Improving Intelligence Analysis at CIA:
Dick Heuer's Contribution to Intelligence Analysis
by Jack Davis1
I applaud CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence for making the work of Richards J. Heuer, Jr. on the psychology of intelligence analysis available to a new generation of intelligence practitioners and scholars.
Dick Heuer's ideas on how to improve analysis focus on helping analysts compensate for the human mind's limitations in dealing with complex problems that typically involve ambiguous information, multiple players, and fluid circumstances. Such multi-faceted estimative challenges have proliferated in the turbulent post-Cold War world.
Heuer's message to analysts can be encapsulated by quoting two sentences from Chapter 4 of this book:
Intelligence analysts should be self-conscious about their reasoning processes. They should think about how they make judgments and reach conclusions, not just about the judgments and conclusions themselves.
Heuer's ideas are applicable to any analytical endeavor. In this Introduction, I have concentrated on his impact--and that of other pioneer thinkers in the intelligence analysis field--at CIA, because that is the institution that Heuer and his predecessors, and I myself, know best, having spent the bulk of our intelligence careers there.
Leading Contributors to Quality of Analysis
Intelligence analysts, in seeking to make sound judgments, are always under challenge from the complexities of the issues they address and from the demands made on them for timeliness and volume of production. Four Agency individuals over the decades stand out for having made major contributions on how to deal with these challenges to the quality of analysis.
My short list of the people who have had the greatest positive impact on CIA analysis consists of Sherman Kent, Robert Gates, Douglas MacEachin, and Richards Heuer. My selection methodology was simple. I asked myself: Whose insights have influenced me the most during my four decades of practicing, teaching, and writing about analysis?
Sherman Kent's pathbreaking contributions to analysis cannot be done justice in a couple of paragraphs, and I refer readers to fuller treatments elsewhere.2 Here I address his general legacy to the analytical profession.
Kent, a professor of European history at Yale, worked in the Research and Analysis branch of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. He wrote an influential book, Strategic Intelligence for American World Power, while at the National War College in the late 1940s. He served as Vice Chairman and then as Chairman of the DCI's Board of National Estimates from 1950 to 1967.
Kent's greatest contribution to the quality of analysis was to define an honorable place for the analyst--the thoughtful individual "applying the instruments of reason and the scientific method"--in an intelligence world then as now dominated by collectors and operators. In a second (1965) edition of Strategic Intelligence, Kent took account of the coming computer age as well as human and technical collectors in proclaiming the centrality of the analyst:
Whatever the complexities of the puzzles we strive to solve and whatever the sophisticated techniques we may use to collect the pieces and store them, there can never be a time when the thoughtful man can be supplanted as the intelligence device supreme.
More specifically, Kent advocated application of the techniques of "scientific" study of the past to analysis of complex ongoing situations and estimates of likely future events. Just as rigorous "impartial" analysis could cut through the gaps and ambiguities of information on events long past and point to the most probable explanation, he contended, the powers of the critical mind could turn to events that had not yet transpired to determine the most probable developments.3
To this end, Kent developed the concept of the analytic pyramid, featuring a wide base of factual information and sides comprised of sound assumptions, which pointed to the most likely future scenario at the apex. 4
In his proselytizing and in practice, Kent battled against bureaucratic and ideological biases, which he recognized as impediments to sound analysis, and against imprecise estimative terms that he saw as obstacles to conveying clear messages to readers. Although he was aware of what is now called cognitive bias, his writings urge analysts to "make the call" without much discussion of how limitations of the human mind were to be overcome.
Not many Agency analysts read Kent nowadays. But he had a profound impact on earlier generations of analysts and managers, and his work continues to exert an indirect influence among practitioners of the analytic profession.
Bob Gates served as Deputy Director of Central Intelligence (1986-1989) and as DCI (1991-1993). But his greatest impact on the quality of CIA analysis came during his 1982-1986 stint as Deputy Director for Intelligence (DDI).
Initially schooled as a political scientist, Gates earned a Ph.D. in Soviet studies at Georgetown while working as an analyst at CIA. As a member of the National Security Council staff during the 1970s, he gained invaluable insight into how policymakers use intelligence analysis. Highly intelligent, exceptionally hard-working, and skilled in the bureaucratic arts, Gates was appointed DDI by DCI William Casey in good part because he was one of the few insiders Casey found who shared the DCI's views on what Casey saw as glaring deficiencies of Agency analysts.5 Few analysts and managers who heard it have forgotten Gates' blistering criticism of analytic performance in his 1982 "inaugural" speech as DDI.
Most of the public commentary on Gates and Agency analysis concerned charges of politicization levied against him, and his defense against such charges, during Senate hearings for his 1991 confirmation as DCI. The heat of this debate was slow to dissipate among CIA analysts, as reflected in the pages of Studies in Intelligence, the Agency journal founded by Sherman Kent in the 1950s.6
I know of no written retrospective on Gates' contribution to Agency analysis. My insights into his ideas about analysis came mostly through an arms-length collaboration in setting up and running an Agency training course entitled "Seminar on Intelligence Successes and Failures."7 During his tenure as DDI, only rarely could you hold a conversation with analysts or managers without picking up additional viewpoints, thoughtful and otherwise, on what Gates was doing to change CIA analysis.
Gates's ideas for overcoming what he saw as insular, flabby, and incoherent argumentation featured the importance of distinguishing between what analysts know and what they believe--that is, to make clear what is "fact" (or reliably reported information) and what is the analyst's opinion (which had to be persuasively supported with evidence). Among his other tenets were the need to seek the views of non-CIA experts, including academic specialists and policy officials, and to present alternate future scenarios.
Gates's main impact, though, came from practice--from his direct involvement in implementing his ideas. Using his authority as DDI, he reviewed critically almost all in-depth assessments and current intelligence articles prior to publication. With help from his deputy and two rotating assistants from the ranks of rising junior managers, Gates raised the standards for DDI review dramatically--in essence, from "looks good to me" to "show me your evidence."
As the many drafts Gates rejected were sent back to managers who had approved them--accompanied by the DDI's comments about inconsistency, lack of clarity, substantive bias, and poorly supported judgments--the whole chain of review became much more rigorous. Analysts and their managers raised their standards to avoid the pain of DDI rejection. Both career advancement and ego were at stake.
The rapid and sharp increase in attention paid by analysts and managers to the underpinnings for their substantive judgments probably was without precedent in the Agency's history. The longer term benefits of the intensified review process were more limited, however, because insufficient attention was given to clarifying tradecraft practices that would promote analytic soundness. More than one participant in the process observed that a lack of guidelines for meeting Gates's standards led to a large amount of "wheel-spinning."
Gates's impact, like Kent's, has to be seen on two planes. On the one hand, little that Gates wrote on the craft of analysis is read these days. But even though his pre-publication review process was discontinued under his successors, an enduring awareness of his standards still gives pause at jumping to conclusions to many managers and analysts who experienced his criticism first-hand.
Doug MacEachin, DDI from 1993 to 1996, sought to provide an essential ingredient for ensuring implementation of sound analytic standards: corporate tradecraft standards for analysts. This new tradecraft was aimed in particular at ensuring that sufficient attention would be paid to cognitive challenges in assessing complex issues.
MacEachin set out his views on Agency analytical faults and correctives in The Tradecraft of Analysis: Challenge and Change in the CIA.8 My commentary on his contributions to sound analysis is also informed by a series of exchanges with him in 1994 and 1995.
MacEachin's university major was economics, but he also showed great interest in philosophy. His Agency career--like Gates'--included an extended assignment to a policymaking office. He came away from this experience with new insights on what constitutes "value-added" intelligence usable by policymakers. Subsequently, as CIA's senior manager on arms control issues, he dealt regularly with a cadre of tough-minded policy officials who let him know in blunt terms what worked as effective policy support and what did not.
By the time MacEachin became DDI in 1993, Gates's policy of DDI front-office pre-publication review of nearly all DI analytical studies had been discontinued. MacEachin took a different approach; he read--mostly on weekends--and reflected on numerous already-published DI analytical papers. He did not like what he found. In his words, roughly a third of the papers meant to assist the policymaking process had no discernible argumentation to bolster the credibility of intelligence judgments, and another third suffered from flawed argumentation. This experience, along with pressures on CIA for better analytic performance in the wake of alleged "intelligence failures" concerning Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, prompted his decision to launch a major new effort to raise analytical standards.9
MacEachin advocated an approach to structured argumentation called "linchpin analysis," to which he contributed muscular terms designed to overcome many CIA professionals' distaste for academic nomenclature. The standard academic term "key variables" became drivers. "Hypotheses" concerning drivers became linchpins--assumptions underlying the argument--and these had to be explicitly spelled out. MacEachin also urged that greater attention be paid to analytical processes for alerting policymakers to changes in circumstances that would increase the likelihood of alternative scenarios.
MacEachin thus worked to put in place systematic and transparent standards for determining whether analysts had met their responsibilities for critical thinking. To spread understanding and application of the standards, he mandated creation of workshops on linchpin analysis for managers and production of a series of notes on analytical tradecraft. He also directed that the DI's performance on tradecraft standards be tracked and that recognition be given to exemplary assessments. Perhaps most ambitious, he saw to it that instruction on standards for analysis was incorporated into a new training course, "Tradecraft 2000." Nearly all DI managers and analysts attended this course during 1996-97.
As of this writing (early 1999), the long-term staying power of MacEachin's tradecraft initiatives is not yet clear. But much of what he advocated has endured so far. Many DI analysts use variations on his linchpin concept to produce soundly argued forecasts. In the training realm, "Tradecraft 2000" has been supplanted by a new course that teaches the same concepts to newer analysts. But examples of what MacEachin would label as poorly substantiated analysis are still seen. Clearly, ongoing vigilance is needed to keep such analysis from finding its way into DI products.
Dick Heuer was--and is--much less well known within the CIA than Kent, Gates, and MacEachin. He has not received the wide acclaim that Kent enjoyed as the father of professional analysis, and he has lacked the bureaucratic powers that Gates and MacEachin could wield as DDIs. But his impact on the quality of Agency analysis arguably has been at least as important as theirs.
Heuer received a degree in philosophy in 1950 from Williams College, where, he notes, he became fascinated with the fundamental epistemological question, "What is truth and how can we know it?" In 1951, while a graduate student at the University of California's Berkeley campus, he was recruited as part of the CIA's buildup during the Korean War. The recruiter was Richard Helms, OSS veteran and rising player in the Agency's clandestine service. Future DCI Helms, according to Heuer, was looking for candidates for CIA employment among recent graduates of Williams College, his own alma mater. Heuer had an added advantage as a former editor of the college's newspaper, a position Helms had held some 15 years earlier.10
In 1975, after 24 years in the Directorate of Operations, Heuer moved to the DI. His earlier academic interest in how we know the truth was rekindled by two experiences. One was his involvement in the controversial case of Soviet KGB defector Yuriy Nosenko. The other was learning new approaches to social science methodology while earning a Master's degree in international relations at the University of Southern California's European campus.
At the time he retired in 1979, Heuer headed the methodology unit in the DI's political analysis office. He originally prepared most of the chapters in this book as individual articles between 1978 and 1986; many of them were written for the DI after his retirement. He has updated the articles and prepared some new material for inclusion in this book.
Heuer's Central Ideas
Dick Heuer's writings make three fundamental points about the cognitive challenges intelligence analysts face:
- The mind is poorly "wired" to deal effectively with both inherent uncertainty (the natural fog surrounding complex, indeterminate intelligence issues) and induced uncertainty (the man-made fog fabricated by denial and deception operations).
- Even increased awareness of cognitive and other "unmotivated" biases, such as the tendency to see information confirming an already-held judgment more vividly than one sees "disconfirming" information, does little by itself to help analysts deal effectively with uncertainty.
- Tools and techniques that gear the analyst's mind to apply higher levels of critical thinking can substantially improve analysis on complex issues on which information is incomplete, ambiguous, and often deliberately distorted. Key examples of such intellectual devices include techniques for structuring information, challenging assumptions, and exploring alternative interpretations.
The following passage from Heuer's 1980 article entitled "Perception: Why Can't We See What Is There to be Seen?" shows that his ideas were similar to or compatible with MacEachin's concepts of linchpin analysis.
Given the difficulties inherent in the human processing of complex information, a prudent management system should:
- Encourage products that (a) clearly delineate their assumptions and chains of inference and (b) specify the degree and source of the uncertainty involved in the conclusions.
- Emphasize procedures that expose and elaborate alternative points of view--analytic debates, devil's advocates, interdisciplinary brainstorming, competitive analysis, intra-office peer review of production, and elicitation of outside expertise.
Heuer emphasizes both the value and the dangers of mental models, or mind-sets. In the book's opening chapter, entitled "Thinking About Thinking," he notes that:
[Analysts] construct their own version of "reality" on the basis of information provided by the senses, but this sensory input is mediated by complex mental processes that determine which information is attended to, how it is organized, and the meaning attributed to it. What people perceive, how readily they perceive it, and how they process this information after receiving it are all strongly influenced by past experience, education, cultural values, role requirements, and organizational norms, as well as by the specifics of the information received.
This process may be visualized as perceiving the world through a lens or screen that channels and focuses and thereby may distort the images that are seen. To achieve the clearest possible image...analysts need more than information...They also need to understand the lenses through which this information passes. These lenses are known by many terms--mental models, mind-sets, biases, or analytic assumptions.
In essence, Heuer sees reliance on mental models to simplify and interpret reality as an unavoidable conceptual mechanism for intelligence analysts--often useful, but at times hazardous. What is required of analysts, in his view, is a commitment to challenge, refine, and challenge again their own working mental models, precisely because these steps are central to sound interpretation of complex and ambiguous issues.
Throughout the book, Heuer is critical of the orthodox prescription of "more and better information" to remedy unsatisfactory analytic performance. He urges that greater attention be paid instead to more intensive exploitation of information already on hand, and that in so doing, analysts continuously challenge and revise their mental models.
Heuer sees mirror-imaging as an example of an unavoidable cognitive trap. No matter how much expertise an analyst applies to interpreting the value systems of foreign entities, when the hard evidence runs out the tendency to project the analyst's own mind-set takes over. In Chapter 4, Heuer observes:
To see the options faced by foreign leaders as these leaders see them, one must understand their values and assumptions and even their misperceptions and misunderstandings. Without such insight, interpreting foreign leaders' decisions or forecasting future decisions is often nothing more than partially informed speculation. Too frequently, foreign behavior appears "irrational" or "not in their own best interest." Such conclusions often indicate analysts have projected American values and conceptual frameworks onto the foreign leaders and societies, rather than understanding the logic of the situation as it appears to them.
To offset the risks accompanying analysts' inevitable recourse to mirror-imaging, Heuer suggests looking upon analysts' calculations about foreign beliefs and behavior as hypotheses to be challenged. Alternative hypotheses need to be carefully considered--especially those that cannot be disproved on the basis of available information.
Heuer's concept of "Analysis of Competing Hypotheses" (ACH) is among his most important contributions to the development of an intelligence analysis methodology. At the core of ACH is the notion of competition among a series of plausible hypotheses to see which ones survive a gauntlet of testing for compatibility with available information. The surviving hypotheses--those that have not been disproved--are subjected to further testing. ACH, Heuer concedes, will not always yield the right answer. But it can help analysts overcome the cognitive limitations discussed in his book.
Some analysts who use ACH follow Heuer's full eight-step methodology. More often, they employ some elements of ACH--especially the use of available information to challenge the hypotheses that the analyst favors the most.
Denial and Deception
Heuer's path-breaking work on countering denial and deception (D&D) was not included as a separate chapter in this volume. But his brief references here are persuasive.
He notes, for example, that analysts often reject the possibility of deception because they see no evidence of it. He then argues that rejection is not justified under these circumstances. If deception is well planned and properly executed, one should not expect to see evidence of it readily at hand. Rejecting a plausible but unproven hypothesis too early tends to bias the subsequent analysis, because one does not then look for the evidence that might support it. The possibility of deception should not be rejected until it is disproved or, at least, until a systematic search for evidence has been made and none has been found.
Heuer's influence on analytic tradecraft began with his first articles. CIA officials who set up training courses in the 1980s as part of then-DDI Gates's quest for improved analysis shaped their lesson plans partly on the basis of Heuer's findings. Among these courses were a seminar on intelligence successes and failures and another on intelligence analysis. The courses influenced scores of DI analysts, many of whom are now in the managerial ranks. The designers and teachers of Tradecraft 2000 clearly were also influenced by Heuer, as reflected in reading selections, case studies, and class exercises.
Heuer's work has remained on reading lists and in lesson plans for DI training courses offered to all new analysts, as well as courses on warning analysis and on countering denial and deception. Senior analysts and managers who have been directly exposed to Heuer's thinking through his articles, or through training courses, continue to pass his insights on to newer analysts.
Heuer's advice to Agency leaders, managers, and analysts is pointed: To ensure sustained improvement in assessing complex issues, analysis must be treated as more than a substantive and organizational process. Attention also must be paid to techniques and tools for coping with the inherent limitations on analysts' mental machinery. He urges that Agency leaders take steps to:
- Establish an organizational environment that promotes and rewards the kind of critical thinking he advocates--or example, analysis on difficult issues that considers in depth a series of plausible hypotheses rather than allowing the first credible hypothesis to suffice.
- Expand funding for research on the role such mental processes play in shaping analytical judgments. An Agency that relies on sharp cognitive performance by its analysts must stay abreast of studies on how the mind works--i.e., on how analysts reach judgments.
- Foster development of tools to assist analysts in assessing information. On tough issues, they need help in improving their mental models and in deriving incisive findings from information they already have; they need such help at least as much as they need more information.
I offer some concluding observations and recommendations, rooted in Heuer's findings and taking into account the tough tradeoffs facing intelligence professionals:
- Commit to a uniform set of tradecraft standards based on the insights in this book. Leaders need to know if analysts have done their cognitive homework before taking corporate responsibility for their judgments. Although every analytical issue can be seen as one of a kind, I suspect that nearly all such topics fit into about a dozen recurring patterns of challenge based largely on variations in substantive uncertainty and policy sensitivity. Corporate standards need to be established for each such category. And the burden should be put on managers to explain why a given analytical assignment requires deviation from the standards. I am convinced that if tradecraft standards are made uniform and transparent, the time saved by curtailing personalistic review of quick-turnaround analysis (e.g., "It reads better to me this way") could be "re-invested" in doing battle more effectively against cognitive pitfalls. ("Regarding point 3, let's talk about your assumptions.")
- Pay more honor to "doubt." Intelligence leaders and policymakers should, in recognition of the cognitive impediments to sound analysis, establish ground rules that enable analysts, after doing their best to clarify an issue, to express doubts more openly. They should be encouraged to list gaps in information and other obstacles to confident judgment. Such conclusions as "We do not know" or "There are several potentially valid ways to assess this issue" should be regarded as badges of sound analysis, not as dereliction of analytic duty.
- Find a couple of successors to Dick Heuer. Fund their research. Heed their findings.
1Jack Davis served with the Directorate of Intelligence (DI), the National Intelligence Council, and the Office of Training during his CIA career. He is now an independent contractor who specializes in developing and teaching analytic tradecraft. Among his publications is Uncertainty, Surprise, and Warning (1996).
2See, in particular, the editor's unclassified introductory essay and "Tribute" by Harold P. Ford in Donald P. Steury, Sherman Kent and the Board of National Estimates: Collected Essays (CIA, Center for the Study of Intelligence, 1994). Hereinafter cited as Steury, Kent.
3Sherman Kent, Writing History, second edition (1967). The first edition was published in 1941, when Kent was an assistant professor of history at Yale. In the first chapter, "Why History," he presented ideas and recommendations that he later adapted for intelligence analysis.
4Kent, "Estimates and Influence" (1968), in Steury, Kent.
5Casey, very early in his tenure as DCI (1981-1987), opined to me that the trouble with Agency analysts is that they went from sitting on their rear ends at universities to sitting on their rear ends at CIA, without seeing the real world.
6"The Gates Hearings: Politicization and Soviet Analysis at CIA", Studies in Intelligence (Spring 1994). "Communication to the Editor: The Gates Hearings: A Biased Account," Studies in Intelligence (Fall 1994).
7DCI Casey requested that the Agency's training office provide this seminar so that, at the least, analysts could learn from their own mistakes. DDI Gates carefully reviewed the statement of goals for the seminar, the outline of course units, and the required reading list.
8Unclassified paper published in 1994 by the Working Group on Intelligence Reform, which had been created in 1992 by the Consortium for the Study of Intelligence, Washington, DC.
9Discussion between MacEachin and the author of this Introduction, 1994.
10Letter to the author of this Introduction, 1998.