From the reliable SpyTalk, retired CIA official Ronald Marks has some commonsense advice for those trying to understand the intelligence process.
First of all, do remember it is 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 not unlike the extended dispatches from a skilled foreign correspondent for a top-tier news organization—except that the CIA’s products are classified.
But just because something is classified—and here’s my Rule Number 2—does not mean it is right, good, or not available elsewhere. Classification is about the sources of the materials and the means by which they are gathered. Sources can be wrong. Sources can be biased. Sources can be misinterpreted.
And Marks make this key point for congressional staffers.
Fourth, intelligence analysts are not in the policy business. This is your job. It is not easy to make bold conclusions with the scrutiny you’re under on the Hill and you may pay a price if you are wrong—or get a reward if you’re right. The intelligence analysts supplying you get paid to examine and weigh material. They are not paid to advise on, even if a report of theirs seems to tilt in that direction.. As one senior policy maker who is a former analyst told me, the analyst is a ballistics expert—they know about calibers and velocities of bullets. Policy makers are gunslingers standing in the street where their decisions are not academic.