Intelligence Analysis isn’t for Noobs


“Intelligence Engineering; Operating Beyond the Conventional” by Adam D. M. Svendsen

Rowman & Littlefield, 2016, 148 pp.

A fundamental questions any student of the developing academic discipline of intelligence analysis – which essentially is about the identification and creation of competitive advantages – is confronted with is whether intelligence analysis should be considered an art or a science?


In Intelligence Engineering – Operating Beyond the Conventional Adam D. M. Svendsen denies the premises of this question by incorporating engineering into the field of intelligence. He does so to enhance our understanding of complex security environments. Borrowing from the principles of engineering, the author creates a comprehensive meta-systemic approach to the collection, analysis and dissemination of intelligence. And though he underlines that his framework is by no means a silver bullet, he does provide a substantial framework for enhancing the analyst’s view and understanding of the world. Nurtured carefully, this can be turned into a competitive advantage against any given target. It is a short book, but definitely not a Sunday read.

The book is written for scholars and practitioners alike, but I should warn the reader that it assumes you are no stranger to intelligence analysis and operational concerns. In this review, I focus on the main arguments and threads of the book, while, for the sake of brevity, leaving most of the technical and detailed elements out. Readers interested in a more detailed account, would probably want to read the book themselves anyway

The fusion of intelligence and engineering

The book addresses the need for the fusion between intelligence and engineering. It points out that in an increasingly complex world there is a need for increasingly complex analytical models that can help us navigate successfully through fast-changing security environments. In this regard, intelligence has much to win by turning to the principles of engineering such as the concern for systemic design and structures. The ways in which this fusion interacts is complex and holistic, and the book offers an exhaustive definition of how the two concepts interact (p. 19-20). A central part of this definition is:

“the use of scientific knowledge to artfully bring about the design of entities, in order to create and dismantle complex systems and processes that support or disrupt human endeavor occurring in the intelligence context, which in turn involves the collection and processing of information that is particularly of political value.”

Intelligence engineering is thus articulating the means professionals employ when they engage in intelligence-related activities. The fusion of the two can help professionals to better grasp how complex behavior can emerge from interactions between many simpler but highly interconnected processes (p. 42). It enables intelligence to engage in system thinking – which deals with the interaction of interrelated units and its impact –  on a higher level with an eye on both the details and the bigger picture.  If applied thoughtfully, intelligence engineering can help bridge the gap between intelligence and operations in military and civil domains. It is a way of getting ahead of the curve.

Doing crosswords with information

The author codifies different theoretical levels of systems (such as strategic, operational, and tactical), detailing systemic attributes (such as rationale, trends, and functions), and demonstrating different dynamics of systems (such as PMESII or PESTLE which are analytical frames often used by NATO and EUROPOL). It is unfortunate that these levels, attributes, and dynamics are not elaborated at length, since it requires the reader to be familiar with all these components beforehand through the readings of Adam D. M. Svendsen’s earlier work.

Having identified all the components involved in the intelligence engineering framework, the question of how to put it all together emerges. Here the author relies on already well-established grid-mapping techniques and tools (p. 67). Once a wealth of insights has been identified through grid-maps, a greater concentration of their distilled insights can be achieved by focusing on three areas central to events and developments (p. 71), these are: key actors, forces/factors of change, and possible change over time. Together these three central areas can also serve as an operational picture in overarching intelligence as well as in specific studies (p. 73).

To put the intelligence engineering framework into action, Adam D. M. Svendsen offers a five-step approach (p. 85-91). Here the team of analysts must pick a focus (ranging from an overarching theme to a specific threat), a system (such as PMESII or PESTLE), the attributes (such as rationale, functions and trends in the system), the levels (such as strategic, operational and tactical). After having identified as much information as possible or desired in this major framework, the fusion of this overwhelming amount of information begins. Here, pieces of information are used to make insights on key actors, forces, and changes. From this fusion, can be produced judgments or forecasts in accordance with relevant standards to the intelligence customer providing an operational picture or increased situational awareness.

FBI Computers.jpg

The chapters three and four are where things get really interesting, but as the author also argues, it is important to keep in mind that what is offered is not a cheat-sheet to enhanced intelligence. For instance, the framework is still subject to the same psychological bias that all intelligence analysis is. The framework cannot produce more accurate output than the input allows for. The validation of sources and careful interpretation of information will remain as important as ever in a future era of intelligence engineering.

Therefore, I would be curious to see whether intelligence engineering also could bring about a framework for better handling psychological bias in the analytical process as well as bias in the decision-making process. This could be an interesting next step for intelligence engineering.

With knowledge comes power and with power comes control

Adam D. M. Svendsen offers an original and interesting idea in this book. Moreover, he develops a framework for how this idea can bolster intelligence in the 21st century. His methodology and list of references reveals that coming up with this innovative framework has been no walk in the park and has taken years of expert research. This is evident throughout the book which is not suited for intelligence analysis 101 let alone the casual reader.

I am not in a position to judge to what extent this framework could change the practice inside intelligence organizations. But I expect few professionals to be able to externalize their ontology and epistemology to the same extent that this framework enables you to. Put simply, the framework can enhance one’s view and understanding of the world – what we know and don’t know about a target? The transparency of analytical products is increased which may in the end enhance both analytical work and operational effectiveness because it invites decision-makers to overcome groupthink and instead engage in the less troubled polythink (p. 102-103). In short, if applied thoughtfully, this knowledge can be transformed into competitive advantages against any given target.

More of a manual than a textbook

An analyst must be able to communicate clearly in order to convince his or her audience on the urgency of a matter. You can have the best of ideas, but if you cannot communicate them clearly, they will not have any impact on real world practice.

In this regard, I think Adam D. M. Svendsen could have done a better job. There are way too many components and relationships that remain undefined in his book, especially in chapter three and four. Unless you are an advanced intelligence analyst you will have quite a hard time figuring out exactly how it all works together. I would encourage the author – if he is serious about pushing the study of intelligence beyond the conventional and into the field of engineering – to transform his manuals into a more coherent step-by-step orientated textbook that can be taken inside the class-rooms.

Reviewed by Jeppe Rothuizen

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