Intelligence: The CIA Searches For The Truth


May 10, 2010: The CIA has a problem with the truth. Getting accurate analysis of future events is a matter of life and death, and what the CIA is, in theory, all about. But the CIA track record is not all that great. To help improve this, the CIA is, once more, borrowing an idea from the commercial sector. The CIA is developing 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 success of the team. But this new evaluation method will enable the CIA to put together teams and know what their probability of success will be. The new system will also enable the agency to weed out persistently inept analysts. Actually, this has long been the policy, but politically correct analysts, no matter what their skills, tend to prosper.

American intelligence efforts have increasingly been compared with similar work from commercial intelligence firms. The comparison does not make the CIA look good. 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.

The new analyst evaluation methods will get caught up in the political aspects of American intelligence operations. If only to adjust analyst evaluations to account for instances when their work was shaped by what the customer wanted, rather than the truth.

All this is great for journalists and historians, who will eventually find the truth, in the form of raw data, and other evidence that backed up the footnotes, and left the main text looking like something an opportunistic politician invented. But, by then, it no longer matters. This cycle (of bad analysis and later discovery by reporters and historians) has repeated itself several times over the last half century, and nothing has changed.

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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