HomeAU PressBook ReviewsDisplay Review

Air University Press

Reducing Uncertainty: Intelligence Analysis and National Security

Reducing Uncertainty: Intelligence Analysis and National Security by Thomas Fingar. Stanford University Press, 2011, 192 pp.

The US intelligence community (IC) faced truly dramatic change in the decade following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and Dr. Thomas Fingar was at the center of this evolution. His 35 years led him to the top of the IC at the State Department from 2001 to 2003. He became the first deputy director of national intelligence for analysis and, concurrently, chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC) from 2005 to 2008, where he oversaw the revamp of the production process for national intelligence estimates (NIE), as well as other techniques for the entire IC analysis community.

Fingar uses Reducing Uncertainty as an opportunity to reflect on his experiences during this tumultuous time and present his observations of intelligence analysis as a whole. Mercifully, this book is not another treatise on “how to fix the IC.” He tends more to enlighten the reader than to propose recommendations. When he does offer recommendation, they focus on the personal/professional level, for instance, stressing the need to develop good analyst-customer relations or highlighting the importance for analysts to understand their sources. Nor is this book a structured examination of failures in analysis. It is based around anecdotes and personal stories. Fingar does not intend to diagnose pitfalls in the analytical process. In fact, it occasionally appears he is simply commiserating with fellow analysts about typical problems that are poorly understood. He also directs some comments to national-level consumers of intelligence, such as members of Congress, their staffers, and high-level policymakers. He intends to offer them background on the analytical process to improve their appreciation of analysis delivered. Since intelligence products explicitly differ from, say, journalist reports or academic studies, Fingar makes a point of clearly dispelling myths and misunderstandings so the customer can interpret intelligence appropriately.

The book is a compilation of lectures and new text. Chapters 2–4 are revised versions of lectures delivered at Stanford in 2009. The goal of those lectures was to increase general understanding of the intelligence analysis process as well as to encourage more young people to pursue careers in intelligence. The latter chapters were written specifically for this book. This compiled nature, however, fails to achieve a singular, cohesive message. Instead, the reader wanders through various perceptions, epiphanies, and explanations, somewhat like the advice a senior mentor might give to a junior analyst or mid-level IC manager. Chapter 2 addresses widely held misunderstandings about intelligence, countering the mythical image of an all-knowing, all-powerful intelligence community as well as that of a bumbling, internecine bureaucracy. Fingar debunks the first image by giving practical reasons for why intelligence is just plain hard and the second by highlighting lesser-known successes. He then waxes philosophic on the nuances of intelligence analysis, with Chapter 3 pointing out various idiosyncrasies of analysis, while chapter 4 comments on the dilemma of producing near-term at the expense of long-term analysis.

Unlike the others, chapter 5 could be used as a stand-alone reading; it provides a worthwhile description of the purpose and process of NIEs. NIEs convey the IC’s most authoritative judgments on specified subjects, meaning that they are approved by the heads of all intelligence agencies, not (as Fingar stresses) that they are necessarily the most accurate. Intelligence estimates are, by definition, approximations, since they are based on material that is only partially known or even unknown. Hence, Fingar advises customers to give weight to analytical judgments based on sources, competing analyses, and other nuances. Chapter 6, “A Tale of Two Estimates” ruminates on the tragically flawed 2003 NIE on Iraq’s WMD program and the politically controversial 2007 NIE on Iran’s nuclear program. This chapter will disappoint readers looking for a juicy postmortem on either product. Fingar uses them as departure points for describing key process changes he pursued as chair of the NIC. He does not retread ground already covered by other studies. In fact, it may be slightly hard to follow for the reader who does not already understand the basics. So do not expect a tutorial on those cases or a tool for researching those NIEs; however, his endnotes offer an excellent starting point for such research. His final chapter on lessons and challenges offers general observations for the IC. Here again, one gets the “mentor” image, as the recommendations themselves are too broad and vague to drive practical implementation.

Although the book is largely anecdotal, it earns a place in literature on intelligence analysis. Security tends to impede lively discourse on intelligence in the unclassified press, thus precluding a robust field of literature for this profession. Fingar’s book is a worthwhile addition. Do not expect to find hard-hitting instruction on how to conduct analysis or rigorous explication of the process. And do not expect to find insights into current or recent top-level management of the IC. Fingar ended his tenure in the IC in 2008, and he does not employ the book as a tell-all on his time at the top. Instead, Reducing Uncertainty is better approached as a conversation for pondering analysis as an art and profession.

Lt Col Anne K. Blas, USAF

Air Command and Space College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

Strategic Studies Quarterly (SSQ) and the Air & Space Power Journal (ASPJ) publish book reviews to inform readers and enhance the content of articles in the journals.