formatted message or email, single page briefing documents, all-source analytical reports; and more in-depth research and analysis reports. Attention to detail, brevity, and clarity are all desirable attributes in the short briefings and reports. Certainly brevity is not as important when producing an in-depth project that requires exhaustive commentary, research and analysis. Students within an intelligence program learn how to produce essays, research papers, and project reports. In an online environment, writing is doubly important for students because it is their primary mode of communication with instructors and peers.

Critical Thinking

The best intelligence analyst is one who has enough confidence in his or her analytical abilities to question theories, even those that are well established, and to consider and present possible alternatives based upon facts and evidence. Humans are creatures of habit and tend to adhere to standard practices and beliefs based upon apathy unless they are regularly challenged by and tolerant of other views, including dissenting opinions. In order to sharpen critical thinking skills in the classroom, students study a curriculum that must include materials that present a balance of main stream documented theories as well as their alternatives, including newer and emerging theories. This will help students develop discipline in how they internalize and operationalize ideas.

In short, the academic skills taught at the baccalaureate and master’s levels provide a strong foundation. It takes years of refining and honing these skills to produce the consummate professional. The basic foundational skills require to succeed in this profession are typically covered in entry level intelligence courses. As student’s progress through their studies into more senior and specialized classes, these skills become even more important in shaping their future success as an intelligence analyst.

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