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Signals and Noise in Intelligence

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Signals and Noise in Intelligence

by G. Murphy Donovan

Download the Full Article: Signals and Noise in Intelligence

Media pundits have reduced the complex problems of tactical and strategic Intelligence to a kind of running joke. Failure to "connect the dots" is the common taunt. Such mindless euphemisms, when applied to national security analysis, reduce the signal/noise dilemma to a child's game. As a practical matter, conveying the correct signal to the correct receiver is the most difficult challenge in art, science, and especially, government. A signal is not singular. Indeed, signals are irrelevant without receivers. In similar veins; speakers require listeners, writers require readers, warnings require recognition, and analysis requires acceptance.

Many of the impediments to signals are internal to the Intelligence Community: this includes time honored vehicles like briefings and reports and less obvious barriers like structure, size, and politics. Intelligence collection and targeting systems operate efficiently today in real time. The strategic analysis process, however, does not provide a comparable return on investment.

Download the Full Article: Signals and Noise in Intelligence

G. Murphy Donovan is a Vietnam veteran, former senior USAF research fellow at the RAND Corp, and former Director for Research and Russian Studies for ACS/Intelligence, HQ USAF. Previous work has appeared in Studies in Intelligence, the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Parameters, and other national security publications.

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Dick Pickens (not verified)

Tue, 05/31/2011 - 11:32am

Gee, Murph, you sound a bit cynical about our esteemed political leadership. My experience, as an old intelligence guy (who has worked a few NIEs in my time) is that you are exactly right about the intelligence analytical process and its (regular) failure to convince decision-makers who have already maded up their minds.
Best wishes from your former co-briefer at PACAF some years ago.


Anonymous (not verified)

Fri, 08/27/2010 - 6:07pm

"The modern enemy is nimble, mobile, decentralized, economical, lean, mean, and effective. For the moment, the national security community that seeks to track this quarry is none of these."

This is a critical core comment-would be interesting to see any response to this---to some degree this was General Flynn was recently writing about.

Examples:---there is a distinct lack of willingness to discuss "conflict ecosystem"---can think of only one organization that really uses it and it is a consulting house---"open source warfare" as an evolutionary paradigm that goes along way in explaining the insurgent group development and evolution of IEDs but again largely ignored.

Then there is the recent quantum research into the ecosystems of insurgencies, but critized left and right about the numerical values used---nothing though was challegened on their results and then DARPAs response to the research---"well when we can close the equipment gap"---the research is running on laptops and DARPA must think one needs a room full of supercomputers to run a quantum research program.

If one is challenging the institutional thinking on something then those ideas, research, ect. are to be ignored why--because they just might in fact provide answers to presssing questions.

Tyrtaios (not verified)

Fri, 08/27/2010 - 11:51am

My computer won't let me access your article in PDF form at the moment, but of course, as a former senior fellow at RAND you would be familiar with the grand dame of analysts, Roberta Wohlstetter.

I found it amusing that having researched her book "Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision," using unclassified material, in which she stated the failure to discover the attack came not for a lack of pertinent information, but because of the over abundance of irrelevant information (signals and noise), the NSA held-up publication of the book for five years.

When she asked if she might take out any offending material, she was told she didn't have the clearance to read her own book!

An excellent reminder with "Signals and Noise in Intelligence" that more isn't always better - something I notice we apparently haven't learned yet, that the noise can drown-out the signal!