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The War against Volume…or against Windmills

In an article in the current issue of the International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, Phil Nolan, a senior consultant at IBM, proposes an alleged revolutionary approach to intelligence analysis, which turns out to be rather a delusioned attempt to reinvent the wheel. Mr. Nolan’s past as a consultant at McKinsey & Company fosters the impression that a classical cliché of a flip chart addicted, word juggling and gold making consultant is manifested here once again.

To be fair, the article has some points, which I interpret as follows:

Handling the increasing mass of information and filtering useful information from noise is challenging to intelligence analysts.

In some cases open source information (OSINF) might make up rather the context in an intelligence analysis, while the critical information might really come from non-open sources (NOSINF).

OSINT might as well be more valuable for strategic than for tactical intelligence requirements.

The expertise needed by the intelligence community (IC) does not completely lie within the IC itself. Thus, outsiders’ opinions (Nolan sees a difference between opinion and information) should be considered much more in the all source intelligence (ASINT) analysis.

Classified information is not necessarily better information.

Established tradition and culture and a lack of competition and transparency can hide and worsen inefficiencies within IC’s.

International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence

© Routledge

So far, so good. This is what I got from the paper that makes sense. Unfortunately, it is neither revolutionary, nor was it easy to distinguish from all the noise of something that is sold as a new approach, the curator approach. For a curator, in contrary to an analyst, the mass of information is a gift, Nolan states. Why a curator would be any better in handling the masses of information is not really told though. However, a curator ’embraces more open source analysis (more opinions)’.  It seems that firstly, for him opinions are not just data or information. Secondly, open source analysis is more about opinions.

To my understanding a good analysis must always include curating information and opinions from all relevant sources. Neither is there a necessary contradiction or difference between an analyst and a curator, nor between information and opinion. In fact, an intelligence analysis would barely ever consist of nothing but an accumulation of facts. It always includes some evaluation of information, an opinion. Every opinion, as well as the final analysis, is thus an enriched form of information. The value of an opinion and an analysis depends on the quality of the evaluation methods, the individual knowledge, experience and talent of the analyst, and of the information itself. Used by another analyst, these enriched pieces of information need to be evaluated again, always having the current intelligence requirement and the duty to carefully follow scientific principles and due diligence in mind.

Nolan repeatedly states that a curator’s approach focuses more on the context than just on raw facts. By presenting alternative opinions from different open sources alongside the intelligence analyst’s opinion in the final intelligence product for consumers, he believes a better foundation for good decision-making could be created. Nolan ignores the simple fact that a good intelligence product does of course always include all relevant information, across all respective sources and means, and therefore multiple opinions as well. While a good analyst should always document his choice of information, his reasoning and limitations, whether he can present all this in his report largely depends on his task, time constraints and the report’s recipient. Often a report needs to be really brief and the recipient assumes that the analysis was done with the necessary care. The recipient usually does not have the time or inclination to follow all the analytical steps again. Sometimes there might not even be time for an analyst to conduct a careful analysis himself. This is a case where indeed he relies on presenting others’ opinions and analyses and on their quality. But in general, an intelligence analyst is expected to provide recommendations or at least conclusions based on all relevant available information, including of course context, opinions etc. In cases where he is to present a set of options to decision-makers, it should, not least for reasons of accountability, still be based on his own analysis implicitly including the opinion of others.

Each analyst is a filter between the intelligence input and output. Every information input is enriched by his evaluation, and therefore output is rarely ever just raw input. This is the added value of  intelligence analysis as compared to mere collection.

Yes, there is always reason for improvement, but neither does Mr. Nolan reveal dramatic failures in the intelligence communities, nor does he introduce a new or even revolutionary concept of intelligence analysis. It remains unclear how a curator, the supposed better analyst, could handle the mass of information input better. Probably, the challenge will remain to combine automated and human filtering and evaluation in an efficient way.

The key in intelligence analysis remains to include all relevant information from all kinds of sources and means in your analysis, and then to carefully build the intelligence product on the best possible data given both the recipient’s needs and the intelligence requirement. This is the ASINT concept.

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