A Public Failing: Understanding CIA Analysis


With the de-escalation of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and potentially increased isolationist sentiment, intelligence agencies should take on a more prominent role as long-term projectors and analyzers, and look for problems before they occur. This is a good proposal in theory, but the problem does not primarily lie with the agencies; instead, it is with us and our policymakers.

The reasons for focusing on short-term intelligence are obvious. It is the information that affects us today, tomorrow, and the next day. A potential terrorist attack within the next month certainly seems more worthy of an agency’s time than an analysis of the economy of a small nation. In-depth analysis (which includes intensive research and forecasting, whose perils I have previously written about) does not affect our day-to-day policies, but it provides deeper insight into the political scene around us and may allow us to predict and prepare for crises. Perhaps if in-depth analysis was more prevalent, events like the Arab Spring could be better anticipated.

The next logical step is to advocate for greater funding and emphasize in-depth analysis; however, this does not make sense if policymakers are not invested. Disinterest stems from one of the same reasons for our current fiscal situation: Policymakers care more about what affects their next election. In 2010, nobody wanted to read reports about Egypt or Tunisia because their effect on our political landscape was minimal. The public feeds this view with its focus on 24/7 media, analysis of current events, and the constant frenzy over how events affect candidates’ election prospects. Simply put, there is little incentive for those in power to focus on long-term issues.

Even if policymakers possessed sufficient interest, they might not have time to read in-depth reports. Each year, intelligence agencies produce over 50,000 reports, a number so large that many of them are shelved before reaching the desks of policymakers and top-level bureaucrats. Unlike short-term analysis, in-depth analysis and forecasting are harder to sum up in bullet point form, and take more time to read. Unfortunately, time is very limited, and reading long intelligence reports is not a top priority for policymakers. Even if the work was delegated downwards, many of the issues would not reach those in a position to take action. Adding more documents may only make things worse for both short-term and in-depth analysis.

One may be tempted to think that instead of increasing intelligence resources, agencies should focus on in-depth analysis and less on the short-term. Many of the first CIA analysts intended for this, including Sherman Kent, who the CIA’s school for analysis is named after. This, however, goes against policymakers’ wishes, who want to know what is happening now; since they control policy and the budget, it is unwise for intelligence agencies to ignore them. Moreover, analysts hired after 9/11 have been raised in a world where short-term analysis is king; teaching them to do in-depth analysis would be like asking a journalist to write for an academic journal.

Acknowledging these negatives, I still believe that in-depth analysis is important and the intelligence community should focus on it more. The question is not how we can take in-depth intelligence more seriously, but if it is even possible to take it more seriously. In a world where information is at the click of a mouse and we form opinions almost instantly, it becomes nearly impossible to demand a greater focus on researched reports from our policymakers. While the benefits of in-depth analysis are obvious, the question of how we obtain them is one that, to me, remains unanswered.

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