Intelligence Analyst, Government
Date of Interview: November 4th, 2016
Q: Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, how long it’s been since you graduated from college?
A: I am an intelligence analyst – I work for the US government – and it’s been almost 10 years since I graduated college.
Q: Can you provide a very brief description of your primary job functions?
A: Well, my job is to write, actually, in an academic fashion. The type of writing I do is quite similar to the writing that I did in college, or how I wanted to write in college.
Q: What forms or types of writing, or kinds of documents do you most often complete?
A: Well, we write what are called, generally across US government agencies, “intelligence assessments”. It’s a short brief in which the writing style is journalistic in nature. We’re reporting a trend or stating a– it’s sort of a blend of journalistic and academic because what we’re expected to write is not just reporting a trend or something that we see, but also what we think about it, and what we think a policymaker needs to know about that. So that’s what we’re putting up in the first sentence, and then stating supporting evidence, conclusion. But, unlike say, a newspaper, we have to be very meticulous about sourcing and so I mean, that way it’s very much like college writing. I’m sorry, did I answer too many questions? Am I going to fast?
Q: How frequently are you required to write? And if you’d give like a rough estimate on average, what percentage of your job requires writing?
A: A hundred percent of my job requires writing. I’m expected to produce on a weekly basis.
Q: Can you describe briefly your writing process, including how assignments or tasks are given to you, what steps you have to take from start to the completion of a project?
A: Well, if you’re an intelligence professional, you’re given what’s called a “requirement”, which is a question: “why is such and such going on?” or “what does this mean?”. And you’re expected to come back with an answer. It’s done in the form of a written report, with your judgement, your supporting evidence, and your documentation, and your sources.
Q: Can you describe the primary audiences to which you write, and for what purposes?
A: Well, people like me across the government, our audience is always policymakers. Sometimes Congress – congressional leaders have access to intelligence. Our job is to write unbiased judgements, considering different sources, often conflicting sources of information, to give a judgement that we believe is unbiased that would help them make a policy decision.
Q: And you can be general here: what kind of things are at stake in your writing?
A: Well, I mean, a lot. US national security, that’s a very broad concept, but within that is a safety of US military, US assets overseas, safety of our assets and interests, economic forces – what impact a certain economic trends are going to have on our country – that’s a big part of it.
Q: Two part question: does anyone oversee your writing and if so, a brief or general description of their title and their role within your organization.
A: Well, lots of people receive my writing, and it’s actually very academic in nature too, because often when I write, we actually have a peer review process which, from what little I know, is far more rigorous than an academic peer review process. Say, for example, putting into an academic journal you might have about three or four of your peers read and review, see if your work makes sense, if it’s logical. There have been some things that I’ve had to write that someone from almost every US agency that has some sort of national security role, someone’s had to look at it. I’ve had as many as 36 people [chuckle] put track changes in a document that I’ve written. I’ve also write other assessments that aren’t coordinated but it goes to a supervisor, another supervisor, a supervisor above; there’s at least three levels of review.
Q: Have you had any writing training or education since graduating from college?
A: Yes, in fact, if you do work in a intelligence job series in the US government you’re going to be constantly retrained. In fact, there are programs where you are trained by other agencies. I’ve been trained by some– there’s an interagency exchange program that the training components within each agency train analysts, give them writing. Also, there’s a lot of other analysis tradecraft classes that you take and how to make a judgement with matrixes. So that’s what every analyst has in addition to probably their basic training. I had a basic training that was eleven weeks of kind of like an academic bootcamp.
Q: What do you do to prepare to write, for example, research, interviewing, drafting?
A: Well I am an all-source analyst, so I do interviews, and just also search for, depending on the type of product I’m writing, it’s primary sources. In this field, depending on what we’re writing, we have what we call “raw intelligence” and “finished intelligence”. Raw intelligence would be an interview or just, say, a message, a cable from someone on the ground saying, “I see this and this happening”. There’s no judgement, there’s no why this is important, why not. So sometimes what we’re, well, we are asked to write a product or report based just on raw or I guess in the academic field, that would be just primary sources only. So there’s actually a very big– it’s very important to many policymakers that they’re getting a judgement that’s only raw information, as it’s called.
Q: You’ve mentioned that revision plays a large role? Can you talk a little bit about what your revision process looks like?
A: Very tedious [chuckles]. I guess I don’t really understand the question, or the revision–
Q: What kind of steps you have to take to revise a document, if you’re getting track changes and feedback from a lot of other people?
A: Yeah, the track changes tool is what we use. I guess I don’t really know how to–
Q: That’s fine. Just essentially, if there are specific steps you have to take to go from one draft to another. If you’re doing additional research, or seeking out new sources, maybe collaborating with others to improve the work to where the changes/comments have directed you.
A: All the time. Intelligence professionals in the US government– there actually are written standards that, it’s not mandatory that you adhere to them, but going through a peer review process, you’re going to have people who are really going to do the best they can to encourage you to adhere to them. A lot of them is that you can’t make a judgement without more than one source from intelligence disciplines, as they’re called. For example, human intelligence would be interviews, and that’s a type of raw reporting, and then another type of source would be from signals, and that’s also considered raw, that we’ve got this raw information coming from a signal. And there’s some people in the review process that will say, “you can’t make this judgement unless the signal is backed up by human, and vice versa”.
Q: How long typically do you have to complete a writing project?
A: It depends. I’m lucky, I’m given an awful lot of– because of my matter of expertise, people are happy that I produce anything. So I can pretty much take as much or little time as I want. But there are some people who, their work is– my work is actually driven on what I think, what I judge the learning curve or the knowledge gaps of policymakers are. There’s some people that, when a policymaker asks them a question, they’re expected to come back within a week with an answer. Those are analysts that have a lot of contact with very high-level policymakers, we’re talking Cabinet-level officials, and they’re going to get questions from them and they’re expected to get back in a week. Me, thank goodness, no [chuckles].
Q: So earlier you talked about different types of documents that you write. Were you familiar with these when you were a student, the kind of writing that you do now? If so, how did this affect your approach coming to them in workplace?
A: Should we talk about my grad school? I went to grad school, I studied intelligence at American Public University which is– should we undergrad or grad school I guess is what I’m asking? What would be helpful?
Q: Maybe you could speak to each.
A: Speak to each, okay. In undergrad, no. The grad school I went to is designed for government and military professionals to do distance learning. So I was learning the lingo there of the types of documents we produce: intelligence assessment, intelligence judgement, raw reporting, not raw reporting. That was the lingo that you were taught in my grad program. Grad school, I actually didn’t go to grad school to– I never thought I’d be working for the US government and as an intelligence professional. I was in undergrad to be teacher, so I had no exposure to this world. It was a total career change for me. But to any undergraduate students that, if you’re going to get something from this, the type of products that you’re producing as an undergrad are very similar to what policymakers are looking for. It’s short papers backed up by a lot of research. That’s what a lot of policymakers care about – the documentation.
Q: Are you able to identify any changes in your writing style between college and your time now writing in the workplace?
A: Between college and workplace – yes, actually. It would be pretty pertinent here in the DC area because I imagine that a lot of students in this area will be recruited by the US government. The biggest gear shift you need to take is– if you want to work in the intelligence field for the US government, it’s good to have good academic chops. The documentation is important, but there are writing styles that are different. The consumers of your reports are going to be looking for something that’s a little bit more journalistic. They want the bottom line up front. That’s something that you’ll hear a lot and that’ll be a common constructive criticism that you’ll receive. In academia, academic papers that you read, they want to take you on the journey with them through the paper and show how they came to this great conclusion, which is fine, and it can be very interesting if it’s well written, but that won’t fly with a policymaker who doesn’t have the time or doesn’t want to– they want to know the news. But it’s better– unlike the news, it’s analysis upfront, it’s not just reporting an event. What they want to see is this blend of an event, and why that event is significant in one sentence upfront, and then, if they care, they want to see how you documented it. They’re looking for people with strong liberal arts background, strong writers, but you do have to learn to do things the opposite way, if that’s helpful.
Q: What challenges did you face when entering the workplace as a writer? In what ways did you feel prepared or unprepared?
A: I’d say it was what I had described before, being able to write backwards, write the opposite way I did in school.
Q: Do you face any challenges now that you’re a more experienced workplace writer?
A: If you want to try and teach this in writing courses in universities, I actually would reach out to the Director of National Intelligence or even CIA because the analytic standards that we’re supposed to write to, they do publish those and they’re probably available. I’d say the biggest challenge in government is everyone’s interpretation of those standards, and it’s very controversial. I have people review my writing, they review my pieces based on “did you meet this standard?”, or separating analytic judgements from just data – that’s a very important thing. You have to show what you think, your judgment, and then show the data and show how you came to that. But these standards, there’s lots of debate and every time you write something. People will tell you, “you didn’t do this standard the way I understand it,” and so that can slow a lot of things down and that’s very challenging. So I recommend asking or just googling at the Director of National Intelligence the website, the analytic standards or something like, whatever they’re called now, you’ll find it, it’s interesting the way things are done. So you’ll get to see it.
Q: So thinking back to when you first started, are there any practical steps that you took to overcome any early writing challenges, for example, looking at documents that other writers had completed, or asking questions of more senior writers?
A: My brain was a little fuzzy when you asked that question [chuckles].
Q: Sure. Thinking back to when you first started in this position, were there any practical steps that you took to overcome any early writing challenges, for example, looking at documents that coworkers had written as examples, or asking questions of more senior writers?
A: Yeah, I went to stuff that was already written because it is– the US government is really trying to standardize the style that intelligence analysts use and so that’s honestly the best thing you can do is look for something that’s been written and well-received and try and emulate that format and that style because that’s what the US government is trying to do. Are they successful? I don’t know, but yeah.
Q: Would you consider yourself to be a successful workplace writer?
Q: Can you elaborate on–
Q: –why that is? Or I guess maybe what it–
A: Well it–
Q: What it means to you to be successful in your career– ?
A: What I, it’s hard because I don’t– the one problem in the US government is you don’t receive much feedback from– the people who appreciate the information and the analysis are never going to give you feedback on your writing, and the people who are reviewing your writing, for example, the peer-reviewers across the agencies, especially when you have to do a review across more than one agency, they’re going to rip you apart more than necessary, which is– so I guess judged on my success, you’re going to get very little feedback– and of course, policymakers are, because what you’re writing is influencing their decisions, they’re not going to tell you what they think or what they’re thinking more than, “well that was, that’s important, that seems important, thank you, thank you for raising my awareness about that” – that’s really about all you’re going to get. I guess the fact that someone even [chuckles], in the US government someone actually is reading and commenting even a little bit, that is a major success, so.
Q: So with that level of feedback, is there anything in your writing that you use specifically to judge its success, or anything that your boss uses to judge the success of your writing? Any traits or markers in your writing that make you or your boss say, “this is a successful piece”?
A: This is actually something the government’s been trying to do better. They are trying to make intelligence reports more interactive. Most of these things aren’t public, but it is popular to have online feedback forums with each agency websites. You go to the reporting and the analysis on events and after you read an article there will be a feedback form that– and the first one is, like, “was the assessment that the analyst was making, was it clear?” and that is the best thing. In fact, today I actually was teaching a class on this to trainees and I actually did use a paper I wrote and I actually had a trainee say, “oh, this is really clear!”, and so that that, it was very good feedback. And that’s probably the best– if a policymaker felt like they understood what you wrote after reading the first paragraph or two and they said, “I understand this, this is good”, and then throw it in the shredder and go– I mean, that actually is good, that’s good feedback. It is, so, yeah.
Q: Last question, and maybe you can speak to this especially since you said you’ve been teaching: what skills, abilities, or traits in a writer do you think are most central to being successful in your specific– ?
A: To put a lot of effort into the research, that is the most important component. I actually wish that when people would look at my— as I’ve been saying, the difference between academic writing– academics, they try and take you on the journey. You see their literature review up front, and we have to do it the opposite way. I actually kind of wish that people would look at all the stuff, all the sources we looked at. So that’s actually the most important trait to have, to be really curious and keep diving and just pursue every lead you have. That really is the most important thing in writing to me is the research that you’re willing to do. We use the process that is taught in universities; you come up with your hypothesis, and prove it with the research, and so it’s that effort that you’re willing to put into the research is the most important thing to me. So, yeah.