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What Happens When Intelligence Reports Conflict?

By Erik Kleinsmith, American Military University

The act of conducting intelligence analysis is largely a solitary affair. Individual analysts use mental drills and internal thought processes to transform collected information into analytic assessments. Eventually, this analysis must leave the mind of the analyst and be shared with, or presented to, other people. Sharing this information effectively requires the 4 C’s of interaction: Communication, Cooperation, Coordination and Collaboration. Unfortunately, the fifth C is something that no one likes to deal with: Conflict.

It’s very common for intelligence reports to disagree with one another. What one intelligence analyst or agency finds may be starkly different from another. Conflicts can also arise when analysts provide information to an external customer — what the analyst finds can run counter to what the decision-maker believes is the situation. How can analysts minimize conflicting intelligence reports or address these conflicts when they arise?

[Related Article: The 4 Core Abilities Needed for a Career in Intelligence]

Internal Conflicting Assessments

Intelligence reports can conflict within the intelligence apparatus itself. For example, one assessment made at a lower level can disagree with an assessment made at a higher level. Even different intel organizations working the same problem set can put out assessments that disagree with each other. For example, analysts at the CIA can disagree with analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) or the NSA. Because of the parochial nature of the intelligence community, these types of disagreements happen all the time.

External Conflicting Assessments

Similarly, conflicting assessments can happen externally, when an analyst provides information that runs counter to what a customer believes about a given situation. Intelligence analysts will routinely find themselves providing information to someone much senior to them, such as a combat commander, police chief, senior investigator or the president of a company. These decision makers combine intelligence reports with their own sources of information and experience. If their own opinions conflict with what the more junior intelligence analysts find, these leaders often either disregard that intelligence or force the analysts to argue their position more effectively.

[Related Article: Intelligence Work Expands Beyond the Core Intelligence Community]

Additionally, decision-makers themselves may have been given information or guidance from an even higher authority that forces them toward a particular line of thinking. Unfortunately, this guidance could be politically driven and therefore motivated by a different set of factors than what analysts take into account.

While there are many specific situations in which intelligence reports can conflict with each other, the key to minimizing this problem is to understand the common sources of disagreement and to attack these sources directly.

Good Assessments Rely on Trust

Like all forms of effective communication, the relationships between intelligence analysts and their customers are based on an established level of trust. The customer — whether they’re the decision maker or another analyst — must trust that the analyst making a particular assessment is competent, articulate and honest. They must trust that intel analysts understand the situation and their job. They must also trust that analysts have an innate ability to communicate verbally and in writing, and have taken steps to eliminate their own bias or agendas from an assessment.

If any of these types of trust are lacking or absent, the integrity of assessments can be compromised. When decision makers rely on their own insights and experience or other sources of intel over the assessment, that indicates that there is a problem in the analyst – customer relationship.

For conflicting intelligence reports that occur internally, trust is still the basic issue. If an analyst’s assessment disagrees with another one up the chain, it can be commonly perceived as an issue with the competency of the author. Personality and social factors can contribute to the situation here as well. While it’s important to work through disagreements, simply following the rule that the higher-level assessment is correct will almost always guarantee failure.

Tools and Processes to Combat Conflicting Assessments

Structured analytical techniques include red team analysis, devil’s advocacy, team A/team B analysis, and high impact-low probability analysis.

Each of these techniques is used to challenge the current line of thinking or produce alternate analyses with proper backing of the results. Each of these also requires the commitment of resources, time and personnel that may or may not be available depending on the organization and situation. After learning the academic version of these techniques (taught in courses INTL401: Critical Analysis and INTL402: Intelligence Analysis), an analyst’s challenge is to adapt these techniques to the situation and incorporate them into the operations.

Wargaming is another way to reduce conflict in analysis primarily because it involves both the decision maker and the analyst, with the analyst taking the position of the adversary. Want to gain the confidence of your commander? Be a challenge for them in a wargaming session. As a great commander once told me, “You’re never allowed to win, but you better make it a challenge for them to beat you.”

A final way to reduce conflicting intelligence reports is through training and education of intel professionals. Even the most seasoned analysts can stand for a brush-up in analytical techniques, critical thinking, and briefing and presentation skills. Keeping yourself and the analysts you work with trained and always seeking educational opportunities will allow them to more easily gain and maintain the trust of the decision maker whom they are supporting.

intelligence reportsAbout the Author: Erik Kleinsmith is the Associate Vice President for Strategic Relationships in Intelligence, National & Homeland Security, and Cyber for American Military University. He is a former Army Intelligence Officer and the former portfolio manager for Intelligence & Security Training at Lockheed Martin. Erik is one of the subjects of a book entitled The Watchers by Shane Harris, which covered his work on a program called Able Danger tracking Al Qaeda prior to 9/11. He currently resides in Virginia with his wife and two children.

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