To Fix U.S. Intelligence, Shrink It?

09.30.13 | 6 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Criticism of U.S. intelligence takes many forms:  Intelligence agencies are too secretive, or they are too leaky.  They over-collect, or they under-perform.  Or all of these, and more besides.

Many of the criticisms can be reduced to a single argument: The U.S. intelligence community has become too large to be properly managed.

Interestingly, this is a view that is held by some within U.S. intelligence itself, according to a new dissertation by a CIA sociologist who studied and worked at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).

“I actually fear that the IC is too big,” a CIA analyst at the NCTC told sociologist Bridget Nolan. “It’s crossed the point where it’s [producing] healthy competitive analysis. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re in each other’s way. We’re hindering the mission.”

“Something that’s worth considering,” another CIA analyst said, “is completely counterintuitive, which is to make the CT [counterterrorism] community smaller, not larger. I think there are far more people at CIA HQ now than when we defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War. What the hell?”

As for the NCTC itself, yet another analyst said, “If it were to continue existing, it should be about one-tenth its current size.”

A reduction in the size of the intelligence community might be a sovereign remedy for many of the problems currently afflicting U.S. intelligence analysis, Dr. Nolan suggests.

“For the analysts, this would address the hindrances that come along with a bloated bureaucracy,” including an avalanche of superfluous communications. “It would also help with what they perceived to be excessive redundancy, as opposed to a lower level of redundancy which was deemed necessary for safety and accuracy reasons.”

(Though not discussed by Dr. Nolan, a similar case could be made that the security clearance system has become too big, and that its enormous size tends to magnify its intrinsic defects. There are always going to be flaws in quality control in background investigations, along with human error, and bad judgment calls. But when there are nearly five million cleared personnel, each of which needs to be reviewed and renewed every five to ten years, then those unavoidable flaws start to become serious problems. If the security cleared population were around one million instead of five million, then it would be far more manageable, more effective, and less expensive than it is.)

Dr. Nolan’s dissertation focuses on the sociology of information sharing at the NCTC, where she worked as a CIA analyst in 2010-11.  See “Information Sharing and Collaboration in the United States Intelligence Community: An Ethnographic Study of the National Counterterrorism Center” by Bridget Rose Nolan, PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2013.

A more prevalent view holds that not only is the U.S. intelligence community not “too big,” as Dr. Nolan’s interviewees asserted, it is not big enough. “The current inventory of intelligence personnel is insufficient to fill all the positions that the services (in the MIP) and ODNI (in the NIP) recognize as valid requirements,” according to a new report on “Workforce Planning in the Intelligence Community” from the RAND Corporation.

Nolan’s work gives voice to intelligence analysts who are overwhelmed by information, flustered by competitive pressures from their home agencies, and weighed down by dubious security policies.

“The daily life of a counterterrorism analyst tends to be chaotic and features a paradox between a deluge of complicated information on the one hand and a perceived lack of proper access to information on the other.”

In a manner reminiscent of Erving Goffman’s work on “interaction ritual,” Nolan provides fresh insight into the characteristic behaviors of intelligence analysts in their work environment.

For example, she reports that ordinary conversations between NCTC analysts often involve a kind of competitive one-upsmanship, “in which intelligence officers ‘out-correct’ and ‘out-logic’ each other in the course of routine conversation to the point where any increased accuracy in what has been said no longer seems meaningful.”

“It may take place when a listener interrupts a speaker to make the speaker’s sentence more precise. It can also happen when a listener demands a logical explanation for a routine action that would require no explanation outside the field of intelligence…. Many analysts routinely engage each other this way, such that it becomes difficult to say anything definitively without being challenged–often at the expense of the true purpose of the interaction.”

Dr. Nolan contends that the process of acculturation into a particular intelligence agency almost inevitably creates obstacles to interagency cooperation.  “The very qualities that make any individual intelligence agency strong are the same qualities that make information sharing and collaboration with other agencies difficult.”

“CIA creates loyalty by teaching its employees that they are the best and the brightest, and that their analytic and collection capabilities are second to none, but they do this in part by emphasizing the weaknesses of the other intelligence agencies…. Creating a strong in-group usually requires the designation of clear out-groups as well, often with accompanying negative sentiments and stereotypes, and these well-institutionalized notions cannot be overcome overnight.”

In particular, analysts say, CIA [which has its own Counterterrorism Center] disdains the National Counterterrorism Center and limits NCTC access to CIA information.  “Essentially, CIA purposefully puts NCTC at an analytic disadvantage, and then faults NCTC for it.”

“NCTC’s attempts to create a new culture” of information sharing, Nolan concluded, “are not enough to overcome the much stronger socialization processes at the home agencies.”

On the other hand, “the emergence of NCTC may have taken some (but not all) of the sting away from the notoriously frosty CIA-FBI relationship.”  According to one analyst interviewed by Nolan, “CIA and FBI have become closer because they have a mutual hatred for NCTC.”

(In my own limited experience as a visitor to NCTC, I found what seemed to be a competent group of analysts, including a notably high proportion of young women in positions of authority.  This demographic aspect of NCTC was not covered by Nolan’s study.)

Nolan discusses the role of jargon and secrecy in intelligence agency culture. This material is mostly familiar or unsurprising, though there is a striking account of the cut-throat use of secrecy by some analysts “to purposefully exclude [other] analysts from drafting or co-authoring a paper that would otherwise be theirs.”  In one case, “I was suddenly no longer able to even look at the paper that I’d written! She [a fellow analyst] compartmented me out of it and just went on ahead herself.”  As one analyst put it, “information sharing is when YOU give ME your data.”

Among other factors, “the ways in which analysts undermine each other have created a system in which self-interest is frequently at odds with group-interest, thereby impeding sharing and collaboration.”

Nolan devotes a chapter to the rarely-considered topic of humor in intelligence. Ordinarily, she says, “displays of emotion are discouraged, but laughter is the great exception to this rule.”

“Humor is such a big part of the sociology of the IC that any accurate portrayal of this workplace must include it…. At the end of the day, humor is everywhere in the Intelligence Community, from the lowliest analyst to the President’s top advisers.”

“Employees use humor to initiate neophytes into the fold, to acknowledge and reinforce status differences, to release the tension they feel from the overwhelming nature of their tasks, and to subvert the tiresome challenges coordination [of written reports] presents.”

In truth, few of the samples of intelligence humor presented here are very funny.  At a 2010 holiday party, analysts from the NCTC Al Qaeda and Sunni Extremism Group “took the Aerosmith line ‘Dude looks like a lady’ and rewrote it to say, ‘The suspect — whom we assess to be male — resembles a female.”

Overall, Nolan presents a frank account of life in an intelligence agency of a sort that is otherwise mostly unavailable to the public.  She identifies obstacles to the prescribed practice of information sharing, and presents a persuasive critique of the NCTC mission statement.  She proposes practical steps — beyond a possible reduction in the size of the IC — for improving performance as well as quality of life in the intelligence community.

True to form, the Central Intelligence Agency sought to block publication of Dr. Nolan’s dissertation, even though it did not contain classified information.  Among other concerns, CIA said that it “may not be understood by the public.”  So she resigned from the Agency, leaving her free to publish it.  See “Covering the undercovers” by Susan Snyder, Philadelphia Inquirer, August 20, 2013.

National Counterterrorism Center Policy Number 1 is entitled “Information Sharing Rules of the Road.” A copy is available here.

The 2013 annual report to Congress from the ODNI Information Sharing Environment discusses recent progress in information sharing and some remaining challenges.