There has been endless media coverage lately about President Trump’s reaction to the intelligence presented to him regarding Russia and their purported interference in our 2016 presidential election. Many are outraged by the president’s apparent willingness to throw his own intelligence agencies under the bus, and by his willingness to give Vladimir Putin and Russia the benefit of the doubt. Some in his own party have gone so far as to say that POTUS’s questioning of his own intelligence agencies is traitorous.
I encourage everyone to keep this in mind: U.S. Government Intelligence gathering is not an exact science—it’s an art—and those of us in the intelligence community sometimes get it wrong. I discovered this truth early in my twenty-five-year career working as a Special Agent for the U.S. Government.
Think of it this way…in your daily life, you have to assess information all the time. And then you make decisions and possibly take action based on that information. Do you always get it right? Neither do we. There is always room for error. We government agents/analysts do our best, but we are only human, and there are many factors that come into play.
One major reason for error is the fact that information is not automatically equivalent to intelligence.Think of the information you might find on Google or Wikipedia. Just because information is posted online does not make it true or factual.
So, what’s the difference between information and intelligence? Only information that has undergone a certain process and protocol and deemed credible ever becomes intelligence. Here is my informal definition of intelligence:information which was previously unknown and which will help lead to a certain conclusion and perhaps prompt a decision or action.
Let’s say a policymaker/politician is dealing with a certain issue and needs to make an informed decision. In such a case, it is fair to say that much would be at stake and many would be affected by the decision. So, great care must be taken to gather the highest quality intelligence available.
Intelligence agencies start out using scientific methods in the collecting of information. We rely upon a variety of sources, including but not limited to human sources, electronic or open sources, phone records, law enforcement data, educational research, and data gathered by our own senses.
We cast a large, wide net over a particular topic and set about to collect any and all information from various sources. Then, we pull that net up on the boat. Next, it is up to the professionals to sort through their catch, so to speak, to determine which information is intelligence. This requires careful assessment and analysis of the information, layer by layer, piece by piece, bit by bit.
This is where the art of assessment and analysis comes into play. The analyst/agent sits back and observes the picture painted by the intelligence. Now, he is like a painter, asking himself, What, if anything, needs to be filled in here for the picture to become clear?
Let’s say we’ve been collecting information for a few weeks, but the picture is not entirely clear. Maybe it’s missing a nose or an ear, so to speak. We may decide to present it anyway as our best guestimate. Then, it would be up to the policymakers/politicians to sit down and look at the intelligence and determine whether it is sufficient and definitive enough to be considered actionable.
In this part of the process, the analyst/agent’s education, training, personal philosophy, political bias and sometimes even personal motives can threaten to taint the information and steer the conclusions that may be drawn from it. Analysts/agents can also be swayed by political pressure and internal agency pressure. Perhaps a politician/policymaker is “encouraging” them to paint a certain picture in order to further their agenda or end game. Or, maybe an agent/analyst is trying to meet a certain requirement imposed by their particular agency, aware that if they don’t, they won’t be recommended for a promotion.
If analysts/agents are not Switched On they can let themselves be pressured into arriving at, or manipulating information to lead to, certain conclusions. It’s human nature.
These are just a few of the reasons that there are methods in place to ensure that analysts/agents work side by side as a team to collect, analyze, assess and assemble the information. It is standard protocol that more than one analyst/agent must think information has validity before it is declared intelligence and presented to the policymakers/politicians as such. Of course, this system of checks and balances is not an absolute guarantee against human error and bias.
When the process goes smoothly and is not tainted by any of the factors listed above, intelligence agencies can confidently present policymakers/politicians with good intelligence. Whether or not the intelligence is actionable, however, is not necessarily their call to make. That call must be made by the policymakers/politicians requesting the intelligence. After all, if the onus were on the intelligence agencies to draw conclusions and declare intelligence actionable or not, it would imbue them with duties, responsibilities and accountability outside their purview.
It differs from agency to agency, but sometimes agents/analysts are outright forbidden from providing conclusions on intelligence. Here’s a cautionary tale that perfectly illustrates the reasons behind this. Remember the big debacle over weapons of mass destruction (WMD) materials in Iraq? Intelligence indicated that Iraq had WMD—and reliance upon this intelligence led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Let’s say, for example, that I was the analyst/agent whose intelligence had been relied upon for that military invasion where thousands of servicepeople lost their lives. I’m sure you can see that this would have left me in an unenviable position.
There have been many cases I was involved in during my twenty-five years as a Special Agent where our intelligence community got it wrong. The Iraq War is only one such example. So, again I ask you, is it truly traitorous for our commander in chief to take a hard look at the intelligence presented to him?
U.S. Government Special Agent and Diplomat Eric Caron (Ret.) enjoyed a decorated twenty-five-year career investigating terrorism, money laundering and transnational crime. He currently serves as an adjunct professor with the Massachusetts Maritime Academy on Cape Cod, and a terrorism expert for WHDH News 7/Boston.