It’s no secret that budget cuts will be coming in the near future. For example, the U.S. Army is considering a potential 25% drawdown of its general purpose brigade combat teams. The Army will almost certainly reduce its end strength as well, most likely by tens of thousands of trained soldiers. In response to shrinking budgets and the winding down of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, there will also be a diminished need for intelligence analysts. Meanwhile, U.S. Special Operations Forces have no shortage of meaningful missions, realistic training, and resources.
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By nature, the intelligence community (IC) thrives on the ability to uncover key data and intelligence from classified sources for the entire chain of command—from senior policymakers down to the warfighter. One area of intelligence gathering that is potentially just as valuable is open source intelligence (OSINT). While OSINT is certainly not new to the IC, it can be highly effective and is often overlooked as an ideal intelligence discipline.
As a discipline, OSINT extends beyond information that any citizen can access via sources such as Google or public data from government reports. The most robust OSINT programs utilize these techniques while also tapping into subject matter experts and members of academia. These individuals can provide deep understanding and ultimately actionable intelligence that can help the IC and the U.S. government make effective foreign policy decisions. In addition, OSINT data can augment intelligence gathered through other disciplines, providing a more comprehensive view for enhanced decision making.
Looking ahead, a new form of OSINT is emerging in the form of “crowdsourcing” data to provide better accuracy of intelligence forecasting. The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) has been actively seeking solicitations from members of industry and a pool of open source experts to help the IC make better informed decisions.
Members of academia are also helping the IC tap into the “wisdom of crowds.” The phenomenon is based on statistical evidence that large crowds of average folks are often capable of better predicting unknown events than individual experts. Via the Internet, researchers at George Mason University are assembling a team of more than 500 forecasters who will make educated guesses about a series of world events. The effort is actually part of an academic competition between universities that are vying for a grant from the IARPA.
In the face of future budget cuts that will task the IC with “doing more with less,” OSINT is a cost-effective way for the community to tap into and leverage data from open resources and crowds. While much of this data would be considered unclassified, it does not diminish its true value. The combination of classified and unclassified intelligence will provide the intelligence community with a complete set of data for decision making that will always be needed—even in the face of lowered budgets.
When I served in the U.S. Army, we had a saying: “Knocking down 50-meter targets.” The idea was that while qualifying on the rifle range, a common error was for shooters to put all of their effort (and bullets) into knocking down the close pop-up targets at the expense of the longer (and admittedly more challenging) 200-, 250-, and 300-meter targets. Obviously, this had a negative effect on a shooter’s effectiveness, not to mention final score. My sense is that all too often, leaders and intelligence analysts are guilty of making this error—knocking down 50-meter targets at the expense of longer-range goals. Simply put, we focus on the urgent, but not always the important.
Put another way, if we as leaders and intelligence professionals are not fencing adequate time to think deeply, we are not being fully effective. Too often we run around like the proverbial “chicken with its head cut off,” knocking down 50-meter targets but never getting around to the truly significant tasks. We answer e-mails, attend countless meetings, and tend to personnel, resource, and technology challenges. But we never seem to get around to reflecting on long-range issues and casting a vision for the future.
It takes discipline to go deep. This type of thinking is counter to so much of our world—with its 20-second commercials, texting, and instant gratification. Again, for the effective leader and intelligence analyst, there must be a time when we can push away from the tyranny of the urgent, prop our feet up on the desk, and think.
Looking back, I only served in one unit during my Army career where I personally experienced such deep thinking. One special operations organization that I served in was very intentional when thinking about how the unit should look in five, 10, 15, and even 20 years. It held regular technology boards to focus on technology considerations, in concert with focusing on personnel manning, resources, and other areas. Key leaders arrived at these events prepared to articulate their views, and they were critically involved in these regular efforts. Not surprisingly, the commander or deputy commander always chaired these efforts.
The military provides a reliable, time-tested process to assist us: the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP). It is characterized by mission analysis, course of action development, course of action comparison (including the decision matrix tool), and the eventual decision. While this framework was created for staffs and commanders, its tools can also benefit individuals—even in a truncated format. For example, one can create criteria and use a decision matrix to consider, that is, think deeply about any challenge.
The good news is that we can get this process started anywhere. The technique I use is scribbling down an initial note to return to and pay careful attention to at a later time.
Remember that half of the phrase “intelligence analyst” is analyst. By definition and identity, we must be deep thinkers. Our supported senior intelligence officers and leaders cannot do their jobs without our fencing time for thinking and then making informed recommendations. They are counting on us to fulfill this purpose.
For the intelligence professional, honing the fine art of listening is of utmost importance. Effective listening is a force multiplier and can serve as the foundation for both great leadership and tactical day-to-day efforts. History and present-day times show that all great leaders have learned and practiced this unique ability. Both Presidents Reagan and Obama have demonstrated this skill by surrounding themselves with great advisers, listening to them, and then making important decisions based on the input received. Conversely, one recent political candidate was partially discredited when trying to answer complicated questions about constitutional law, which was not the candidate’s area of expertise. A better course of action would have been to say, “I am not an expert in constitutional law, but I will surround myself with advisers who are and I will listen to their counsel before making my decisions.”
I once served under a brilliant intelligence commander who possessed all the traits of a great leader, except for the simple fact that he talked too much. During routine meetings, he consistently provided only his point of view, which ultimately hurt the effectiveness of our organization. To his credit, he listened to this concern and then agreed to a disciplined meeting format in which he spoke for the first five minutes, his staff was given 50 minutes to brief him, and then he used the final five minutes to issue his relevant guidance. This new meeting format worked very well. His expert staff briefed him, he listened and issued guidance, and our organization became even more successful.
The most effective intelligence today comes from multi-discipline intelligence, a synchronization of multiple “INTs,” if you will. Geovisualization products portray a graphic representation and serve as the backbone for managing and sharing information from the IMINT, HUMINT, SIGINT, and MASINT disciplines. These multiple “INTs” confirm and support one another and allow our decision makers to act with confidence. By listening to one another, these sophisticated intelligence products solve some of the most complex intelligence and national security challenges that face our nation.
As intelligence professionals, while we expect our leaders and decision makers to listen to us and consider our sophisticated intelligence products and solutions, we must first remember that effective listening skills start with us. Let’s begin by considering the opinions of others and become great listeners. When this happens, the right decisions will be made and our nation will ultimately become a much safer place.