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How Intelligence Works (When it Does)

Herbert E. Meyer
Founder and President, Storm King Press


Herbert E. MeyerHerbert E. Meyer, founder and president of Storm King Press, served during the Reagan Administration as Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence and Vice Chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council. A recipient of the U.S. National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal, his articles and essays on intelligence have been published in several major newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal. He is the author of several books, including Real-World Intelligence and Hard Thinking; two eBooks, How to Analyze Information and The Cure for Poverty; and a recent booklet, Why is the World So Dangerous.



When the collectors have done their work—when they’ve told the analysts what they want to know—the intelligence process shifts from gathering information to creating insight. It’s the difference between shopping for food in the supermarket and actually cooking dinner.

Insight is the product of knowledge, experience, and, above all, good judgment. You cannot say something insightful, or even something intelligent, on a subject or issue about which you don’t know anything. So the most senior intelligence analysts must be among the world’s most knowledgeable individuals in their fields of expertise—the Mideast, Russia, China, nuclear weapons, economic development, etc. And they must have that one elusive and unquantifiable skill that so often brings success in every venture: the ability to spot a pattern with the fewest possible facts—the ability to look at what’s known and combine this with their own knowledge, experience, and good judgment, to come up with a new idea or insight. This is the skill we see in great scientists like Albert Einstein, in great entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, and in great intelligence chiefs like Bill Casey.

Back in January, when U.S. intelligence chiefs released an unclassified version of the briefing they gave to President-Elect Trump about Russian efforts to influence the November election, Americans learned a phrase that’s unique to the world of intelligence: key judgment. It was a key judgment that Russia had hacked into John Podesta’s email server, and a key judgment that Vladimir Putin preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton. Since these key judgments understandably erupted into a nasty political brawl, let’s take a moment to understand what a key judgment really is. Simply put, it’s the conclusion reached by our most senior intelligence officials, based not only on the evidence they were able to collect, but also on the insights it enabled them to reach based on their knowledge and experience.

A key judgment isn’t the same as a jury verdict. A jury verdict is based solely on the evidence presented to it. In a murder trial, unless the prosecutors can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty, you must vote for acquittal. But in a National Intelligence Estimate, you reach a key judgment by starting with the evidence, then combining it with your own knowledge and experience to reach a conclusion.

Precisely because key judgments go beyond evidence, an intelligence service must be trusted by policymakers to be effective. Policymakers may not always like what they’re told—as when the obvious implication of a National Intelligence Estimate is that a favorite policy is heading for catastrophe—but if they trust the intelligence service, they will know that what they’ve been told is likely true. And this trust needs to be earned.

This is how it was during the Reagan administration, because ev­eryone from the President on down knew perfectly well that the intelligence official who not only had read the final version of an Estimate and signed off on it—but also played a major role in writing it—was the CIA director himself. Like every other member of the cabinet, Bill Casey was a busy man. But to Casey, being in charge of our intelligence service meant more than merely being its top administrator and dealing with budgets and bureaucracies. It meant that he himself was our country’s top intelligence analyst. When the final draft of an Estimate landed on his desk—more precisely, when I walked into his office and handed it to him—Casey would take that draft, pick up a pen and a yellow legal pad, and go through it word by word.

Sometimes he made a change that clarified a sentence. Other times he asked a question that forced us to go back and re-think what we’d written. When that happened, we either changed the draft or asked to meet with Casey to try and persuade him that the original version was better. He would listen and then make his decision. All of us who worked closely with Bill Casey—he insisted that everyone, including the CIA’s most junior analysts, call him Bill—were astounded by the amount of time he devoted to getting the final draft of an Estimate, or the final version of the President’s Daily Brief, just right. He did this by sitting quietly in his office, reading, writing, and—something that so few officials in Washington, D.C. set aside the time to do—thinking.