Intelligence: Do You Want That With Lies?

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February 18, 2016: The U.S. government has yet another intelligence scandal on its hands. It’s an old complaint, one that became common during the Cold War. In short the president and his staff do not agree with intelligence reports relating to ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and have frequently (and quietly) ordered them modified to conform with the more optimistic assessment the president wants. In response dozens of intelligence analysts and managers began complaining more and more, often to the media, that the intel reports the government was passing out were false but no one had the guts or clout to shut down this censorship program.

This sort of thing has long been a problem with intelligence agencies and it became acute during the Cold War. The CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) is responsible (since the late 1940s) for collecting, analyzing and reporting intel any problems with accuracy. The accuracy of this work is a matter of life and death because these reports, passed on to the Department of Defense and Congress are used as the basis for making all sorts of decisions. Keeping all this intel honest is a primary mission of the CIA. But the CIA track record is not all that great. There have been other problems as well, like the increasing likelihood of being found out.

This can be traced back to growing (since the 1980s) CIA use of intel analysis techniques rom the commercial sector. At first the CIA sought to develop a method for measuring the accuracy of individual analysts. Normally, teams of analysts are assigned to examine situations and predict what will happen. Individual success is linked to the overall success of the team. But this new evaluation method enabled the CIA to put together teams and know what their probability of success would be. The new system enabled the agency to weed out persistently inept analysts. Actually, this has long been the policy, but politically correct analysts, no matter what their skills, tended to prosper. But as the intel agencies reduced the number of analysts willing to bend the truth the requests to modify conclusions increased. This angered a lot of analysts and dozens of them, usually independently, leaked information about the illegal (and unethical) orders to modify intel analysis.

This came at a particularly bad time because American intelligence efforts have increasingly been compared unfavorably with similar work from commercial intelligence firms. The comparison does not make the CIA look good and not just because these commercial efforts provide another (and often superior) source of analysis in areas where the CIA long had a monopoly. The commercial firms analyze foreign nations, and the probability of those nations prospering, or declining. The latter can mean civil disorder, or even civil war (and definitely a bad place for an American company to invest). As a result, even the CIA buys analyses from the commercial firms.

Yet the CIA continues to get it wrong with much of the "product" (reports) they deliver to the U.S. government. As a result, unflattering comparisons are made between how the CIA, and their commercial counterparts, operate. The commercial firms are competitive, especially internally. Analysts sign their reports, and are held accountable for accuracy of insight and predictions. Not so in the CIA, where the reports are anonymous (to outsiders), and no one ever seems to get fired for getting it wrong. But the CIA has always insisted that it has good reason for operating this way.

The main customer of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is the White House, but it is also supposed to keep the Department of Defense, and everyone else who works for the president, supplied with accurate and up-to-date analysis of what’s going on in the world. But when the CIA analysts present information that does not conform to what people in the White House want to see, there is pressure to modify the conclusions.

During the Cold War, the CIA developed a method to deal with these demands for intellectual dishonesty. First, the agency would find out what, if any, outcome the customer wanted. If that contradicted what the CIA had discovered, the report would be modified to please the customer. But the CIA's real conclusions would often be relegated to footnotes, so that the truth would at least remain on record. Often, the best analysts were put on the "B Team" that was hunting for the truth, but could only express it in the footnotes (where "on the other hand" information ended up.) Nobody reads footnotes, at least not at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

But the emergence of the Internet in the last two decades has made one fundamental change. There is more information available to more people. The intelligence agencies and the media no longer have a monopoly on international information gathering networks. Email and the sheer breadth of data available, all the time, from all over the world, makes it possible for smaller organizations, or individuals, to collect information from all over, and perform their own analysis. More people are reaching conclusions that are at odds with the intelligence agencies, and the media. But not with the commercial intelligence firms, who live or die by the accuracy of the analyses they provide their corporate customers.

But, internally, the CIA still wants to see who is best able to get at the truth, on the off chance that there are situations where that is what the politicians want.

 


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