Commentary Magazine


How Many CIA Agents Does It Take To Produce a Telephone Directory?

One of the most important functions carried out by U.S. intelligence is analysis of the vast quantities of data collected by the sixteen agencies of the intelligence community (IC). To do this job, the IC needs a lot of analysts. Who and where are they?

That has long proved to be a remarkably difficult question for senior officials to answer.

Ten years ago, one such official came up with the seemingly simple idea of creating a database that would record the names, locations, and specialties of all the analysts working in the IC.  The computers were duly programmed, but the data were never entered. What went wrong?

Thomas Fingar, the director of national intelligence for analysis, and the chairman of the National Intelligence Council, has offered a fascinating explanation in a recent talk at the Council on Foreign Relations. The database, he explained, had been

billed as a “This is where we’ll go if we need to build a task force. We needed a Serbo-Croat speaker to send out to East Armpit.” And people didn’t put that data in. Others — managers —  saw it as a free-agent list. “If I advertise what talent I’ve got, somebody . . . will try and steal it.”

The lesson here is that, try as one might to persuade people working in large organizations to cooperate for the common good, nitty-gritty career incentives will always and forever trump everything else.

Now, in the aftermath of 9/11 and other intelligence fiascos, the intelligence community is once again trying to create a telephone book. Fingar, who is running the initiative, has put out the word that being in the telephone directory is important: “If you’re not in it, it means one of two things: You don’t know anything, or your boss thinks you don’t know anything.” On top of that, a more draconian signal was sent out: “If you’re not in Fingar’s database, you’re not in a funded position.”

The results have been nothing short of astonishing. Reports Fingar:

I suddenly discovered I had 1,200 more analysts than I knew I had, even by estimating. But we can now reproduce phone book, e-mail directories. If you need to find an expert on economics in the Andean region, you can find out where they are, how to contact them. And people are using it.

Hearty congratulations are due the intelligence community. After ten years, it now has a telephone book. But where in the world is Osama bin Laden?