Given the realities of the intelligence budget for the foreseeable future, we are probably at the end of the great surge of new hires we saw after September 2001. However, we are still in the middle of a more protracted generational shift of analysts that presents both challenges and opportunities in terms of Intelligence Community (IC) skills and ongoing capabilities. We must therefore focus on the opportunity at hand to reshape how we manage education and training across the intelligence community.
Even in an age obsessed with whiz-bang technology, it remains true that any intelligence community can only be as good as the people who make it up. I believe there are four truths about personnel throughout the intelligence community that are as critical as they are often ignored.
First, the large cadre of analysts hired primarily during the Reagan-Casey build-up in the 1980s is retiring. This, coupled with the likely downsizing of workforces (at least among the defense intelligence analysts) will result in an accelerating brain drain.
Second, the large number of analysts hired since 2001 has produced a workforce in which more than half of all analysts have fewer than five years experience. We probably have the least experienced analytical workforce since 1947, when the modern IC was created.
Third, while these younger analysts have some extremely useful skills (they are particularly adept at collaboration and information sharing), they tend to lack the fundamental skills of in-depth knowledge, writing ability and the capacity to think critically about broader patterns—as opposed to finding discrete packets of information. In a sense, this is the distinction between reading to decode information and reading fluently; in the former, context and nuance are minor concerns, while in the latter they are crucial.
Finally, and perhaps most important, the IC still has not achieved a true community-wide approach to education and training. This failure harms the effort to generate more thorough horizontal integration among our 17 intelligence agencies and it distorts vertical career development as well. Analysts are largely trained within their own agencies when they enter the workforce; any subsequent education or training is largely self-initiated and haphazard.
For an enterprise that depends on intellectual activity as its end result, the IC has behaved in recent years in a surprisingly anti-intellectual manner. The four data points listed above argue strongly that it is time (if not past time) to make some changes.
First and foremost, we need improve community-wide education and training. The National Intelligence University (NIU) has existed now for almost seven years and has had at least five chancellors (the number depends on how you count). It has not, however, had any telling effect yet on how we educate and train across the IC. Housing the NIU at the National Defense Intelligence College made sense. The military’s emphasis on whole-career education and training for the IC is a good model. Now the NIU needs to put that model into practice by creating true community-wide courses.
At least one community-wide course should be mandatory for all new entrants into the intelligence community. All analysts should be trained in a select set of personal skills and organizational processes before beginning work for their primary agency. This training would early on set a tone of interagency coordination and integration. The curriculum for this course must be built on two bases: what the IC needs and expects, and a realistic post hoc assessment of the junior analysts hired over the past ten years.
The NIU should also create a career-long course of study for all analysts from entry to the most senior levels. This curriculum should be tied to career plans and to promotion criteria as they are in the military. When the IC has the functional equivalent of the Naval War College, which ably serves officers from all the uniformed services, then it will be able to say that it has come of age intellectually.
Above all, the U.S. intelligence community needs to get back into the knowledge business without getting out of the data business. Knowledge across the analytical cadre is thin and thinning, even as analysts are drowning in more information than they could ever hope to assimilate. IC leaders must give analysts time to build genuine knowledge about their targets, and be quick to dismiss the excuse that they are “too busy” wrestling with data. Finding terrorist needles in large data haystacks is important, but so too is building the in-depth knowledge necessary to comprehend the drivers behind the Arab Spring, the growing north-south divide in the European Union, or the unsettling effects of economic growth on Chinese political stability. In the long term, these and many other sociologically intricate phenomena will be at least as important for policymakers (probably more) as stopping the next terrorist bomber.
Emphasizing knowledge over information implies making several changes to analyst training and development. Analysts must have more time on their accounts and must have access to a true lessons-learned center. This will be difficult to create as the national focus lurches from hot spot to hot spot, but the ongoing emphasis on analyst “agility” undercuts the ability to build genuine knowledge. There was a time when the world saw U.S. intelligence analysts as leaders in several fields, such as Soviet studies. Now they are seen more as febrile scavengers in the global data stream.
To remedy this decline the intelligence community needs to emphasize critical thinking and good writing and over facility with technology-based analytical tools. Regression analysis is fine for many purposes, but it is more important to think interesting thoughts and to communicate them to policymakers in a way that is not only informative but compelling. No matter how sophisticated, tools will never replace good thinking or good writing. This is because tools cannot imply the purposes to which they are put, and defining one’s purposes is the critical step in producing effective intelligence. To establish what you want to know, you must first understand why you need to know it. No machine can do that for you. A million data points are no more useful to the under-trained analyst than a million candles are to the blind.
Finally, the IC should itself be a learning institution; it must not only be capable of training young entrants but also of teaching itself. One of the hallmarks of a learning institution is its systematic ability to capture, preserve and transmit knowledge to future generations. As thing stands now, we do this only randomly and episodically. One suspects that the reason, in part at least, is that the community is not really in the knowledge business anymore.
ome will argue that the U.S. intelligence community cannot afford to devote time and resources to such goals as budgets decline and events press upon us. Perhaps the best riposte to these doubts remains the observation: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” As Lord Rutherford said: “We’re out of money; it’s time to think.” Indeed, we are, and it is.