US Analyst: The Problem of US Intelligence – Bloated Egos

"No analyst would want to be introduced as a novice on North Korea, and no manager would want to turn away a tasking because the office lacks expertise, but the IC needs to guard against applying the SME title too broadly," says DIA analyst John S. Mohr in an article published in a CIA journal


The CIA publishes an unclassified internal journal called Studies in Intelligence. In the latest issue published December 2017, an analyst for the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) named John S. Mohr wrote an article titled "A Call for More Humility in Intelligence Analysis."

"Humility is probably not something most intelligence analysts consider to be a central tenet of their work. The notion of humility and intelligence may create dissonance for many unfamiliar with the intelligence discipline. This dissonance stems from intelligence analysts staking their reputations on their specialized knowledge, in addition to solid tradecraft and polished communication skills," Mohr writes.

I will argue that the Intelligence Community (IC) needs to embrace humility as a central tenet for three reasons. First, humility helps the community cope with uncertainty that is inherent to the industry. Second, a humble perspective reveals that genuine subject matter expertise is rare. Finally, a lack of humility can manifest itself as hubris and cause harm to analysis.

"Intelligence analysts should strive to employ humility to cope with their lack of knowledge and fallibility, as a means to improve thinking. […] Developing expertise is among the IC’s primary tools to fight uncertainty, but true expertise is rare and takes considerable time and effort to develop. Showcasing expertise often manifests in using the ubiquitous and overused title known as “SME” or subject matter expert. It is not clear if this title is self imposed or earned, or if its use is for self-promotion or to boost an agency’s credentials. Its use is a swift way for an analyst to establish their credibility, whether in an e-mail or during an introduction for a briefing. The term’s overuse, however, risks diluting its value and overplaying the IC’s hand in what it can actually provide to clients.

"No analyst would want to be introduced as a novice on North Korea, and no manager would want to turn away a tasking because the office lacks expertise, but the IC needs to guard against applying the SME title too broadly and consider what really constitutes an expert.

"As in academia, the process aspects of our work—using logic, reasoning, and evidence—are as important as substance. […]Time spent on a subject has also been used to define expertise, suggesting that after some arbitrary period an analyst becomes a substantive expert. […] In my 13 years in the IC, I can think of a handful of analysts I would consider true experts. […] True expertise alone does not prevent intellectual hubris and can sometimes foster it.

"The antithesis of intellectual humility is intellectual hubris, a quality that may be most harmful in the intelligence field because of the impact on analysis. Analysts are often passionate about their work and employ what is usually a healthy defense to any changes to it. The pressures analysts face to answer salvos of policymaker demands may contribute to arrogance among analysts. Sometimes, however, analysts become entrenched in their views and become unwilling to hear alternative views."

Mohr concludes by saying "Intelligence focus areas are intrinsically complex and the community needs to understand the limits of its knowledge so as to not overplay its hand. Doing so will reflect more accurately the services the community provides to clients, such as providing niche value.

"We also must constantly guard against hubris and, in our most confident moments, recall the early days of our careers, when we sometimes seemed overwhelmed by the scope of a new portfolio or the magnitude of our work. All passionate analysts become the chief advocates and defenders of their work, owing to the intimate study of a topic and the slog of written production. While this mentality fuels our work, we need to pause to remind ourselves that we work in a service industry in which a service philosophy will advance humility."


[Source: Studies in Intelligence journal]