The Great Divide: Closing the Gap in Cyber Analysis

In 2010, General Michael Flynn co-authored a report entitled Fixing Intel critiquing the threat-centric emphasis within counterinsurgency intelligence analysis. The report, which made waves in the intelligence community (IC), called for an organizational and cultural shift within the analytical and operational approach to counterinsurgency, highlighting the gap in data collection and the resulting lack of holistic situational awareness critical for decision-making. Recently, the Chief Analytic Methodologist at DIA, Josh Kerbel, reinforced these arguments while extending them beyond counterinsurgency to apply to all missions across the IC writ large. Noting that the IC is at a Kodak moment, he argues that the IC must move beyond the Cold War business model and modernize in light of the dynamic and diverse threats present in the current operating environment.

Having spent a significant amount of time both as an analyst and interviewing analysts across a wide range of intelligence agencies and Combatant Commands, I now see significant parallels within the cyber domain. While cyber is a much more nascent field, it is already widely recognized that there is a gap between the very tactical and technical nature of the cyber domain and the information relayed to leadership. The DoD’s inclusion of cyberspace as an official domain of warfare certainly indicates its relevance for the foreseeable future and there are plenty of lessons to learn, both from the CT realm as well as from the larger IC perspective, in order to make cyber analysis relevant for leadership. Two of the most pertinent lessons, which I’ll address in further detail, are: 1) contextualizing challenges and 2) translation between practitioners and leadership.

1) Contextualization: As both Kerber and the Flynn report note, for more than a decade the IC has been preoccupied with a threat-centric view of terrorism, which in turn focuses on targeted collection. Similarly, the cyber domain currently seems to take a threat-centric approach, again with an emphasis on targeted collection. In both cases, an emphasis on the nodes omits the larger picture that leadership requires to make informed decisions. It is indicative of the proverbial inability to see the forest for the trees. Nevertheless, cyber intelligence should cross the strategic, operational, and tactical domains to provide insight at each level of analysis. There is great utility in both private and public organizations understanding the larger picture and context of the cyber challenges within the operating environment.

2) Translation required: Kerber emphasizes the behavioral component of customer-driven production, noting analysts must understand what the policymakers are trying to accomplish and provide a service that meets those needs. This, he argues, is counter to the current strategy of assuming relevance of a product because it is based on unique information. This is identical to the disciplinary gaps seen today in the cyber domain. Too often, the hyper-technical delivery of cyber information and analysis to leadership is packaged in a language and format that quite simply are not useful for decision makers. Insights from cyber analysis will not reach their full potential if we cannot transform the technical jargon into a language that leaders can understand. Fixing Intel notes that the IC “is a culture that is strangely oblivious of how little its analytical products, as they now exist, actually influence commanders.” This gap arguably already haunts the cyber domain, where very technical products are either not directly relevant for or are incomprehensible to leadership. Until this necessary translation happens, and until we can move towards a common framework for the cyber domain, the divide between the cyber analysis and policy communities, and between leadership and cyber practitioners, will remain.