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Interview with Carmen Medina

Background:  On June 5 and July 3 2012 I had the opportunity to talk with Carmen Medina (CM) in person and then follow-up with her over email correspondence.  What follows is my summary of our extended discussion.  As was the case with Leon Fuerth, CM did not have an opportunity to review my summary and correct any points that I may have misunderstood.  Please keep that in mind when reading my characterization of her views in the event that I have misrepresented her ideas or experiences.

CM spent more than 30 years at the CIA, and served in multiple leadership positions—the most notable of which included serving as the Deputy Director of Intelligence and Director for the Center for the Study of Intelligence.  After retiring from the CIA she joined Deloitte, where she continues to support the Intelligence Community (IC) and other business activities including Deloitte’s Center for Federal Innovation.  My interview with CM spanned two sessions that included an in-person discussion followed up with a series of questions addressed via email correspondence.  What follows is short summary of our dialog that primarily summarizes the focused email correspondence.

Discussion: My first question to CM concerned the ways in which intelligence analysis has changed as a discipline over her time in the community.  She argued that a fundamental change had taken place in which analysts previously had a paucity of data to work from in their efforts to understand different situations but now drown in data, particularly the “digital exhaust” left behind by actors embedded in the modern, global information infrastructure.  CM noted that as a result, questions and answers have also changed from focusing on uncovering the secrets and intentions of closed societies towards discovering essential “truths” or characteristics about individuals and large groups, many of which they may be unaware of themselves.

CM also noted that along with the changes in the quality of the data that is available to intelligence analysts, the quality of that data is changing too.  Thus, she argued that many of theories about social behavior and dynamics are being challenged by the kinds of data that are now available, e.g. detailed microlevel, longitudinal records on individuals and the distributional properties of groups (thus looking beyond the mean/median) which allows for a reexamination of old theories as well as a demand for new ones that can better align with observed reality.

My next question asked about the character of intelligence questions themselves and how they have changed.  CM responded that the focus on nation-states has become tiresome and often misleading or at least too slow to pick up on trends that could be seen sooner and more clearly from different perspectives.  Indeed, she noted that so many of the questions analysts and policy makers now confront rarely deal with the activities or capabilities of nation-states in isolation of other factors, whether terrorist groups, the environment, regional economies, etc.

I also asked CM about the role of technology in intelligence analysis, both from the perspective of performing analysis and also delivering products to consumers.  She noted that the IC’s reluctance to embrace emerging technologies has left them unable to fully appreciate the ways in which technology is changing society itself, e.g. the ways groups organize and task themselves to accomplish their goals.  She also noted that she hated the way the community thought about their work as producing and delivering “products” to consumers.  She argued that most are unnecessary and rarely viewed or used by policy makers.  Instead, she argued that IC should have two streams of analytic activities: 1) a forum where consumers can ask questions of analysts and receive answers tailored to their needs, and 2) a standing deep research activity that generates new insights.  She noted that research efforts may take years to perform, yet be summarized in a single short paragraph.

Given CM’s career, much of which was spent in senior managerial positions, I asked how her perspective changed as she transitioned from being an analyst to a manager.  CM responded that her core beliefs about intelligence analysis did not change much over time, although she became increasingly sensitive to the extent to which traditional definitions of national security had to be rethought.  She also noted that as a manager she came to see her role as one of overseeing the government’s sensemaking network, and that she needed to think about the performance of the network as a whole, rather than focus on the performance of individual analysts.

I also asked CM about the uses of simulations within the IC (both manual wargames and formal models), and the ways in which consumers’ expectations of intelligence affect the selection of analytic methods.  She noted that wargames were the most prominent type of simulation used in the community, but that their contributions were rather indirect.  CM argued that the games themselves were often too subjective to drive analysis, but they served a valuable social role by encouraging participants to have the conversations they needed to have anyway.

CM also noted that consumer’s questions and expectations do affect analytic methods.  She argued that too many policy makers expected answers from analysts and wanted the intelligence community to “make the call.”  However, she noted that these demands were fundamentally unhelpful, and that policy makers should expect the intelligence process to help them become clearer about issues rather than discover truth.  She believed, however, that the harder policy makers pushed for concrete answers, rather than engage in a sustained process of discovery and learning, the more they encouraged dishonest behavior by analysts seeking to satisfy the demands of their consumers.

My final question for CM asked about her most challenging and rewarding experiences of her time in the IC.  She noted that the greatest rewards for her came from helping others become better thinkers and discovering and exploring new ideas.

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