Get Smart: 5 Ways to Read an Intelligence Report
Retired CIA officer Ron Marks advises a new Hill aide not to be wowed by secrets
I have had to deal with intelligence reports as both a producer and as a user for nearly 40 years. There’s a lot of mystique, misunderstanding and controversy about what “intelligence” is and what it can—and cannot—do for you. So, allow me to give you five basic, hard-earned rules about dealing with reports turned out by the intelligence wings of the CIA and other national security agencies.
First of all, do remember it’s analysis, not crystal ball gazing. Never in my long history with the CIA has there been one perfect piece of information that tells the whole story. The job is about assembling pieces of information, trying to weigh their value, and trying to make sense of them.
This means Intelligence analysts estimate. They approximate. They speak in confidence levels. They sometimes get it right. They sometimes get it wrong. And the language that appears to hedge their judgments—”likely,” “unlikely,” “very likely,” etc.—is meant to reflect that uncertainty. Their reports are no…