WikiLeaks' release of 92,000 military intelligence documents, now being parsed by media outlets across the globe, has sparked a groundbreaking experiment in open-source intelligence analysis. For the first time, journalists and amateurs can access and draw conclusions from the intelligence typically restricted to professional government analysts. But we in the public may be about to learn the same lesson that the Bush administration learned the hard way in the months and years following September 11: Analyzing intelligence is a science. It has specialized practices and methods. Done wrong, it can be dangerous.
As Jane Mayer documents in The Dark Side, one of President Bush's first and most serious mistakes after 9/11 was cutting out the intelligence analysts. Mayer writes:
In the days immediately after the attack, he and Cheney demanded to see all available raw intelligence reports concerning additional possible threats to America on a daily basis. Cheney had long been a skeptic about the CIA's skills, and was particularly insistent on reviewing the data himself. "The mistake," [high-ranking National Security Council official Roger] Cressey concluded later, "was not to have proper analysis of the intelligence before giving it to the President. There was no filter. Most of it was garbage. None of it had been corroborated or screened. But it went directly to the President and his advisers, who are not intelligence experts. That's when mistakes got made."
In reviewing raw intelligence without the standard rigors of the analysis process, the Bush White House was led to policies of historic significance. The two most famous were their conclusions, based on highly fragmentary intelligence, that Saddam Hussein was actively seeking weapons of mass destruction and that Iraq had ties to al-Qaeda. The mistakes were so serious that eventually the Bush administration not only reinstated the role of analysts but actually increased their prominence in the intelligence process. The long-standing "wall" between the CIA's analysis and operations wings, the latter of which is responsible for gathering intelligence, has been partially dismantled so that analysts can better oversee and vet the gathering process.