Cultural Changes Drive Intelligence Analysis

May 2007
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

A U.S. Air Force intelligence analyst examines reconnaissance imagery from operations in Afghanistan. The surge in data from more varied sources, coupled with the need for collaboration among diverse intelligence organizations, is forcing major changes on intelligence analysis and its practitioners.
A younger work force offers an opportunity for enhanced collaboration.

New collection and storage technologies, along with the need for greater collaboration across the intelligence community, are changing the nature of intelligence analysis. But obstacles that stand in the way of that change could prevent intelligence analysis from achieving its full—and necessary—potential to serve national requirements in the Global War on Terrorism.

Demographic trends among analysts are a time bomb that threatens to leave the community with few older experts and many young acolytes who could benefit from mentors. While these trends pose a looming challenge, they also offer an opportunity to remake the analyst community into a form better suited for the new era of cooperation. Ultimately, diversity among analysts may hold the key to effective collaboration.

“We are embracing multiculturalism in a connected integrated community,” states Dr. Michael Wertheimer, assistant deputy director for national intelligence and chief technology officer in the Directorate of Analysis in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). “The goal is to empower a young new work force that will be leaders in five to 10 years and give them an environment in which they can excel and reach their potential.”

Many challenges stand in the way of efforts to reshape the analyst community. Wertheimer notes that each of the different intelligence components possesses a refined training regimen. It has been difficult to get these different training regimens to accept the notion of collaborative community training early in individuals’ careers. Another challenge is that many intelligence community collaborative training efforts have been tried before and have failed. The ODNI cannot dwell upon nor ignore those failures as it strives for rapid changes. And, those failed efforts have dampened the willingness to try again, he allows.

The attrition rate for analysts is abnormally high. New hires must be trained to be leaders and to succeed in their organizations; otherwise, they will not feel comfortable in their environment and will join the attrition ranks. That problem has not yet been beaten, Wertheimer warns.

And, the disparate segments of the intelligence community differ on how to solve collaboration problems. Some people believe that their organization needs new collaboration directives imposed on it. People in other agencies believe that their organization is doing well, but the problem is that another group just refuses to share data. “Everyone is pointing fingers in every direction,” Wertheimer charges. “There is no consensus of what the next two or three steps should be.”

Many changes always are afoot in the intelligence community. But many of those that affect analysis come from the demographics realm. Wertheimer cites a recent survey of about 50,000 intelligence community members from 16 agencies that generates two interesting findings. When gauging overall job satisfaction, the survey reports that respondents have a high degree of satisfaction with the importance of their jobs. However, those people who report the highest job satisfaction also report the least amount of collaboration with members of the community outside of their organizations. Conversely, those with the least amount of job satisfaction collaborate the most.

One conclusion might be that job satisfaction correlates with not having to work with others outside of one’s own organization. Yet, all of the recommendations emerging after September 11, 2001, call for greater collaboration across the intelligence community. Wertheimer warns that collaboration and information sharing alone will not fix the cultural problems in the intelligence community.

The demographic time bomb caused by the age and experience trends contributes to the analysis challenge. Wertheimer states that roughly half of the analytical work force has five or fewer years experience on the job. And half of that remaining 50 percent is five or fewer years away from retirement. So, the middle management leadership constitutes only about 25 percent of the analysts in the work force.

A traditional view has held that incoming analysts need to serve about five years before they are ready to become fully productive members of the intelligence analyst community. But when only 25 percent of the community can mentor those trainees, the system is stressed severely.

And many of those analysts come into the community lacking key skills. Dr. Mark M. Lowenthal, president and chief executive officer of the Intelligence and Security Academy in Arlington, Virginia, points out that while many have had analytical jobs in academia or the commercial sector, few have had experience in intelligence analysis. They also need training in how their particular intelligence agency works and how the community as a whole functions. Unless that sense of community is inculcated in all new intelligence hires early, the concept will elude them, he warns.

Lowenthal, who was an assistant director for analysis at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), states that the community is good at “intake training”—getting a new hire grounded within each individual organization. However, individual agencies are not as good at training personnel in terms of the larger community. “We tend to train analysts in agency stovepipes,” he says. “The military is brilliant at the concept of ‘train the way you fight.’ But we don’t train [analysts] the way we want them to fight.”

Another problem cited by Lowenthal is that most analysts do not have a clear career path laid out before them. Individual military service intelligence analysts have that, and they know exactly how they will progress through the ranks in their specialties. In contrast, civilian agency analysts begin to feel that no one is watching out for their careers, and they depart sooner rather than later. This contributes to Wertheimer’s demographic time bomb, which Lowenthal points out is exacerbated by personnel decisions from a decade ago.

“We’re still making up the 23,000-position shortfall that we suffered through the 1990s,” Lowenthal points out. “There’s a huge gap in the personnel structure.”

To address the lack of community culture, Wertheimer is calling for the diverse nature of the intelligence community to give way to a heterogeneous culture. The demographic imbalance may play a role in the solution. His approach is for the newer analysts to embrace a new community culture, and his tool is a different approach to training.

“We have to let half of our work force help define for us what makes the most sense for them,” he offers. “We have to be tolerant of multicultural ideas—and I don’t mean agency cultures, I mean analytic cultures.”

And different analytic cultures abound even within the same organization. While some analysts would like to be sequestered with their work, undisturbed in a cubbyhole, many others have more of a Web 2.0 approach. They are drawn to collaboration through blogs or wikis, and they are stimulated through interaction with others. The intelligence community must create an environment where these types of analysts can excel as well, Wertheimer says, and this includes training middle managers to leverage these abilities effectively.

So, the ODNI has created Analysis 101, a course designed for an analyst’s first six months of employment. The four-week course introduces community thinking—how to include common tradecraft, how to discuss collaboration, how to think about alternative hypotheses and how to do proper reporting. The goal is to have new hires adopt a common way of thinking about analysis before they are captured by any individual culture, Wertheimer emphasizes. This course has moved beyond the pilot stage, and he hopes that all newly hired intelligence community analysts will be taking it by early next year.

Similar efforts are under way in the private sector. Lowenthal’s academy conducts courses throughout the intelligence community in what amounts to an intelligence community primer. New intelligence employees at many agencies participate in a two-day introductory course to the community. This helps them understand how the larger community works and where they fit in, he relates.

Wertheimer warns that the community-first approach has met with resistance at individual organizations. They want their analysts to adopt the local culture before they learn the global culture. However, the value of the ODNI Analysis 101 approach has gained acceptance among many, he says.

One technological solution may be the new Intellipedia, which takes a Wikipedia-like approach to intelligence information. This internal information repository contains more than 15,000 articles generated solely from within the intelligence community, Wertheimer reports. More than 3,000 active contributors edit material, and about 50 new articles are generated every day. Wertheimer claims that Intellipedia is growing faster than Wikipedia did at the same point in its existence.

Intellipedia also is hosting a national intelligence estimate, and all intelligence production from Africa may be moved onto the site. An at-sea segment of the U.S. Navy is using Intellipedia in real time to coordinate fleet activities for special circumstances. Ships at sea plug into Intellipedia to tap information on how to perform force protection.

The ODNI has taken one revolutionary approach to training intelligence analysts that draws from the practices of Navy SEALs. The office has created the Rapid Analytic Support and Expeditionary Response, or RASER, program. This effort features a class that subjects nine young analysts to field taskings that push their physical and mental limits.

Wertheimer explains that these nine participants were chosen from six agencies across the community for a variety of qualifications—one of which is a dissatisfaction with the existing sclerotic culture. However, they are not so jaded that they have given up on solving the problem, so they are good candidates for developing and trying innovative solutions.

ODNI experts consulted special forces personnel for advice on how to train intelligence analysts quickly. Building on some of their recommendations, the office dispatched the nine trainees to Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia, where they entered their new training regimen by sleeping in self-built lean-tos. The focus is less on survival training and more on team building, Wertheimer imparts.

“We are giving them hyperaccelerated training to try to collapse that five years [of experience] into one,” he relates. The nine participants are learning a foreign language in a special six-month program, although this first group of trainees brings knowledge in Arabic, Farsi, German, Russian and Spanish. Other training areas include computer science, forensic psychology, self-defense, economics, defensive driving, cultural science and international business diplomacy.

The six-month boot camp also features accelerated analytical training in subjects such as alternative hypotheses and ethically challenging situations. The Georgia National Guard has volunteered to provide chemical, biological and radiological training. Wertheimer claims that special operations forces working with the trainees describe them as motivated deep thinkers whose training can be accelerated because of their intellectual abilities.

Upon completion of the program, the trainees will disperse into three rotating assignments. One group of three will work with the New York City Police Department intelligence unit, where its participants will be integrated with the force to learn streetcraft while traveling in patrol cars. Another group will be assigned to the U.S. Southern Command to focus on Latin American issues. A third group will be based at the ODNI.

The second year of this program will see those now fully operational trainees assigned throughout the world. “The idea is to take young people, realize every drop of their potential by accelerating training—giving them every capability that they can possibly handle—and then let them teach us how to solve problems,” Wertheimer declares.

For five decades, the mathematics community at the National Security Agency has run a summer program that brings in mathematicians cleared at the Top Secret level to experiment with challenging problems. That program has worked complex cryptographic experiments without any security breaches. The ODNI adopted a similar approach in a four-week program for 40 government and civilian analysts and related experts who are cleared at the Secret level.

Last summer’s effort aimed at determining how amorphous groups coalesce into movements, Wertheimer relates. This summer’s version, the Summer Hard Problem (SHARP) program, will offer two challenges. One, in San José, California, will examine democratization from the technology revolution. The other, in Orlando, Florida, will focus on tradecraft problems such as how intelligence experts can deal with weapons of mass disruption attacks—contaminating a water supply or cutting Internet access—that are conceptualized overseas and brought to the United States. Issues include intelligence cooperation across international and civil government lines. Wertheimer notes that participants are chosen for their diversity of employment, duty and experience.

Not all of the ODNI’s training initiatives are straitlaced. The office has decided to inject a little fun into analysis training by establishing an Intelligence Community Olympics. Still in the formative stages, the plans for this competition currently call for community members to build teams from multiple agencies and disciplines where possible. Events would be held on a weekend, with the main prize being bragging rights—which have a considerable presence in the intelligence community.

Wertheimer explains that a typical task might be to create an Intellipedia page on an assigned topic within two hours. Teams would be scored on content, the amount of information drawn by the page and how visually compelling it is. Each event would be led off by heats that would serve as practice rounds for these ad hoc teams.

Again, the goal is to encourage collaboration and to emphasize the importance of different intelligence analysis cultures, he states. The National Air and Space Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, is leading the effort.

To encourage other activity by the young work force, the ODNI is creating a virtual private network called A-Space—the a is for analysis—that will run on the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS). The pilot program is meant for use by collection personnel and ultimately the full intelligence community. The Web-centric network will be available to anyone who can access JWICS without any additional hardware. A-Space will feature a virtual tunnel hosting a Web 2.0 environment with training and other digital tools such as e-mail and calendar services.

“If 20 percent of my work force sees no value in it—if 30 percent sees no value in it—bless them. Let them do what they’re going to do,” Wertheimer declares. “But for that young work force that wants to be out in front, this is the place they can do it.” Eventually, that virtual environment may become three dimensional, he adds. And because it is virtual, this environment is being created at the desktop at no cost to the agencies.

This common virtual workspace concept may be the key to the future of intelligence analysis, Wertheimer suggests. Calling the A-Space “the most fertile, tilled soil to grow from,” he warns of severe consequences should it fail. “Without the connectivity between the agencies at the workspace, it’s like living in a gated community. Nothing else will succeed,” he warrants.

Lowenthal points out that the community continues to work on developing an analytical doctrine for homeland security intelligence. The country never has had to undertake this approach before, and experts still are trying to determine just what that analysis will do, the skills that will be needed, the reporting vehicles and, above all, the nature of the customer.

And training offers no guarantees for success given budget pressures. Lowenthal warns that the intelligence budget has flattened and is likely to decline. When cutbacks come, the first casualty invariably is education and training. On the surface, this cut is less painful than personnel cuts or reductions in operations. But, it proves more costly in many ways. “We will be cutting back in education and training—and we already have begun to see this happening in certain agencies—at the same time that the CIA, DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency], FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] and DHS [Department of Homeland Security] are doing large numbers of new hires,” he contends.


Web Resources
Director of National Intelligence:
Intelligence and Security Academy:

Language Woes Left at Intelligence Doorstep

One of the most basic tools for analysts is fluency in a foreign language, and Dr. Mark M. Lowenthal, president and chief executive officer of the Intelligence and Security Academy in Arlington, Virginia, states that it remains one of the most difficult issues for training analysts. The problem stems from a lack of good foreign language training in U.S. schools, he charges. “We have deficiencies in almost any language you can speak, and the problem is not the making of the intelligence community. Language requirements in [U.S.] colleges basically dropped away in the mid-1970s, so we’re in a situation now where only 8 percent of American undergraduates take a language. When they get to the agencies, a lot of them don’t have any language capacity,” he maintains.

Teaching an analyst a language can take a long time, he adds. Many of the languages badly needed by the intelligence community do not use an alphabet based on Roman lettering. Even a person who can learn this type of unfamiliar language requires intensive instruction—almost three years learning full time. Not wanting to lose an employee for that period, agencies encourage learning on a part-time basis. This averages 56 months, or nearly five years. “It is unfair that the community gets pinged on this on a regular basis,” Lowenthal says. “This is not a situation that the community created. This is something that the U.S. education system created.”

After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, the United States poured resources and emphasis into university and secondary education for mathematics and science to ensure that the Soviet Union did not establish scientific supremacy in the heart of the Cold War. But today, with the Free World engaged in a battle against global terrorism from multiple sources overseas, the quest for remedies to the acute need for foreign language proficiency is being assigned to intelligence community organizations. While lamenting how the blame for language shortfall seems to be placed unfairly on the intelligence community, Lowenthal is more concerned that the country as a whole still is not addressing that problem at the proper level—the public education system.

One near-term solution would be to hire first-generation Americans who learned a foreign language at home because their parents did not speak English as a native language. The director of national intelligence is advocating some form of this solution. But Dr. Michael Wertheimer, assistant deputy director for national intelligence and chief technology officer in the Directorate of Analysis in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, warns that this approach also will change the culture of the intelligence community. While endorsing the idea heartily, he points out that the community will need to adjust to the cultural changes brought about by the influx of first-generation Americans.

Enjoyed this article? SUBSCRIBE NOW to keep the content flowing.