Qualitative Analysis for the Intelligence Community
Kiron K. Skinner
WHAT IS THE ISSUE?
U.S. national security depends on the closely linked network of the data collector, the analyst, and the policy maker, or customer. The analyst, who serves as the bridge between the data collector and the policy maker, occupies a crucial position in this policy continuum (Barry et al., 1994; Davis, 1996; Director of National Intelligence, 2008). The magnitude of what the intelligence analyst faces regularly becomes clear when the range of the analyst’s tasks is considered: Although collectors provide the analyst with data, the analyst is centrally involved in the data process. After reviewing the assembled data, the analyst may need to redirect the collector. The analyst is responsible for addressing a range of issues related to the quantity, quality, and reliability of the information on which his or her assessments must rest. In many situations, the analyst tries to make sense of a single case using qualitative methods, and must turn a point of view (the customer’s, his or her own, or both) into testable hypotheses. Customers often request the completion of all of this work in a short time. Sometimes the intelligence officer has limited knowledge of part of a complex issue under investigation. Each factor adds a layer of difficulty that could inhibit systematic qualitative analysis. Yet qualitative analysis is an intelligence community (IC) mainstay.
These challenges have always been apparent to the IC and those who study its work and processes. Sherman Kent addressed many of the challenges facing the IC in Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy (1951). More than a decade later, in her 1962 study on the Japanese attack
on Pearl Harbor, Roberta Wohlstetter wrote: “To discriminate significant sounds against this background of noise, one has to be listening for something or for one of several things. In short, one needs not only an ear, but a variety of hypotheses that guide observation” (Wohlstetter, 1962, p. 56). Similar suggestions run through the literature on the IC (Berkowitz and Goodman, 1989; Betts, 1978; Cooper, 2005; George and Bruce, 2008; Goodman et al., 1996; Heuer, 1999; Jervis, 2010; Johnston, 2005; Knorr, 1964; Lieberthal, 2009; Sims and Gerber, 2005; Turner, 2006). National commissions and government studies on intelligence failures also have advocated further analytic development of the intelligence tradecraft. For instance, in his assessment of the IC’s lack of foresight on India’s nuclear test in 1998, Admiral David Jeremiah endorsed the use of red-team analysis. Responding to the Jeremiah Report, Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) George Tenet called for an “institutionalized … system of subjecting our analysis to contrary views” (Tenet, 1998, p. 1).
A full complement of structured analytic techniques for qualitative assessments has been developed within the IC in the past several decades (e.g., Heuer and Pherson, 2010). The Analysis of Competing Hypotheses is a prominent method. It “demands that analysts explicitly identify all the reasonable alternative hypotheses, then array the evidence against each hypothesis—rather than evaluating the plausibility of each hypothesis one at a time” (U.S. Government, 2009, p. 14). The method also calls for “report[ing] all the conclusions, including the weaker hypotheses that should still be monitored as new information becomes available” (U.S. Government, 2009, p. 15). Other structured analytic techniques presented in tradecraft manuals include Alternative Futures, Chronologies and Time Lines, Description Detection, Devil’s Advocacy, Force Field Analysis, High-Impact/Low-Probability Analysis, Hypotheses Generator, Indicators, Key Assumptions Check, Multiple Scenarios Generation, Outside-In Thinking, Pre-Mortem Assessment, Quadrant Crunching, Red Hat Analysis, Social Network Analysis, Structured Brainstorming, and Team A/Team B (Heuer and Pherson, 2010).
These methods have common characteristics. They challenge prevailing perspectives by providing alternative modes of thinking. Some are much more explicit about stating the assumptions and hypotheses than are the less formal, traditional methods. Researchers debate whether structured analytic techniques actually improve the analytic product, but the IC remains committed to refining these methods and teaching them in their training centers (Marrin, 2009).
One academic discipline that may offer analysts assistance in improving their analyses and forecasts is the study of political science. Over the years political scientists have developed a variety of qualitative methods that might be used by intelligence analysts either in real time to increase
the usefulness and accuracy of their analyses or retrospectively to better assess previous reports. This chapter will focus on one such method in particular, the Strategic Perspective or SP (Bueno de Mesquita et al., 2003; Bueno de Mesquita, 2010). After a brief description of the approach, the chapter will offer two examples to illustrate how it might be used and the types of insights it can provide. Both examples are retrospective looks at what proved to be failures of intelligence analysis. The examples are offered with the understanding that hindsight is always sharper, and that what seems straightforward from the comfortable perspective of 25 years down the road is much less straightforward when the clock is ticking, lives are at stake, and the answer is highly uncertain. Nonetheless, it is hoped that these retrospective examples will provide an indication of how the Strategic Perspective may help analysts deepen their understanding of situations and perhaps improve the accuracy of their forecasts.
THEORETICAL GROUNDING: THE STRATEGIC PERSPECTIVE
The international system poses ongoing dilemmas for statesmen, scholars, and policy analysts. Is the state, the nation, or some other entity the core unit of analysis? What should be the major dependent variables: war/peace, cooperation/discord, and so on? What are the major explanatory variables: international institutions, power, security, wealth, or a combination of these factors? On what level of analysis (international system, state level, individual level, or still others) should questions be raised and explanations offered? When and how should levels be combined for explanation and prediction?
The Strategic Perspective provides a theoretical perspective on state behavior, political leadership, and the connections between domestic politics and international relations. Its tenets regarding the relationship between a state’s type of regime and its public policy have had a major effect on scholarly work in recent decades (among many others, see Bernauer and Koubi, 2009; Brown and Mobarak, 2009; Chhibber and Nooruddin, 2004; Chiozza and Goemans, 2004; Gelpi and Grieco, 2001; Goemans, 2000; Kilchevsky et al., 2007; Licht, 2009; McDonald, 2007; McGillivray and Smith, 2008; Peceny and Butler, 2004). This research can be particularly useful for IC analysts and policy makers because it is a theory about actual decision making as opposed to arguments about how structural arrangements at the international level determine outcomes and lead to fixed preferences for states. SP holds that the decision making of leaders determines or influences much of politics. In this theory, leaders, not nation-states, are the core unit of analysis. Leaders are uniquely situated in politics. As heads of government, they must respond to both domestic politics and
international challenges. They must weigh how their domestic decisions affect international relations, and vice versa. As a result, the international political situation is strongly influenced by leaders’ calculations about how their decisions on domestic and foreign policy will affect their necessary domestic coalitions, and how foreign challenges can be held at bay. In political systems with large winning coalitions, such as democracies, leaders perforce pursue public policies that satisfy millions of people. By contrast, in autocracies and other small-coalition countries, leaders can stay in power by dispensing private benefits to coalition members and do not need to consider the desires of the majority of the population.
The SP has a number of aspects that should make it valuable for use by the IC. The theory defines international relations as “the product of the cumulative impact of the foreign policies of the nations of the world. Foreign policies are always linked to and partially shaped by internal politics, especially domestic political concerns that influence a leader’s prospects of retaining his or her job” (Bueno de Mesquita, 2006, p. 2). This definition removes the conventional distinction scholars have made between foreign policy and international relations (IR) as well as the division between security studies and political economy. Students of foreign policy typically write about specific decisions or crises, or they develop mid-range theories that apply to a small set of foreign-policy cases. IR specialists, on the other hand, often ignore specific foreign-policy decisions in an attempt to develop higher altitude explanations for state behavior. SP is a move toward developing a theory of politics that explains all public policy choices of leaders, but, in the case of foreign policy, it links leaders’ choices to larger factors in the international system. The theoretical principles about the relationship between foreign policy and international outcomes apply to issues of both national security and political economy.
SP offers other scientifically useful tools as well. In locating explanation and prediction at the domestic and international levels (leaders calculate public policy based on what will both satisfy their domestic coalition and stave off foreign threats), the distinction between these two levels is swept away. In identifying coalition size as the key institutional feature that incentivizes and constrains leaders and organizes the polity, the noise of domestic politics is intellectually managed. The probable international effects of religion, culture, nationalism, and civil strife are filtered through the institutional feature of coalition size. Thus, researchers will find that no case is so unique that systematic analysis across a class of cases becomes impossible. Unlike structural theories, SP holds that preferences and behavior are not determined by a state’s position in the international structure of bipolarity, multipolarity, or hierarchy. Rather, the theory contends that state behavior and preferences are fluid, determined in large measure by how leaders navigate domestic and international challenges to their survival. Because leaders
are constantly speculating what their domestic and international adversaries will do, all decisions and interactions are strategic and contingent—a fact not captured in conventional IR theories. The Strategic Perspective is a formal theory that can be used in qualitative and quantitative analysis.
The National Intelligence Strategy has identified violent extremist groups, insurgents, and transnational criminal organizations as “non-state and sub-state actors … [that affect U.S.] national security” (Director of National Intelligence, 2009, p. 3). IR is primarily about people: how they interact across state borders and how their actions within borders affect what happens internationally. Structural theories and other traditional modes of thinking have recognized that people matter, but they have not acknowledged them operationally as the very fabric of international relations. The focus on political leadership in SP provides an organizing principle for thinking through the role of people (leaders and constituents). Why do leaders remain in power in countries dominated by public policies that support or produce kleptocracy, rent seeking, corruption, unsuccessful international wars, and/or civil unrest? Intelligence analysts and policy makers need explanations and possibilities for prediction that are empirically grounded from the bottom up. The current international system is as much about how internal challenges to state power simultaneously affect domestic politics and relations among states as it is about how nation-states interact.
The Strategic Perspective provides direction in uncovering the strategic interaction taking place in a specific case. When there are multiple hypotheses from which to choose, those that can best be turned into strategic interaction stories should have top priority. Such cases train attention on the key actors, the constraints they face, and the calculations they make in terms of their domestic and international rivals. These cases require the analyst to think through the policy trade-offs that political actors must make, their contemplations off the path of equilibrium, and, more generally, contingent behavior. Importantly, uncovering a strategic interaction story can be determined regardless of the amount of data readily available.
SP can and has been applied to scenarios other than the dilemmas faced by heads of government. All organizational leaders have constituency challenges, and SP is a theory about the policy choices that leaders make in light of such challenges and external threats. Among its numerous applications, SP can help explain and predict what business leaders and heads of terrorist organizations will do.
INSIGHTS FROM THE STRATEGIC PERSPECTIVE
The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) remarked, “If it seems simple in the archives, try it in the maelstrom” (Moynihan and Weaver, 1978, p. vii). Intellectual humility should be the attitude of anyone reviewing
intelligence and policy scenarios, especially those undertaken in periods of high tension or major crises. The intelligence officer and the policy maker do not have the luxury of time or the positive benefits sometimes associated with hindsight. Similarly, “the lessons of hindsight do not guarantee improvement in foresight, and hypothetical solutions to failure only occasionally produce improvement in practice” (Betts, 1978, p. 62).
Tempered by these admonitions, the goal of this section is to show members of the IC how the Strategic Perspective can enhance description, explanation, and prediction. It will do so by offering a retrospective look at two well-known intelligence failures, the Iranian revolution of 1979 and India’s nuclear tests in 1998, and indicating how the use of SP might have led analysts at the time to understand more clearly the forces that led to the eventual outcomes.
As described above, the central insight in the Strategic Perspective is that international relations and domestic issues are irretrievably linked, with this linkage arising from the fact that leaders act in such a way to stay in power. The necessary “coalition” is the collection of people and groups that a leader needs to stay in power. SP provides intellectual guidance in understanding how decisions on international issues are shaped by domestic considerations. Leaders will generally act in such a way as to remain in power; this requires that they maintain a coalition powerful enough to keep them in office, and to maintain this coalition, leaders must act in ways that satisfy the coalition.
The Iranian Revolution, 1979
The Strategic Perspective may be applied to Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s fall from power in Iran. The shah’s long rule came to an end in early 1979 amidst the emerging Iranian revolution. Among other factors, misunderstanding his domestic political base undermined the shah’s reign and had major implications for international relations.
Starting in the 1960s, oil exports constituted the lion’s share of government revenues for Iran. Between 1963 and 1977, oil revenues as a percentage of government income jumped from 45 to 77 percent (Parsa, 1989; Abrahamian, 1980). International demand for oil made the state dependent on international consumption. Thus, Iran’s economy and government were deeply affected by global-market phenomena (Karshenas, 1990; Parsa, 1989). Oil exports produced extreme wealth for a small group of elites.
The shah undertook modernization projects that were flawed and highly dependent on Western technology (Keddie and Richard, 1981). These projects further deepened Tehran’s dependence on the West. Development funds generally were used for a range of infrastructure projects and the financial realm. Funds oriented toward the private sector were targeted
largely at urban professionals, leaving the poorest Iranians outside the pool of the emerging economic activity (Parsa, 1989). Iran’s massive oil wealth was not creating a large political base for the shah.
The bazaaris were one social group that became alienated from the shah’s policies, and they were an important political, social, and economic force. “By the time of the revolution, Tehran’s central bazaar, the heart of the nation’s trade, numbered close to 40,000 shops and workshops…. Despite a relative decline, bazaaris controlled most of the national trade in the 1970s, including more than two-thirds of the nation’s domestic wholesale trade and more than 30 percent of all imports” (Parsa, 1989, pp. 92–93). The bazaaris benefitted from some of the shah’s economic policies, and they generally supported his regime. For instance, during the shah’s repressive response to the uprising by religious students in 1975, which reportedly left dozens of students dead and many others imprisoned, shop owners did not shut down in protest (Parsa, 1989).
The price controls the shah imposed in August 1975 began to be felt by shopkeepers, however, and many of them were subjected to government-led investigations or forced out of business by 1977. That year, the bazaaris joined forces with religious groups to protest the shah’s policies and they closed their stores en masse (Parsa, 1989). Government policies combined with the global economic downturn helped to account for this change.
The shah’s power base appeared to be the urban and oil elites who benefitted from his economic policies, based on oil exports as well as his foreign policy of close reliance on the United States. The elites he relied on for support and protection did not actually constitute a coalition of the sort that all leaders need to stay in power. Over time, groups like the bazaaris, which were part of Iran’s domestic economic engine, found common cause with religious forces, including the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini. Their response to the shah, his policies, and his alliance with the West ultimately undermined the shah’s reign. It was not just one economic segment or one religious faction that came to oppose the shah’s regime. Homa Katouzian (1998, p. 36) writes, “there was a massive revolt, true to the ancient pattern, of the society against the state, almost irrespective of occupation, rank, wealth and income, education, or degree of religious commitment.”
The Strategic Perspective directs the researcher, as well as the policy maker and the statesman, to identify the relevant coalition a leader needs to stay in power. The theoretical perspective does not contend that a leader will correctly perceive the relevant coalition or know how to satisfy that coalition with public or private benefits. It merely states that these factors are essential for political survival. The shah remained in power for a long time, but the domestic environment was evolving.
Furthermore, under President Jimmy Carter, the shah’s international support coalition was falling away. On his New Year’s visit to Iran in
1977–1978, the U.S. President toasted the shah, declaring: “There is no other head of state with whom I feel on friendlier terms and to whom I feel more gratitude” (cited by Tyler, 2009, p. 213). At the same time, President Carter’s human rights approach to foreign policy made him less sympathetic than earlier U.S. presidents to the shah’s internal predicament. He ultimately decided not to intervene, stating: “We have never had any intention and don’t have any intention of trying to intercede in the internal political affairs of Iran. We primarily want an absence of violence and bloodshed. … We personally prefer that the shah maintain a major role in the government, but that is a decision for the Iranian people to make” (quoted in Sick, 1985, p. 128). Debate about supporting the shah raged within the Carter Administration. In hindsight, it seems clear that U.S. policy might have been somewhat different if there had been a better understanding of Iranian domestic politics and possible international outcomes resulting from Iran’s internal crisis. At the least, SP analysis would have led to greater texture in U.S. policy.
India’s Nuclear Tests, 1998
On May 11, 1998, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the new prime minister of India, announced that earlier that day his government had tested three nuclear devices (Associated Press, 1998; India tests nuclear devices, 1998). Following the tests, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, called DCI George Tenet and asked what happened. Tenet replied, “Senator, we didn’t have a clue” (Tenet and Harlow, 2008, p. 44). On May 13, the Indian government announced that it had undertaken a second round of nuclear tests. “I personally woke up this morning and I did not know about it,” Robert J. Einhorn, deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the day of the second tests (Einhorn, 1998, p. 16; Pincus, 1998; Richelson, 2006).
The Strategic Perspective sheds light on why India would risk international retribution and economic sanctions, among other things, by testing nuclear devices, which it had not done since 1974.
Vajpayee was a member of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won a plurality of the vote in 1996. Vajpayee took the oath of office on May 16, but needed a parliamentary confidence vote within 15 days. As soon as he took office, Vajpayee approved nuclear testing. U.S. intelligence noted the impending test, and the Clinton Administration pressured India to reverse course. In any case, the BJP lost the parliamentary vote on May 28 and was replaced by a United Front government (Perkovich, 1999). During his 1998 campaign, Vajpayee once again advocated nuclear testing (Perkovich, 1999).
Tenet appointed Admiral (Retired) David E. Jeremiah, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to lead an investigation of the intelligence lapse. One of Jeremiah’s conclusions indicates that a core principle of the Strategic Perspective had been violated:
[B]oth the intelligence and the policy communities had an underlying mindset going into these tests that the BJP would behave as we behave. For instance, there is an assumption that the BJP platform would mirror Western political platforms. In other words, a politician is going to say something in his political platform leading up to the elections, but not necessarily follow through on the platform once he takes office and is exposed to the immensity of his problem. The BJP was dead serious…. (Best and Cumming, 2007, p. 23)
Thus, even though the BJP had indicated it would quickly resume nuclear testing upon being elected, much of the analysis at the time down-played the likelihood of the party following through on its pledge, or at least expected that the fulfillment of the pledge would not come nearly as soon as it did. But SP research has shown that during campaigns for office in the United States, the rhetorical commitments candidates make are often more than mere rhetoric. They are typically made to create or hold together a necessary coalition, and once in office the commitments can be binding (Skinner et al., 2007). SP unpacks domestic politics in ways that go against conventional thinking about domestic politics itself and how it affects foreign policy.
Ultimately, the link between domestic politics and international outcomes was not lost on the IC during its post mortem on India’s nuclear testing. Testifying before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, DCI Tenet said: “[E]ven in the absence of robust collection, we should have questioned harder the potential impact the change in the Indian government would have on India’s desire to advance its nuclear program and assert itself as a world power” (Tenet, 1998).
SP not only suggests that U.S. analysts and policy makers should have paid closer attention to the domestic and international implications of the Indian election, but it also provides a mechanism (the relationship between a leader and his core support coalition) for thinking through the implications of what was taking place in the election. As important as Tenet’s insight is, it does not provide a precise mechanism for understanding the potential international effects of India’s change in government. SP goes beyond saying that domestic politics matter.
What coalition was Vajpayee satisfying? Traditionally, the BJP has been a right-wing, nationalist Hindu party. The party campaigned on an inclusive platform, but the candidate had to walk a fine line between the right-wing base, which included many elites, and others. National security was one area in which the base could be satisfied, and it had the further advantage
of not being a high-priority issue for the many nonelites BJP needed. Many elites wanted their country to be a full nuclear power. Campaigning on this issue made good political sense. It was a real issue (Perkovich, 1999). The Economist (India as a nuclear power, 1998, p. 20) discussed the matter soon after India’s nuclear tests:
The new coalition will be fractious. The compromises needed to govern will cramp the BJP’s Hindu-nationalist style. But the nuclear issue is popular with voters proud of India’s technological prowess. Building nuclear weapons could be one of the few policies the coalition can agree on and thus the easiest way for the BJP to trumpet its Hindu-nationalist pride.
Regional factors were also relevant. On April 6, 1998, Pakistan had tested the Guari Missile, a new ballistic missile. Pakistan could hit parts of India with these weapons (Perkovich, 1999). China became a nuclear power in 1966. There were long-standing tensions between the United States and former Soviet Union on border issues and relations with India and China (Synnott, 1999). In a letter to President Clinton on May 11, 1998, the day of the first set of tests, Vajpayee pointed a finger at China: “We have an overt nuclear-weapon state on our borders … a state which committed armed aggression against India in 1962” (Perkovich, 1999, p. 417). The claim here is not that the tensions India had with China, Pakistan, or both countries were fully responsible for the nuclear tests. Rather, if one took the campaign pledge seriously, then considering how external threats might make the pledge more or less credible would have been worthwhile.
The IC has committed substantial resources to developing structured analytic techniques and training its officers to use them. Although the face value of these techniques is not uniformly clear, astute researchers and practitioners contend that the techniques are an essential part of the intelligence officer’s analytic toolkit, and work must be done continually to test and further develop the scientific rigor of the techniques (Heuer and Pherson, 2010; Pherson, 2008).
This essay has sought to reemphasize the importance of structured qualitative analysis in the IC by demonstrating how a major theoretical project in political science understands international politics and can be applied to qualitative analysis. Analysts in Afghanistan contend that unpacking the state is the most significant barrier to providing credible intelligence (Flynn et al., 2010). A background theory that helps researchers, analysts, and policy makers think systematically about subnational forces and how they affect state policy and international relations is especially important in the 21st century.
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