Dealing with Uncertainty & Intelligence

One of the current themes in the U.S. right now is uncertainty over election results and what plays out between November and January. There’s not just electoral uncertainty, but also uncertainty over civil unrest and disruption coming out of election results.

Luckily, intelligence reduces uncertainty about the future, so these are not impossible questions to answer.

Today, I’m going to write about how to deal with the two most frequent sources of uncertainty: Accuracy and Credibility of reporting. If you acknowledge that Intelligence Drives the Fight, then intelligence analysts are like the fuel filter of your engine. If you don’t learn how to identify the good, the bad, and the ugly, then you are going to put low grade fuel and particulates into your engine. It’s not going to drive as smoothly and as quickly as you need it to. Intelligence matters. Analysis matters.

ACCURACY: The first problem of uncertainty is accuracy. Intelligence analysts depend on reported information, whether that’s coming from HUMINT sources, SIGINT, OSINT, or some other source.

The analyst’s first job is reducing his own uncertainty by determining the accuracy of the reported information. Can this information be confirmed through other reporting? Can it be denied through other reporting? Is it consistent with what we know or believe to be true? Often, we can only ascribe some level of confidence in its veracity: this information is likely true, or unlikely to be true. There aren’t many slam dunks in intelligence.

CREDIBILITY: Another source of uncertainty that plagues analysis is the credibility of the source. What is the source’s reporting history? Does he have a history of providing reliable information? If so, then he has built credibility. If not, then he has no credibility, either through reporting falsely or not having any prior reporting. Once a source’s credibility can be established, the analyst can work towards reducing uncertainty.

INCOMPLETENESS: You may have a reliable source who’s reporting accurate, even precise, information, but maybe that information is incomplete in some areas. Maybe it’s incomplete in an area that really matters, such as the location of an enemy compound or position. This can lead to a great deal of uncertainty for an analyst when he has targeting assets in loiter or chomping at the bit to go hit the target. How else can this information be determined? Can we provide a best estimate, or a list of possible or likely locations in lieu of complete confirmation? That’s a question every good analyst eventually has to solve.

One reason why I suggest to students and readers/listeners to participate in a battle tracking exercise is because you learn very quickly that just because it’s reported doesn’t make the complete or even partial truth. While battle tracking riots, we routinely deal with erroneous and incomplete information. If we can’t determine the veracity of this information before passing it a decision-maker, then we aren’t doing our jobs. Despite the critics and haters, intelligence analysis really is a difficult job.

If you want to give this a go, fire up an online police scanner for the south side of Chicago on a Friday or Saturday night and open up Google Earth. Practice parsing the raw information that comes over the scanner and plotting it on the map. Get a feel for the ‘battle rhythm’. See how frequently you’re dealing with big question marks in reporting. Identify your intelligence gaps, or things you don’t know but need to. See how quickly the list of outstanding gaps stack up.

The time to practice this is now (or this weekend), ahead of what happens between November and January, by the way.

Author: Sam Culper
Former Intelligence NCO and intel contractor. OEF & OIF veteran. Bama alum. Marshall Tucker nationalism. Austin, Republic of Texas. @culper_intel on most social media platforms.

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