Often times analysts (myself included) like to think that our products should speak for themselves but that can be very, very dangerous.
What is frequently overlooked is the fact that sometimes consumers (particularly secondary customers or -gasp- the general public) need context in which to understand the product. Ideally, that context will be included in the product itself but sometimes you need some more.
…the April 7, 2009 report, “Right-wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.” The report, which was intended for law enforcement only, was quickly leaked and caused a firestorm among some on the political right who accused DHS of painting all kinds of conservatives as potential Timothy McVeighs.
Things didn’t go particularly well after that.
When the right-wing report was leaked and people politicized it, my management got scared and thought DHS would be scaled back. It created an environment where my analysts and I couldn’t get our work done. DHS stopped all of our work and instituted restrictive policies. Eventually, they ended up gutting my unit. All of this happened within six to nine months after the furor over the report. Analysts then began leaving DHS. One analyst went to ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement], another to the FBI, a third went to the U.S. Marshals, and so on. There is just one person there today who is still a “domestic terrorism” analyst.Since our report was leaked, DHS has not released a single report of its own on this topic. Not anything dealing with non-Islamic domestic extremism—whether it’s anti-abortion extremists, white supremacists, “sovereign citizens,” eco-terrorists, the whole gamut.
Even though that report was not intended to be publicly released we should expect such products to make their way (intentionally or not) to make their way to the public domain. Even if not explicitly, an analyst should hope that their product will influence thinking and policy and so their judgements and analysis will work their way into the public psyche.
So, it’s interesting that so little effort is made in terms of information operations. Apart from the odd press release is anyone thinking about presenting information (to policy makers or the general public) to provide context and understanding to complex issues? If not, should we be surprised when others, with they own agendas, exploit this weakness and fill the deafening silence with their own narrative?
While it may not be in trendy, this problem was recognized in Iraq and Afghanistan and became one of the central tenants of COIN theory. From General Petraus’s tactical guidance:
Beat the insurgents and malign actors to the headlines. Preempt rumors. Get accurate information to the chain of command, to Afghan leaders, to the people, and to the press as soon as possible. Integrity is critical to this fight. Avoid spinning, and don’t try to “dress up” an ugly situation. Acknowledge setbacks and failures, including civilian casualties, and then state how we’ll respond and what we’ve learned.
Yet, in our work we frequently fail to consider information operations as part of what we do. Allow me to suggest that we should consider doing the following:
- assume most non-classified information will be released to the public at some point. Deal with it.
- if such information is at odds with public perception or reflect new thinking for which the public has no opinion, craft an information campaign to explain key point and ideas
- take full advantage of the wide range of information outlets – go beyond press releases.
- engage the consumers of information (press, policy makers, public) more frequently and provide them with more information
- evaluate current classification/declassification rules (for information under the ‘for official use only’ or ‘law enforcement sensitive’ banners) with a philosophy that less restriction is better
- develop comprehensive information campaigns for complex issues and developments.
This really should fall within the realm of the dissemination part of the intelligence cycle which means we need to consider it more broadly than just who’s going to hold my document in their hands and read it. We need to think about how to prepare users (primary, secondary and tertiary – intended and unintended) to put specific information in context and (perhaps even more importantly) how to deny the opportunity to those who would intentionally distort the message of the product. That may be through a robust limitations or methodology component and/or a strong information campaign.
In any case, ignoring the problem isn’t going to help it…