Former Top State Department Official Thomas Fingar Explains Intelligence-Gathering Methods

Sep 25, 2015

Most of the information in the intelligence world is unclassified.

That may seem counterintuitive, but longtime intelligence analyst Thomas Fingar says the whole point of intelligence is to aid decision-makers.

“It's not giving them what they want, it's giving them what the analysts that they are working with feels they need - if they think that their understanding is incomplete or inaccurate to help them to understand how to put it in perspective and the like. So it's influenced by the policy agenda,” Fingar said.

He’s had a long career in foreign affairs. The Cornell and Stanford graduate has taught at the university level, worked with the National Intelligence Council, and served as the Assistant Secretary of State that oversees the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. His book Reducing Uncertainty: Intelligence Analysis and National Security explores what intelligence analysts do and why they do it.

Read The First Chapter Of Fingar’s Book Reducing Uncertainty

The collection of data depends on the needs of the person receiving it, Fingar told World Views host Suzette Grillot. In the American government, policy is everything, and that’s still true in the intelligence community. Analysts are not allowed to be partisan, but the assignments they are given and the questions asked are typically shaped around policy agenda.

Fingar worked with the Bureau of Intelligence and Research to prepare the now infamous Iraq Weapons of Mass Destruction National Intelligence Estimates. Analysts received harsh criticism for supposedly spreading misinformation about WMD in Iraq. According to Fingar, the issue with National Intelligence Estimates comes down to the question being asked.

“The question was, 'Give us a bill of particulars of all that is known, of all that has been reported about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.' That's very different than a question that is 'do you think he has reconstituted? What do you think he has?',” Fingar said. “The question shapes the answer to this. The process by which estimates are produced get the question right.”

Fingar said estimates came from a time when agencies did not communicate as well as they do now. They were an easy way to gather generalized information from several areas. Now, estimates only represent a small part of data collection.

“You try to reduce uncertainty, add to clarity by asking the right questions and bringing to bare the right information and acknowledging analytic differences,” Fingar said.

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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Thomas Fingar, welcome to World Views.

FINGAR: Glad to be here.

GRILLOT: So Thomas, you've had a long career in the field of foreign affairs, Foreign Service Officer, a lot of background and experience in the intelligence world. Of course, many of us are always curious about the intelligence world. Much of what we know about the intelligence community comes from watching television or film: 007 or whatever. So inherently that is an area of work that is very secretive, clearly. There's not much we can know about it. There are a lot of things that go on that we don't know and understand. So tell us first of all how can we know, what do we know, and how can we know much about the intelligence community? How can we study it? You've written a book about it. Tell us a little bit about what we can know.

FINGAR: Well actually there's a great deal that one can know. That some of the collection methods, the very very small percentage of activity classified as covert action, is secretive and properly stays secret for a very long time. The analytic products that are done are born classified no matter what the source of information, because otherwise they would be the official views of the United States government, and the whole purpose of intelligence is to provide information and insight that will inform the decision making process. If those views, those judgments about the intentions and the actions of other countries or particular leaders were to be made public, you're not going to get a frank assessment.

GRILLOT: So, tell us a little bit more about collection methods. I'm particularly interested in something you said in your book in particular, Reducing Uncertainty: Intelligence Analysis and National Security, that the intelligence community can be affected by the political context and that that then shapes what they do. To me it seems like intelligence should be the gathering of the situation, describing a situation, gathering of the facts if you will. How is it that politics comes into play and influences how intelligence analysts go about collecting information and then using it after they've analyzed it?

FINGAR: The starting point for me is that intelligence is a support function in the United States government. It's not a policy making function. It supports those who make policy decisions. Collection wise, it vacuums up a lot of information. In theory it has access to and collects all of the information that are collected by academics, journalists working on a subject. Most of what is collected is open and available. It also has access to diplomatic reporting, adduce reporting, and it has the ability to go in search of information either through open polling data, diplomatic questions of foreign counterparts where they know they are speaking to the United States government or clandestine collection where you have a source you're intercepting - a relatively small percentage of the total. The idea is to gather as much information as one can on the subject. It isn't simply a matter of collect all the information in the world and sort through it and see what it has to say. It's support for American policy and the problems that are vexing, troubling U.S. decision makers, executive or occasionally legislative branch. What the intelligence community goes after is driven by by a substantial extent by what the policy issues are. It is not academic research where you explore the questions, where you know you have enough information or it's just intriguing to one and there are no time limits on it. This is information and analysis with a goal, and the goal is to provide informed, insightful, timely and targeted input that gets at the needs, the concerns of policy makers. It's not giving them what they want, it's giving them what the analysts that they are working with feels they need - if they think that their understanding is incomplete or inaccurate to help them to understand how to put it in perspective and the like. So it's influenced by the policy agenda. The policy agenda is influenced by where an administration is in its term, what the legislative calendar is, what the objectives are being pursued. It's not pandering to give them the answers they want, it's to work on the issues that they think they need to address.

GRILLOT: I like how you put that it's a process of vacuuming up a lot of information and that it's influenced clearly by a policy agenda and has certain goals. Might this influence then, because I think about gathering information and then sometimes you have to interpret what that information means and what's important and what isn't and the outcome is I might focus on some things and not on others. I assume that this is true for intelligence analysts as well, and that, as you go through this process of gathering information, analyzing it that what comes out on the other side is that perhaps you've emphasized certain things like threats for example, as opposed to emphasizing areas where we can overcome problems or opportunities to address threats. Is that an accurate portrayal of that?

FINGAR: Mostly, but not entirely. The tasks of intelligence, as I and many others interpret them, are three. One is to anticipate threats, provide warning, ideally provide strategic warning, by which I mean alert policy makers while they have time to do something about the problem. It does very little good to tell people in 20 seconds there's going to be a problem - so looking out to anticipate where events are headed, what is driving them and where intervention might be helpful. A second is to reduce uncertainty. The issues that policy makers grapple with most of the time are very complex and the short time frames that are involved that if it's a problem and they wish they knew 20 things about it and think they know three, if you can provide input on any of those 17 others, you've helped. You've reduced the possibility space. You can say 'this is still possible but very unlikely because...' or 'these are more likely because...' So you help increase their understanding of the issue, how comfortable they are as they make a decision. The more neglected responsibility is to identify opportunities, opportunities for policy intervention to achieve a particular goal. This is tricky because the intelligence community enjoined, prohibited by law from making policy recommendations and from directly commenting on U.S. policy. If you identify an opportunity, that comes pretty close to saying the current policy of the United States might be changed. So there's a reticence from the intelligence side to do that. There is great receptivity from the policy side. I would love to have a dollar for every time a policy maker said to me, one way or the other, all you guys ever bring me are problems. Why can't you ever bring me an opportunity?

GRILLOT: But yet it's difficult to do that because of the change that's involved perhaps.

FINGAR: It is difficult to do it because an opportunity to do what? As soon as you get into the do what, if it is a part of the policy agenda of the official the administration, then you are supporting promoting policy in a way that is outside the bounds that have been set.

GRILLOT: Rather than analysis, providing just the analysis.

FINGAR: It makes the analyst appear to perhaps be not objective, to have a special agenda.

GRILLOT: Well I want to ask a question about the National Intelligence Estimates. You've written about this in your book. If I recall correctly these intelligence estimates became quite famous or infamous shall we say during the days of providing information leading up to the war in Iraq or prior to 9/11 really. I mean there was some National Intelligence Estimates that were reportedly been ignored or overlooked or hadn't really perhaps made the case strongly enough about the threat that we were facing prior to 9/11 and then the way in which they were used in the coming months and years if I remember correctly. Tell us a little bit about these estimates and how useful they are in providing the kind of information that our leaders need to make decisions on day-to-day issues but also to prevent hopefully really important things from happening like 9/11/2001.

FINGAR: National Intelligence Estimates represent one kind, a very small minority of the analytic products of the intelligence community, even the analytic products of the National Intelligence Council. The genesis of estimates and of the National Intelligence Council dates from an era when the constituent agencies were more isolated separate, independent than they are today. So the National Intelligence Estimate was an organized effort to draw upon the expertise and the insights of all of the relevant components of the intelligence community. It was one of the few ways that you would assemble all of the normal suspects on an issue and have them work on that collaboratively. In the years since intelligence reform, which is to say of the last decade, interaction among analysts from all of the agencies is the norm. So intelligence estimates are just one form. They often are requested by officials who want to have the best judgment, the consensus judgment or to know what the alternate judgments are of analysts working an issue or on an issue that is coming up for decision. We haven't looked at that in a systematic way. We ought to do so because either analysts or policy makers are uncomfortable making statements that are based on now dated information or analytic judgments. After the Iraq WMD estimate, the infamous flawed document which I am in part responsible, I represented the Bureau of Intelligence and Research even though we were the dissenting agency on that part of this process. Estimates became a political stick in partisan politics in Congress versus the executive branch. You didn't ask for National Intelligence Estimate or didn't think one was necessary or the White House didn't think one was necessary or we want to have the judgment address our question. What question is asked, is the same in the academic realm, determines the focus of what the answer is. The Iraq estimate for example, the question was 'give us a bill of particulars of all that is known of all that has been reported about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.' That's very different than a question that is 'do you think he has reconstituted?' What do you think he has?' The question shapes the answer to this. The process by which estimates are produced get the question right. What's the question that if you can answer it gives you the most insight into a particular problem? Do you have the answers to the prior questions that you would need? Do you have the information that you would need to answer that question in the time available? If not, can you get the information in order to meet the deadline? So it's not an open ended I'll-write-a-dissertation-on-this however long it takes. You've got two weeks. You've got two months. So you try to reduce uncertainty, add to clarity by asking the right questions and bringing to bare the right information and acknowledging analytic differences.

GRILLOT: Well I think you've painted a very interesting picture for us where we've gone from perhaps thinking about the intelligence world being so secretive we can't know much about it to what we do know is that's it's very complicated and that it isn't always right. Sometimes it's flawed, and sometimes it's pointed and directed in certain ways. But nonetheless, Thomas Fingar, thank you very much.
FINGAR: Thank you very much for the opportunity.

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