Cycling through intelligence – 7 October 2011

So, instalment two of my postings on intelligence will have a brief look at the intelligence cycle. It’s briefer than I would like because this week has overtaken me, or certainly the paperwork has.. and I still owe the man Betz paperwork.. so I’ll cut to various chases here.

I have my class currently working through a real-life intelligence cycle (divided into collectors, analysts and policy-wonks, with me as the customer), partly as a way of reflecting on the process, partly as a way of reflecting on working in teams and then across teams when one might not be located in the same office space, and partly an exercise in class cohesion. As a tutor, this particular exercise is a voyage of discovery, last year I allowed the groups to place their own ‘requirements’ and one group tried to discover all they could about me. Which is was odd. So, this year, and in keeping with the year, the groups are variously collecting on and analysing on the London Riots with a view to providing some policy prescriptions etc.

So, I’ll break my thoughts down into little bites:

A concept that breaks first contact with reality:

So, the cycle is taught to give a word-picture for a set of processes that sit behind a ‘real-world’ phenomenon, and to do so in a way that captures the spirit of the process. Classic critiques include the notion that this static, traditional model of requirement, collection, process, analysis, dissemination, action, re-requirement etc is akin to lobbing bits of information over a wall each time and thus some of the nuance one requires is lost. The corrective put forward is one which incorporates conversational elements (so collectors and analysts placed in teams – an organisational response, or the reality that people in bureaucracies bat queries back and forth). So, a diagram of the intelligence cycle as it might be observed would contain a great deal more arrows, pointing in all sorts of directions… (and how useful are networked models as a corrective?)

The other reality, in pressed times, is that the collector-analyst divide is not so neat in certain places.. and thus the majority of the cycle might be occurring in one person’s head. Enough to send academics obsessed with research methods into some kind of blind panic.


In the literature we focus on the wrong parts of the cycle. Our focus is on the technical process that occurs in the middle. We obsess about cognitive bias, dissonance, confirmation bias, epistemic communities etc etc. I would argue that the recent examples of ‘intelligence failures’ which have pointed at the cycle have actually been found in politically placed requirements and the end-use of intelligence product. See Butler (2004) and presumably Chilcot (anytime soon, please, thank you). The process itself seems to work remarkably well (with the caveat that our exposure to it is highly conditioned by official inquiries and other shards of information that become public).


Intelligence product is always seen to be ‘special’ because it is collected, treated or used in a confidential manner. I’ve always liked the work of Pete Gill, who from the mid-1990s tried to demystify the work of government intelligence into more normal bureaucratic references. And I think there is a lot we can garner from non-intelligence literatures in this regard. Mike Goodman and I had a go at comparing media and intelligence spheres in the British Journalism Review a couple of years ago, and there is a frighteningly massive literature on business intelligence and information processes – a semi-scientific literature that is worthy of our attention. The psychologists should also get their teeth into this subject; the process by which we determine useful analysis for ourselves has resonances for governments and agencies, as should hard-sciences with systems theory…social science methodologists already think they have a lot to say, but I’m a little sceptical.


So, can we say that the intelligence cycle is actually an unspecial set of processes that sits behind a special kind of task? Is that a more sensible formulation?

The key task of the intelligence cycle is to present, rigorously, information and best-guesses, with as an explicit an understanding of ‘how we know what we know’ as is possible.

So, it is rightly a mostly empirical game (which contrary to some views does not exclude or problematize the concept of ‘intentions’) and so the methods that should be used are in the empirical range, and that – for me – wipes out a lot of IR / Politics methodology. But just as one might then take a reaction from that to try and build ever more computer like systems of understanding, to miss the nuance human behaviour, the capacity for ‘feel’ and intuition would also be a mistake. Training AND experience (intuition) are key ingredients in providing high quality analysis in this and other related information fields. But perhaps we all undervalue these most basic of qualities, because they just aren’t ‘tech’ enough?

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