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Interview with Barry Leven

This interview was one of the longest of the several that I performed during my dissertation research.  My conversation with Barry largely encapsulated a much longer and ongoing dialog that has been ongoing since he originally hired me at Booz Allen Hamilton when I graduated from college.  While he retired from industry shortly after I started my career, we remain in contact and speak regularly.  Thus, many of the questions and comments in the interview below hint at a larger exchange that started almost sixteen years ago and remain in development.

Interview with Barry Leven, October 25, 2012

Background: Barry Leven (BL) spent more than 28 years working in the intelligence community.  His career stated with the Navy, where he was a co-op student at a Navy research and development facility in Annapolis, Maryland and worked on technologies for quieting submarines.  He then transitioned to Naval Intelligence where he worked on a broad range of acoustic intelligence efforts for detecting submarines and other related foreign military capabilities.  He left Naval Intelligence to serve as an Associate National Intelligence Officer for Science and Technology on the National Intelligence Council where he managed the production of National Intelligence Estimates.  Upon leaving the National Intelligence Council he joined the Central Intelligence Agency, and at the request of Robert Gates took an assignment in the Strategic Defense Initiative Office (SDIO) providing direct support and managing a small staff drawn from elements of the Intelligence community to General Abrahamson as the DCI’s representative.  Afterwards, he served as a Division Chief in the CIA’s Office of Strategic Weapons and focused on space and strategic systems.  He retired from the CIA and the Senior Intelligence Service in 1995.

Discussion: My discussion with BL was far reaching and among the most extensive of those conducted for this project.  We spent a great deal of time comparing the cultures of the CIA with naval intelligence.  This provided a backdrop for a wide range of topics focused on analytic methods, producer-consumer relations, and more.

My first question to BL asked about his time working in three different intelligence organizations—Naval Intelligence, the CIA, and the NIC.  His answers largely provided a context for later questions.

BL’s overall sense was that there were very stark differences between the Navy and the CIA.  He noted that within Naval Intelligence, career development focused on developing military officers and ensuring their progression within the Navy.  In this context, civilians always served as deputies to the military, which simultaneously limited their opportunities to progress while providing greater flexibility for them to pursue their own interests and specialize rather than remain generalists as expected of military officers working on short rotations.  Thus, within Naval Intelligence, the leadership rotated through while institutionalized expertise remained embodied in the civilian workforce and enlisted specialists.  He noted that many of the senior officers were highly skilled and technically proficient, but their value to the Navy was as generalists rather than specialists, and they were ultimately dependent on their subordinate civilian workforce and enlisted specialists.  This dependence created a demanding organizational culture that valued honesty, integrity, and thoroughness out of the mutual dependence between the two classes of employees.

BL also noted that naval intelligence was very close to its consumers, and remained in constant contact with tactical and strategic leadership within the Navy.  Intelligence questions were often posed directly and were constantly incoming.  Moreover, because the consumers were responsible for the maintenance of the force structure, training, system development and conduct of operations, they cared far more about the results of intelligence activities as a roadmap for the success of their particular programs and operations.  Thus, the emphasis was on outcomes, rather than processes, allowing and encouraging intelligence and operators to work together closely and innovate.

BL noted that the CIA was quite different from the Navy.  He argued that ultimately, everything the Navy dealt with was essentially tactical, even when addressing strategic issues such as weapons systems’ development and deployment.  Questions and responses from the Navy ultimately concerned themselves with ensuring that the Navy’s weapons, training, and tactics were appropriately adapted to current and future threats.  By contrast, BL noted the CIA consisted of civilians who were much closer in rank and grade to their policy-making consumers, which ironically resulted in greater intellectual and policy distance.  As a result, relations between producers and consumers were more difficult at CIA, and policy makers, in his experience, rarely took the time or made the effort to explain their plans and intentions to intelligence analysts, limiting the analysts’ ability to meet policy makers’ intelligence needs.

BL noted that the great strength of Naval Intelligence was shown in their organizational structures and operations.  On the Navy side, personnel, organizational, and budgetary units worked together closely – placing operators, collectors, analysts, and R&D in close proximity and emphasizing their interdependence.  He noted that operators, collectors, analysts, and engineers all worked closely and each had direct influence on the activities on their others.  Indeed, BL noted that while in naval intelligence a significant amount of his R&D funding came from system developers reflecting the extent to which intelligence, system development and operational capabilities were integrated.

BL compared the closeness of the Navy with that of the CIA and noted that while the internal organization of the CIA created interdependence between its Directorates, it was not nearly as well-integrated with the organizations it supported as he had observed in the Navy.  This was largely because policy makers were further removed the agency’s intelligence activities, and therefore less involved in its production and consumption.  He noted that the CIA was a truly executive function while the navy was more tactical, and that the CIA’s interdependencies with policy largely focused on ensuring that intelligence provided credible reporting and timely inputs into the policy-process, but was not deeply integrated into high-level deliberations concerning the efficacy of potential courses of action or the appropriateness of policy goals as seen from the intelligence context.  By comparison, BL noted that the tight relationship between producers and consumers within the Navy afforded analysts more opportunities to play a stronger role in the deliberations that shaped policy and strategy.  For example, he noted that in the navy it was not uncommon for an Admiral to ask an analyst “what does it mean when you say xyz?” and that an analyst could respond, “Admiral, that isn’t the right question.”  BL noted that such exchanges at the national level between CIA analysts and senior policymakers were far rarer and difficult because policy makers’ agendas were loser, more closely held and less likely to be shared with analysts in order to avoid criticism.

Ultimately, BL noted that the stronger institutional integration between intelligence and policy within the Navy when compared with the CIA in the context of producer and consumer relations created a context where exchanges could be more meaningful, honest, and engaging.  Thus, BL felt that the debates between Naval Intelligence and the Navy’s senior leadership were more substantive and capable of shifting how each understood the problem and each other’s perspectives on it—there was an expectation of a dialog between producers and consumers built upon the trust at senior levels that those beneath them were trying to do the right thing and acted in good faith even when disagreements occurred.  By comparison, BL believed that analysts and producer/consumer relations within the CIA was more conservative and restrained when dealing with policy makers, remaining in a position of providing support to consumers and avoiding, whenever possible, challenging their decisions overtly.

BL noted that CIA often sought to develop similar relationships as those found in the Navy and that in theory national intelligence and military intelligence paralleled one another.  However, in practice the CIA’s environment was very different – essentially playing a smaller role in a larger world given the seniority and diversity of its consumers and distance from them in organizational terms.

Finally, BL noted that the NIC had a different role than the CIA or the Naval Intelligence.  During his time, the NIC reported directly to the DCI and was separate from the CIA (it now reports to the DNI).  The NIC was composed of analysts and senior members of the academe, government and military drawn from many different disciplines and organizations, and served as the primary interface with policy makers, determining and communicating intelligence priorities to the rest of the community and producing National Intelligence Estimates and other intelligence products.  Given its position at the pinnacle of relations with consumers and diversity of issues and organizations represented by its staff, it drew upon the larger Intelligence Community for intelligence production, and ultimately set the boundaries and focus of production for the rest of the community when dealing with their consumers.

Given the distinct differences between organization, culture, and levels of analysis and engagement with policy makers, I asked BL about the analytic tradecraft of the organizations he worked in and whether it was affected by producer/consumer relations.

BL noted that analytic tradecraft was consistent across organizations, and that despite their differences, analysts approached their problems in similar ways.  However, he did note within the Navy, analysts had much narrower accounts and a greater focus on the exploitation of specific INTs.  By comparison, analysts in the CIA had broader responsibilities and therefore were far more focused on the integration of multiple INTs or all-source analysis.  He noted that time pressures were also relatively consistent across organizations, and that in each case junior analysts were focused on specific tasks and relatively routinized production required by the organization while at senior levels analysts’ responsibilities shifted towards answered external requests and producing customized products.

My next question focused on producer/consumer relations and under what conditions consumers viewed analysis as a useful input to shaping policy and when it was dismissed.  BL noted that analysts in Naval Intelligence were expected to speak up when confronted with a policymaker who seemed to have misconstrued or misstated Intelligence views, while his time at CIA revealed a much more difficult and tense relationship with policymakers.  He noted that at CIA he was called only rarely into a policy-maker’s office to be a sounding board or check on the accuracy of Congressional testimony, while in the Navy it happened regularly and policy makers often changed their testimony as a result of intelligence analysts’ inputs.  He believed that in the Navy, consumers viewed naval intelligence as partners while at CIA intelligence was seen by consumers as support.

BL noted that relations between producers and consumers usually rested on the strength of the personal relationships between the two.  Trust was necessary and highly personal, and while it did not always result in consumers accepting intelligence assessments, it provided an invitation to be a participant in the policy process.

BL also noted that many of the reforms introduced by Robert Gates while at CIA had significant effects on producer/consumer relations.  He noted that his placement in the SDIO was indicative of the agency’s commitment to improve the relevance of their work to consumers though the development of close personal working relationships with policy makers.  He argued that it worked very well, and in the case of the SDIO the development of trust allowed for intelligence analysts to reorient SDIO’s assessment of Soviet behavior and attack scenarios in new directions and subsequently change its own plans regarding the development of missile defense systems’ capabilities.

Regarding another Gates reform, the insistence that analytic assessments were corporate rather than individual products, BL believed that these changes were less than completely effective in the context of producer/consumer relations even though they improved the quality and relevance of analysis.  The problem was that policy makers placed their trust in individual analysts and preferred to deal with them.  They believed that corporate products were unnecessarily watered-down and downplayed important differences between analysts and organizations in order to arrive at an acceptable assessment, masking what were often the most important sources of uncertainty that policy makers were interested in.  However, he also noted that policy makers had limited patience and often wanted clear, unambiguous answers and confident predictions, not uncertainty or “on-one-hand and on-the other-hand” reporting which could not always be accommodated given the circumstances of collection, analysis, and the specificity of their concerns.

BL noted that the effectiveness of intelligence was tied to the relevance of the questions that analysts sought to answer.  This was achieved by understanding what questions policy makers were asking, and the ways in which they were asking these questions.  For example, consumers might rephrase the information found in intelligence assessments, ask for clarification, or challenge judgments, in each case reflecting different motivations.

When asked about the differences between providing intelligence to the executive branch vs. the Congress, BL noted the two were very different kinds of consumers.  He noted that the Congress was quite transparent – at least in the House of Representatives – where their interests were almost always tied to concerns about activities in their districts.  Thus, threat assessments that justified or challenged the need for particular weapon systems that were manufactured in their district could be of great interest.  As a result of the character of Congressional power and politics, legislative interests in intelligence products were often narrow, critical, accusatory, and pointed.  By comparison, the executive branch is responsible for the development and execution of policy, and therefore has different goals and needs from the Congress.  Executive intelligence needs and interests were tied to political, organizational, and operational needs of government organizations which were necessarily diverse.

When asked how intelligence avoided becoming politicized, BL argued that there were two key factors.  The first was to ensure that everyone in the policy debate received the same intelligence and analytical judgments.  Second, was to put policy makers “on the record” by making it known that they received an intelligence assessment.  This approach serves to keep the process of giving intelligence to consumers out of the debate by ensuring that everyone worked from the same information (excluding their own personal or organizational sources) and that everyone engaged in the debate knew it.

BL also noted that how information is presented can be part of politicization.  He argued that the analytic reasoning process must be transparent to consumers and must be exposed to criticism.  The intelligence community can defend its judgments and must advocate for clear and honest descriptions of the intelligence by members of the policy community.

BL also noted that tradecraft matters greatly in producer/consumer relations.  He noted that tradecraft included more than just analytic procedures, but also the presentation of information itself and how intelligence collection and judgments are presented.  An interesting point, and one that largely echoed points made in prior interviews with others, was that many observers misunderstand intelligence analysts.  Specifically, there is the belief that intelligence analysts are reluctant to share information, but this is incorrect.  Analysts have few opportunities to tell people what they know and often relish the opportunity to do so.  Instead, they have a tendency to overwhelm consumers with irrelevant information and provide complex assessments when a simpler description or explanation exists.  Thus, knowing the consumer’s interests and needs is essential, if only to ensure that analysts make appropriate use of their limited time on stage when asked for their inputs.

My next question was focused on the differences between being an analyst and a manager within the IC, and how different responsibilities provided different perspectives on the community.  BL noted that as a manager, he developed a much broader perspective on the organization and community.  As an analyst, he was worried about his work, but as a manager, he had to think about everyone else’s work.  He also believed that he was fortunate to have been given a great deal of responsibility for analytic production and management as a young analyst early in his career, and that exposure was important in his professional development.  BL noted that as a manager he was constantly focused on the use of time and resources, and engaged in a process of learning how his actions and decisions affected the entire organization for better or worse.  He also argued that the key to management was possessing the ability to trust in his subordinates.  BL noted as a manager he needed trust his subordinates before they would trust him, thus he needed to “give in order to get,” and that his job was ultimately to be vulnerable to the mistakes of his subordinates while creating an environment that allowed them to do their jobs as best as they could.

When asked about areas that could have worked better, BL noted that collaboration and access both within and outside the intelligence community could have been better and that today’s technologies could have enabled much more of it.  He stated that while the majority of his career was focused on technical issues regarding foreign weapons capabilities, the ability of new technologies and models to create opportunities to collect and analyze social information about organizations, cultures, social networks, etc. would have all be important additions to their work.  BL noted that even in technical areas, the study of social factors was important for understanding the importance of people, places, priorities, and other aspects of foreign military capabilities.  Moreover, he noted that huge efforts were required in the past to address these kinds of questions, often taking months to analyze and organize data that could be done in minutes or seconds today.

I asked BL about the particular properties of Agent-Based Modeling (ABM) and the role it could play in analysis.  He responded that the ability to integrate political, technical, and economic behavior and processes would have been quite helpful in producing integrated assessments that were traditionally assigned as separate work to different analysts and organizations.  Thus, the models themselves could have served as important vehicles within the coordination processes itself, supporting the development of multidisciplinary, all-source, integrated assessments of intelligence targets, e.g. the politics and organization associated with building a ballistic missile capability.  Indeed, BL noted that ABM could have proven quite helpful in the assessment of WMD and missile proliferation, when conventional assessments had little impact getting the community to consider, for example, the role of rogue actors and organizations.  In these cases, ABM could have helped identify new collection targets and priorities, allowing for some preliminary evaluations that could subsequently move the system towards recognizing important changes in the system and the need for new approaches and vulnerabilities in order to avoid surprise.

My next question to BL dealt with the problem of prediction and consumer’s expectations of analysis.  BL acknowledged that consumers always wanted to know what was going to happen and were disappointed when analysts could not provide that information.  He noted that analysts never wanted to say that they didn’t know what was going to happen, and hated to admit that predictions were not possible.  Yet, despite these mutual disappointments, analysis worked best when producers focused on characterizing the range of potential futures and the types of uncertainties that existed regarding what factors or forces might drive outcomes in one direction or another.  Often, this occurred by bounding the ranges that particular variables might have, e.g. the number of reentry vehicles the nose-cone of a foreign missile might contain.  Such boundaries may be established based on the history of tests, the physical size and capacity of the missile, doctrine, etc.  Importantly, uncertainty persists in cases where the best technical intelligence is available because targets can always adapt and change behavior, and often analysts must assess questions about decisions that haven’t been made.  Again, BL noted in the case of foreign missiles and the number of potential reentry vehicles that the problem wasn’t necessarily estimating the capability to perform a particular technical feat, but rather the desire to do so given the target’s other available options and goals.

My final question asked BL what the ideal intelligence community would look like today if he had the opportunity to build one from scratch, unconstrained by existing organizations and history.  He argued that he would emphasize people of high integrity and technical skills rather than the structure of organizations themselves.  He argued that most analytic shortcomings were not the result of organization, but that analysts did not understand the responsibilities of people they were working with or supporting, and often had little interest in finding out.  He also noted that changing the organization of intelligence would matter very little unless the policy community changed its practices and uses of intelligence too.  He noted that few policy makers thought deeply about the epistemological limitations and problems of intelligence and intelligence questions.  BL argued that greater education on the intelligence community and processes were needed in order to set a better context for producer and consumer relations, and that ultimately, the system would improve when analysts and policy makers could have more frank and open discussions about their responsibilities, interests, and capabilities.  He believed that this was the core theme of the reforms that Bob Gates, Doug MacEachin, and other peers and colleagues from his time at CIA were working towards.  Moreover, BL argued that the community needed to risk politicization from closeness in order to establish relevance and managers were the best line of defense for defending the integrity of the community.

He concluded by noting the problem with the recruitment system that brings people into the community.  BL argued that practices don’t work very well and the descriptions of positions rarely aligned with the real needs of the organization.  As a result, the people able to contribute the most over the course their careers were often turned away for not filling a particular niche, and that as long as the positions that were filled by new hires and recruits were narrowly defined, the people best able to handle increasingly broad responsibilities and make diverse commitments were not recruited.

 

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