Security Experts:

Don't Overlook the Importance of Feedback in an Intelligence Operation

The intelligence cycle, just as its name implies, is cyclical. Similar to the scientific method or even the water cycle, the successful execution of each step of the intelligence cycle relies on the successful execution of the step that came before it. And this is especially crucial to remember once you reach the cycle’s final step: dissemination and feedback. 

In theory, this step is supposed to entail delivering the finished intelligence you produced to its intended consumer, seeking feedback on it from that consumer, and then using that feedback to inform, adjust, and ideally, optimize ongoing and future intelligence operations. 

But in practice, this doesn’t always happen. In many cases, once an intelligence report has been delivered, feedback is little more than an afterthought. Time constraints, communication barriers, and misaligned priorities are frequently (and understandably) cited as culprits, but often the root cause is simply that a team doesn’t fully grasp what sort of feedback they should seek to obtain and why.

As someone who’s spent most of my career supporting intelligence operations, I’ve found that posing these two questions to intelligence consumers can be a great place to start:

1. Did you use the intelligence? Why or why not?

This question is critical because it can help you determine whether your reporting was actionable for its intended consumer. The fundamental purpose of intelligence, after all, is to inform decisions and ultimately spur action. If your intelligence wasn’t able to do this, you need to figure out why. Was it not timely enough? Was the analysis not clear enough? Did it lack context? No matter the reason, quickly identifying and addressing it is imperative, especially given the often extensive amounts of time and resources involved in intelligence production.

2. To what extent did the intelligence satisfy your intelligence requirements?

If you receive an answer of yes to the previous question, it’s still important to try and dig deeper. Just because your intelligence was used doesn’t necessarily mean it fulfilled all of the operation’s intelligence requirements (IRs). As I’ve discussed previously, IRs are the foundation—and integral to the success—of every intelligence operation. Understanding which IRs your intelligence report did or did not fulfill can help shed light on gaps in your collections coverage, weaknesses in your analysis, or even misaligned expectations, among other issues that you may need to address moving forward.

These two questions, as I mentioned earlier, should serve merely as a starting point and, ideally, should precede additional questions that aim to seek additional feedback from whoever consumed your intelligence. But in situations where time constraints or communication barriers make obtaining any feedback whatsoever exceedingly difficult, receiving even just a brief answer to only one of these questions can still be valuable. And regardless of what feedback you receive, remember that feedback is essentially a form of intelligence; it is only truly valuable if it is actionable and, ultimately, actioned. 

This means that once you do obtain feedback on an intelligence report or operation, you then need to evaluate it and determine whether, and how, it should be implemented. In situations where feedback reveals that certain IRs were not fully satisfied, for example, implementing such feedback might entail backtracking, re-strategizing, and re-doing previously completed steps in the intelligence cycle for the operation at hand until the desired outcome is achieved and IRs fulfilled. Or, let’s say you learn that, for instance, your intelligence wasn’t considered timely enough to be useful. Implementing this sort of feedback could mean streamlining your intelligence production process to help expedite the rate at which future reports are produced.

Above all else, keep in mind that the intelligence cycle is meant to operate as a continuous feedback loop. So while we often refer to dissemination and feedback as the cycle’s final step, it’s really not so final after all.

RelatedWhy All Security Disciplines Should Use the Intelligence Cycle

Related: Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Threat Intelligence RFI Service

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Josh Lefkowitz is the CEO of Flashpoint, which delivers Business Risk Intelligence (BRI) to empower organizations worldwide with meaningful intelligence and information that combats threats and adversaries. Lefkowitz has worked extensively with authorities to track and analyze terrorist groups. He has also served as a consultant to the FBI's senior management team and worked for a top tier, global investment bank. Lefkowitz holds an MBA from Harvard University and a BA from Williams College.