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Politicization: How to Tackle a Growing Challenge

The primary task of an analyst is to help policymakers and other decision makers make good decisions based on the best available information and the most compelling logic. This task becomes more challenging when the recipient of the analysis bases his or her decisions on pre-established, often immutable world views or sees the world as a battle of “us versus them.” Below, I offer techniques to maintain objectivity when offering analytic insights to decision makers under common briefing scenarios.

Traditional Policy Support. Savvy policymakers who know how to use intelligence analysis will look to analysts as an unparalleled source of actionable information and analytic insight. An analyst who has developed a trusting relationship with a policymaker can employ several techniques to avoid politicization.

  • The Rule of Three. When asked to make a recommendation, respond with three ways to approach the issue. Lay out the intelligence and logic that supports each approach and let the policymaker decide which makes the most sense.
  • Critique Existing Options. If several policy options are under consideration, provide an analysis of the likelihood of success for each but emphasize the quality of your information and any key information gaps.
  • Bring a Friend. Pre-brief a subordinate in the policymaker’s office and bring him or her with you. If the policymaker asks “What should I do?” or “What do you recommend?”, simply turn to the subordinate who probably has already anticipated the question and let him or her answer it.

Briefing Officials with Fixed Mindsets. When the client is more interested in imposing his or her view on the world, a successful analyst takes time to develop different strategies for communicating an apolitical analytic message.

  • Broaden the context. When an official seeks intelligence to justify a position, frame the response in a broader context. Offer up the pros and the cons to enable the decision maker to act based on a fully-informed set of facts and analysis.
  • Focus on strategic drivers. Generate “arms-length” strategic views of a situation, identifying key drivers and establishing an overarching framework for understanding the dynamics at play.
  • Employ SATs. Rely more heavily on Structured Analytic Techniques—such as Indicators, Argument Mapping, Deception Detection, and Analysis of Competing Hypotheses*—that can demonstrate in a compelling way how the official can avoid becoming victim of a mental mindset or a cognitive trap.

Analysts should never refrain from providing hard-hitting, objective, and well-supported analysis, even when the message is likely to be poorly received. However, be mindful that challenging a decision maker’s views directly is inappropriate and almost always counterproductive.

Briefing “Novice” Decision makers. In recent years as political polarization has increased in the United States—and throughout much of the world—analysts have been challenged with learning how to support a different type of policymaker: highly partisan, transactional decision makers who rely heavily on non-traditional sources of information and do not understand the role and mission of law enforcement and the intelligence community. Providing support to this new breed of decision makers requires a reframing of the roles and responsibilities of the analyst.

  • Redefine Your Primary Client. Intelligence communities need to expand the scope of their analytic support beyond the highest offices of leadership in their nations to a much broader array of decision makers and legislators.
  • Establish Analytic Baselines. The primary mission becomes the need to establish a baseline description of what is happening in the world (and why) for the national security community writ large.
  • Reset priorities. The traditional core functions of warning and counterintelligence remain critical, but additional attention is needed in two areas: 1) providing strategic perspective on global trends (such as climate change and cyber threats), and 2) ferreting out and actively countering the impact of digital disinformation.
  • Protect Sources. In an era of “novice” decision makers, greater emphasis must also be given to ensuring sources and methods are not compromised.

When dealing with both ideologues and “novice” decision makers, one of the worst mistakes an analyst can make is to self-censor. Self-censorship can take two forms:
1) tweaking the analysis to make it more acceptable to the client in the hope of retaining access and sustaining a dialogue, and
2) avoiding a topic because the views of the analytic community differ from those of the client, and analysts suspect the client will simply ignore or quickly dismiss the analysis.

In the end, it comes down to maintaining an analytic culture of direct engagement with the client, coupled with a deeply-ingrained culture of objectivity and integrity. Intelligence community managers need to constantly reinforce this culture. Senior leaders need to incentivize such behavior through example and by actively monitoring analyst interactions with policymakers and praising those who walk these fine lines the best.

A fuller discussion of how to avoid politicization will be found in the third edition of Critical Thinking for Strategic Intelligence, to be published in spring 2020.

* Explore these techniques – and many others – in Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, by Randolph H. Pherson and Richards J. Heuer Jr.
The third edition, featuring step-by-step practical guidance for 66 techniques, will be published in January 2020. Insiders will receive an exclusive announcement when this latest edition of our best-selling volume hits the shelves!