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Archive for May, 2012

Three Short Stories and A Newspaper Article That Can Teach Us A Lot About Intelligence Analysis

Monday, May 7th, 2012

Retired CIA intelligence expert Carmen Medina recently told me of her experiences on the Washington, D.C. Metro subway system.  As she looked around, she noticed that no one else was even looking around at the others on the train, much less making eye contact.  Americans are not an observant type, we concluded, yet intelligence is in part about disciplining ourselves to be sensitive and inquisitive about our environment, and curious enough to wonder why things don’t seem quite right when the situation indicates same.  Most of you have heard the old cop line: “If it doesn’t seem right to the cop on the beat…..”  If we don’t look around and notice our neighborhood in a culture and situation that is familiar to us, how will we train ourselves to be observant and inquisitive in a foreign environment that does not abide by many of the phenomenon that we take as “normal”?


It’s always seemed to me that people who are good storytellers would make good intelligence analysts.  The ability to weave a set of facts into a reasonable story, as well as the skill to realize when the story has holes and/or doesn’t make sense, is a skill that can be taught and learned.  It can be a wonderfully effective way to relate and/or test one’s understanding of the situation and circumstances, say, in an AO in Afghanistan.  A Marine friend recently told me about how COL Pete Devlin (Ret.) changed the method for intelligence reports in his command from PowerPoint to Word, and how much affect that had on the quality of the intelligence analysis and reporting.


I sat next to a young naval intelligence analyst two weeks ago at a recognition dinner.  We got to talking about her job and how she does her research.  Laura talked a bit about how she does her research, and touched first on the several kinds of data holdings she would query.  But she said the greatest progress usually came from calls she made to and conversations she had with analysts elsewhere in her agency and beyond.  In the process of asking them what they knew and what they thought about a situation, she expanded her horizons, gained additional data point to consider, tested her thinking on others before she formed conclusions, and included a richer thinking in her products. 


I highly recommend a New York Times article, “The Flight From Conversation”, by MIT’s Sherry Turkle, that appeared in the Sunday, April 22, 2012 issue.  A few of the key points from the article:


*”In conversation, we are called on to see things from another’s point of view.”


*”And we use conversations with others to learn to converse with ourselves.  So our flight from conversation can mean diminished chances to learn skills of self-reflection.”


“We expect more from technology and less from one another and seem increasingly drawn to technologies that provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship.”


*”We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating.  And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection.”


*”Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly.  It teaches patience.  When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits.  As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers.  To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even in the most important matters.”


Never having been a company commander deployed in an AO in Afghanistan, I have guessed that what happened when a squad came back from a patrol went something like this:  “Your squad went out to patrol the south 40 and gather some specific intelligence data we believe we need.  I want you to tell me a story about what you saw, what you think it means.  I’ll ask you a bunch of questions, and we’ll figure out as a team our plan and next mission.”


Observant and curious, good storytellers, having conversations to test your thinking and incorporate others’ views…..seems like a formula for good intelligence.


We’d like to hear from you on this note and others.  Send us your thoughts and stories.  I’ll share them with our readers.  You can get them to me via the Roundtable, at, or via e-mail at




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