The Business of Intelligence is Not Business

From Diogenes

Here we go again.  The Administration has announced the creation of the White House Office of American Innovation, tasked with crafting ideas to reshape the federal bureaucracy to make it leaner and more effective.  For more details, see and

The organization will be run by an individual whose sole credential is being the boss’s son-in-law (Hmm.  Welcome to a sure-fail principle of human resource management from the business world.  I’d be more comfortable if he was ever in a job from which he could get fired.).

I won’t presume to comment upon the applicability of business principles to the entire federal government, whose raison d’etre is not to make money.  (Plus we’ve seen this movie before.  New administrations try to give the impression that they’re offering something entirely new.  This initiative is reminiscent of Al Gore’s Reinventing Government in the 1990s.  You probably have your own views on its success.)  I’ll stick to how this may affect intelligence issues, based upon previous efforts to impose business principles.

In the 2000s, an outside business executive introduced to the CIA the Working Capital Fund, by which the administrative budget (for things like printing, logistics, and the like) was taken from the managers of these functions and placed in the hands of those who engaged in the formal mission of the Agency—providing intelligence.  If a “customer” could get an administrative service for less on the outside market, one could purchase it there.  The Working Capital Fund created a caste system of second-class citizens, beholden to analysts, ops officers, and scientists, who no longer were colleagues, but supplicants.  The system led to massive shifts in personnel, loss of expertise, and plummeting morale.

What happens if we spread this idea to the Intelligence Community as a whole?  Rather than collaborating and integrating efforts toward a common vision and purpose, as has been the case in recent years, it will again create competition across and within IC member agencies.  This in turn will lead to reluctance to share information and insights, again, across and within agencies.  And we all remember where that led—Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and other surprises which could have been avoided with adequate intelligence sharing and dissemination.

Part of the Administration’s plan is to provide products earlier and cheaper (“more securely”—always a concern for intelligence officers, goes unmentioned).  For intelligence officers overseas, this idea generates pressures to “pitch” a developmental—a potential source who is being wooed by a case officer—too early, because of demands by the business mentality to get things done now.  Development of the enduring trust between case officer and asset (overseas spy) simply cannot be rushed without damage to what is intended to be a long-term relationship.  “Seeding” operations—establishing assets who might not be called upon immediately, but who are invaluable when needed—would fall off the to-do list because they do not add to this quarter’s bottom line.

How one determines the value of an intelligence product goes unanswered.  What is the value of a piece of intelligence that shapes a policymaker’s thinking, that provides warning of a crisis that can be prevented, that materially contributes to the national security, that saves lives—American and foreign?

Who pays for these intelligence products?  Intelligence has multiple customers at numerous levels—White House, Cabinet, other federal, state, local, and tribal organizations.  Will lower-level organizations—which might be able to use the intelligence directly—have the financial wherewithal to purchase intelligence insights when the proposed budget includes massive cuts?

Intelligence officers—and I suspect many other government workers—are not motivated by dollars.  At CIA, the key motivations are mission, service to country, pride in America. We’re often told that we can make far more money in the private sector.  Maybe we can, but the psychic benefits of making a difference and making history far outweigh financial considerations.  Intelligence needs the type of person who puts country first; sound business principles put profit first.  Trying to create a money-based intelligence bottom line misses the point of intelligence and of service.

Some individuals have monetized intelligence products.  They’re called hostile intelligence services, who try to buy American national security secrets from spies.  Now that’s an encouraging business model.

3 Replies to “The Business of Intelligence is Not Business”

  1. Trump and Kushner have spent their lives making money off of the people. The concept of serving the people will forever escape them. They have no idea what motivates those who would choose a high-stress, low-remuneration job over life in a gilded tower. They are not interested in what makes providing intelligence or other government services different from producing widgets. They only care about their way of doing things and they will ram it down people’s throats. They will distract employees from their core mission and push them to produce evidence of their own success. Yes, I’ve see it before, and my guess is that it will be much worse this time.

  2. Some processes can certainly be made better, we have all experienced that. However, I too doubt that Kushner et al are coming at this with the right mindset. I hope that the government participants can steer this in the right direction.

    1. Actually, there seems to be a misunderstanding when someone in the business community thinks of
      business intelligence vs intelligence. Most for profit organizations put together business models, use cases, to look at a particular budget items for ROI (is it worth the investment for what you’re gonna get out of it, usually associated with a cost, dollar figure. The agency does that as well but mist of the time it is human capital. The dollar gap is where the major disconnect between “business intelligence” and intelligence comes into play. The agency, I would assume, has similar constraints-but not at the same level. Public companies, have shareholder, stakeholder pressure, not congressional oversight. There is a huge difference between the justification for a particular mission within the agency and a publicly traded company worring about a chapter 11 bankruptcy due to over spending associated with trying to bag an elephant. The importance of the business of “business intelligence” drives balance sheets, income statements, profit and loss. If the business model projects incorrect forward looking financials, board members could be held accountable for their fiduciary responsibilities. Directors and officers could be criminally liable but all of South East Asia won’t crumble.

      Now, when you say “business intelligence”, “predictive analytics” to someone who isn’t thinking stakeholder value, in relation to compensation or profit & loss, it’s a totally different metric.

      There is a big difference between intelligence “if I don’t get this right”, a sovereign could attack the United States, an agent could die” or we could have world wide armageddon, and “if I don’t get this right “we will have to do a reforcast”.

      Business people understand profit & loss spreadsheets, not, “people die”. The implications of the business intelligence isn’t in the same league as intelligence necessary to “save the world”, which motivates many within the agency to become passionate about their jobs.
      Having done both “business intelligence” and “intelligence”, outside of the agency, but still related to business, I have noticed a polarizing separation between the two.
      The bottom line for one is totally different from the other.

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