Shades of Gray: Releasing the Cognitive Binds that Blind Us

Patrick Hensley


The intelligence cycle has remained unchanged since its inception following the end of World War II (WWII). The threats faced by the United States Intelligence Community today are very different from the threats of the past. Unlike those in the intelligence environment during the Cold War, the threats of today often come from terrorist organizations with allegiance to no single nation, state, or specific location. These dynamic threats require enhanced intelligence analysis that takes into account for the limitations of human cognitive performance.

Intelligence analysis often reveals weak signals that can be difficult to discern. In hindsight, these weak signals are often identified as missed opportunities, which had they been recognized during the intelligence analysis process, could have provided the Intelligence Community with opportunities to mitigate the threat. This researcher’s hypothesis is that cognitive biases are mental roadblocks that prevent the identification of weak signals during the intelligence analysis process. This thesis presents research on human cognitive performance and decision making, defines the intelligence cycle, and explores the relationship between these topics.

One of the challenges of this research was the very nature of intelligence activities. The infrequent failures of intelligence analysis are often debated in publicly available information sources and later scrutinized by Senate subcommittees. Those very few intelligence failures are offset by the many successes that, based on the nature of intelligence and the classification of documents are difficult to document. The United States Intelligence Community is considered one of the most effective in the world, although sharing those intelligence successes with the public does not occur very often due to the sensitivity of its activities.

There is a significant amount of literature exploring cognitive bias, including books, journal articles, academic papers, and media articles. Those sources include literature from government organizations, the psychological and social sciences, academia, and the private sector. Many of these sources provide examples of the negative effects of cognitive bias and note the need to account for those influences.

Until recently, the Intelligence Community had very little literature related to cognitive bias and the effects on intelligence analysis. Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, there are now many sources available that reference the need to account for the influences of cognitive bias in any effective intelligence analysis strategy. Some of the most respected and recognized names in the Intelligence Community agree that the influences of cognitive bias on intelligence analysis are significant, and these subject matter experts have contributed to this research.

This thesis analyzes the recent terror attack in Benghazi against United States assets on September 11, 2012. The fatal mistakes can easily be correlated to a failure to recognize the effects of cognitive bias on intelligence analysis. Because of the many challenges in the Middle East, this thesis also includes a comparative study of the Israeli Intelligence Community. The use of a devil’s advocate office by the Israeli Intelligence Community is explored as a potential strategy that could be used by the United States Intelligence Community.

This research explores and identifies potential mitigation strategies could be employed by the Intelligence Community to address the effects of cognitive bias on the intelligence cycle. Some of these mitigation strategies have been available to the Intelligence Community for some time, and others are considered emerging strategies under development today. Those potential mitigation strategies are grouped under the headings of psychological, analytical, and technological strategies. Furthermore, they include providing intelligence analysts with critical thinking skills/analytic tradecraft to recognize cognitive bias, the value of alternative analysis/external analysis, the use of structured analytical techniques, the employment of teams of analysts as opposed to analysts working alone, and the use of emerging software programs.

This thesis posits that the intelligence cycle is influenced by cognitive bias. The research also supports the fact that humans do not have the ability to self-identify when those cognitive biases are influencing intelligence analysis and decision making. This is a significant concern for the Intelligence Community, which is tasked with providing the intelligence required to protect this country; however, the Intelligence Community has not formally recognized the fact that cognitive bias has an effect on intelligence analysis. This research discovered no evidence to support any encouraging changes in an attempt to mitigate those effects in the intelligence analysis process. In addition, the Intelligence Community continues to provide very little cognitive bias training to new intelligence analysts. Additionally, this researcher found no evidence of any recurring training for analysts regarding the effects of cognitive bias. This is a significant issue and should be of great concern to the Intelligence Community.

As a result of this research, recommendations include training intelligence analysts to recognize cognitive bias and develop strategies to address the effects, improving analyst critical thinking skills and analytic tradecraft, exploring the analyst team concept, determining if a structured analytic technique would improve the intelligence cycle, encouraging analysts to document all assumptions during intelligence analysis, and requiring analysts to include alternative assessments depending on the variables identified during the intelligence analysis process.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence recently released the 2016 national counterintelligence strategy, which recommends the Intelligence Community focus efforts on anticipating, identifying, and warning of emerging threats. In addition, one of the recommendations is the development of relevant educational programs and opportunities to assist with the identification of those threats.[1] The topic of this thesis is consistent with our most recent national counterintelligence strategy and provides an opportunity to contribute to our nation’s security. This thesis presents the Intelligence Community with recommendations to strengthen our nation’s intelligence analysis effectiveness to provide for more resilient intelligence analysis to better protect this nation and our interests abroad.

[1] U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, National Counterintelligence Strategy of the United States of America 2016 (Washington, DC: Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 2016),, 8.

No Comments

Post a Comment