Ethics in Intelligence Analysis

I’ve got an article up over at the new issue of Foreknowledge.  The original version is below…

The most recent edition of U.S. Department of Justice’s Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative (Global) Law Enforcement Analytic Standards mentions ethics only twice in its 44 pages. The first is its inclusion as one of 30 ‘core competencies’ that are to be addressed in initial analytical training over a (minimum) 40 hour training program. The second provides some detail into the specific aspects of ethics that should be focused on.

Analysts must be able to apply their agency’s policies, guidelines, and operating procedures to information and intelligence sharing, analysis, and dissemination.

While important, intelligence personnel are often left to their own devices when presented with serious ethical questions. These questions can be broken down into two broad categories that I refer to as sins of commission and those of omission.

An agency is in competition with another over scarce resources. In furtherance of that end a supervisor approaches a junior analyst and asks for a product with a specific conclusion. When the analyst tells her supervisor that she’s not sure the data supports that conclusion, the supervisor replies: ‘C’mon, you can make statistics say anything.’

Sins of commission, where someone in power attempts to strong arm an analyst to deliver a particular judgment, are rare among those agencies that have strong tradition of professionalism, community and where analysts are able to progress beyond the lowest levels of the organization. Paul Pillar, a veteran analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency, wrote about such attempts in the context of intelligence analysis preceding the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Such instances of crude arm twisting within the federal Intelligence Community (IC) “…are rare and, when they do occur…, are almost always unsuccessful.  1

Yet, in the United States, the past decade has seen an explosion of domestic intelligence personnel in law enforcement and ‘homeland security’ agencies. Most of these agencies have little to no orientation or traditions in intelligence analysis, are fragmented with few analytical personnel and rarely afford analysts the opportunity to rise within the organization to positions with decision making authority. It is under these conditions where analysts are most likely to be directed to produce politicized analysis and also where they will have the fewest opportunities for redress.

Sins of Omission

A political protest erupts in cities around the country. The protestors are dedicated to non-violence and, despite attracting large numbers of supporters, engage in little serious criminal activity. Yet, the movement attracts the attention of law enforcement and counter-terrorism officials who demand a steady stream of products linking the protest to other, violent movements despite little to no evidence of any such connection. As intelligence resources are focused on the movement, other criminal and terrorist threats are given lower priority and attention.

A more common and subtle ethical issue for intelligence analysts falls into this category. Intelligence personnel may be directed to focus their energies towards a particular conclusion for any number of biases or interests. The end result, however, remains the same. Analytical judgments are influenced and manipulated based upon the parameters under which intelligence personnel directed.

As in the case of the search for WMDs in Iraq, repeated requests to find evidence of a particular threat, along with increasing amounts of resources devoted to the question, inevitably leads to increased reporting. Often this reporting involves information of decreasing quality or repetitive reporting but its quantity can lead to superficial assessments that threats exist where they really don’t.

Raising questions about practices like this can be problematic for even experienced intelligence personnel. While in the federal IC, raising such questions may result in a transfer to a less desirable post or delayed career advancement, in the law enforcement or counter-terrorism communities the consequences can be much longer lasting. Many analysts in those communities work for small agencies and have few career opportunities other than moving to other agencies. Acquiring a reputation as not being a ‘team player’ can effectively destroy a career via informal channels.

Expecting analysts to both be aware of ways in which their work can be manipulated (consciously or not) and expecting them to act as warning system to prevent that occurring without training or support may just be too much for them to bear. New intelligence analysts frequently come into their agency wanting to both make a good impression and a difference in their community. The important nature of the work, culture of hierarchy and presence of people of great experience, even if in a non-intelligence field, can make the pressures against raising concerns formidable at best.


  1. Pillar, P. R. (2006, March 1). Intelligence, Policy,and the War in Iraq. Foreign Affairs, (March/April 2006). Retrieved from http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/61503/paul-r-pillar/intelligence-policyand-the-war-in-iraq

One Response to Ethics in Intelligence Analysis

  1. Pingback: Ethics in Intelligence Analysis | Errol A. Adams, J.D. M.L.S' Blog

Leave a Reply