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Intel expert: Post-Iraq analysis changes mean better Syria info

Aug. 29, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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The intelligence community won't be swayed to produce politicized intelligence supporting a strike on Syria if the evidence says otherwise, according to a former deputy director of national intelligence for analysis. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
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Improvements to the government’s intelligence analysis process since the Iraq War will give policymakers better information as they decide whether to strike Syria, according to a former deputy director of national intelligence for analysis.

Analysts today know more about the sourcing behind the information they are evaluating and can make better-informed judgments about how reliable or consistent that data is, Tom Fingar said in an Aug. 29 interview.

“There’s a lot more rigor in the process of explication of what is known, how it’s known, how reliable it is, confidence levels in judgments,” Fingar said. Fingar, who also previously served as assistant secretary of State for intelligence and research, retired in December 2008 and is now a professor at Stanford University.

Intelligence agencies are taking more care to ensure the questions they are asking are the right questions, he said. And intelligence analysts are making sure their reports are clear and can’t be misinterpreted.

“There’s greater care taken that the receiver of an analysis will understand it in the same way that the preparer of that assessment intended,” Fingar said. “Wring out the ambiguity.”

Fingar said the intelligence community won’t be swayed to produce politicized intelligence supporting a strike on Syria if the evidence says otherwise.

“There’s an impression that politicization is easier, it’s more frequent, the IC [intelligence community] knuckles under,” Fingar said. “That’s not right. Analysts are pretty prickly bastards. [They have] pride and professional ethics.”

Fingar also said intelligence agencies are required to report to Congress annually on instances of attempted politicization of intelligence. He said that each year, the number of attempts can be counted on one hand, and are never successful.

“This won’t be a rubber-stamp operation,” Fingar said.

Fingar said that the intelligence community is structured so that multiple teams of analysts across multiple agencies will be working on the Syria question. This, he said, will provide a check against groupthink — and dramatically reduce the chances that someone with an agenda could hijack the process to steer the intelligence toward a pre-conceived notion.

However, Fingar said, the intelligence community is unlikely to get a “smoking gun” definitively linking the chemical attacks to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad‘s regime. And part of the intelligence community’s job is to tell policy makers not only what they know, but also what they don’t know, and what they have extrapolated or inferred to close the gaps in the evidence. The intelligence community also must tell officials where its analysts disagree.

But over the last week, Fingar has been struck by how confidently high-ranking Obama administration officials, such as Secretary of State John Kerry, have asserted Assad was behind the recent chemical weapons attacks.

“These are cautious guys,” Fingar said. “They know things I don’t know, and they’ve made up their minds. That enables them to speak with a clarity and a certainty on this that has not yet been supported publicly by evidence. It may be supported internally, but it’s not been made clear to the people.”

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