Myths vs. Realities: How Private Intel Firms Perpetuate Myths

This is the second in a series of posts on myths vs. realities in the world of private intelligence and geopolitical risk. If you're new to the site, you may want to start with the Glossary and the first post in this series, on the Private Intel Cycle (scroll down). 

In the previous post, I discussed some of the many myths regarding private intelligence firms' capabilities. It is my firm belief that many of these myths prevent the industry from being understood by clients, and keep good analysts from getting the resources and skills to do valuable, useful work. To a great extent, these private intel firms actively perpetuate many of these myths, giving prospective clients the impression that they're capable of doing more than they can and are actually doing in the production of the "deliverable” or what’s often just a PDF worth several thousand dollars. Given that many clients understand the intelligence business through the lens of James Bond, 24 and Homeland, they can be easy to persuade and awe with impressive-sounding spy terms. Some of the ways that firms do this is through their structures, branding, and marketing materials. Let’s look at a few examples of ways that firms perpetuate these myths: 

The structures/marketing materials: You've all seen the impressive, low light photos of countless "Operations Centers," with the semi-circular desks positioned under large screens. There are no windows and everyone is pretty pale and serious-looking. Each person has 2-3 screens, and they're clacking away on their keyboards while wearing headsets. Some have remarked that these centers look like NASA mission control, promoting an image of 24’s CTU- secret people planning secret things, in secret lairs.  Sure, that makes it sound and look impressive, but "operations" is a terrible misnomer for the passive monitoring that goes on in these low lit, often windowless bunkers. They're not planning covert actions there; they're checking secret “sources” using “proprietary methodology.” These "sources" aren't collectors in the field, they're just media like Twitter and CNN, requiring none of the tradecraft that the IC uses to develop and run a source network.  A more accurate name for such a place would be "Monitoring Center," but it sure doesn't sound as awesome.    

The branding: The private intelligence industry loves to cloak its work in jargon, much of it borrowed, appropriately or not, from the military and intelligence community. Everyone at a private intel firm is an “intelligence analyst” even though many of them couldn’t tell you the parts of the intelligence cycle. It’s a handy answer for Washington D.C.'s most popular/infamous question - "So, what do you do?" and the interlocutor is nearly always impressed by the response, especially if delivered sotto voce in a dark corner of a bar. One of the most commonly borrowed terms is "sitreps," or situation reports, which tell the what, who, where, how and why of a development. These sitreps are typically nothing more than a basic description resulting from basic Internet research and passive monitoring, and rarely includes analysis of detailed local field reports, as the name implies. Another commonly misused term is "red team” and DC is seemingly full of them. The term originates in adversarial training, intended to describe a unit trained to think from the enemy's perspective and operate using their capabilities. In practice, the term "red team" as used in the private intel industry can apply to just about any basic analytic element, as if saying "hey, what do you think President X was thinking when s/he did this?” counts as analyzing a situation from another perspective. Surprise! It doesn't. Red teaming requires training, not just the ability to pretend you know what your enemy is thinking. What many of these teams do is more akin to writing fan fiction. But of course "red team" sounds more spy-tastic, even if they consistently fail to live up to the name.

Finally, the industry’s original jargon sin is the use of the term "strategy." Everyone is a "strategist," despite routinely betraying the fact that they don't know the difference between tactics and strategy. A bombing is not strategic- a bombing is a tactic used to advance a strategy (inciting terror), which is designed to achieve an objective (undermining the government, etc.). Here’s a tip: If a company doesn't have "strategy" or "strategic" in the name, it likely does better strategic consulting than those who do. It's like the Democratic People's Republic- neither democratic, nor a republic. 

The point I’m trying to make here is that private intel firms are doing a disservice to themselves and their clients by perpetuating myths which skew the work they do. They keep clients from better understanding the value private intelligence analysts could provide, if given the adequate training, skills and resources necessary for meeting client needs. The private intelligence industry fills an important and unique need for clients, which deserves to be recognized and understood. Its value it not in being watered-down and only just IC-esque, with borrowed marketing, branding and jargon. Ultimately, private intel firms succeed by understanding client needs and filling them, not by masquerading as private spy firms, then being upset that clients don't understand or value their work. I'll share some of my ideas on how to accomplish this in a future post. 

Check back next Tuesday for a post on bias and groupthink in the private intelligence industry.