Brevity is Good

Doing some research about the government and military intelligence communities and what is referred to as “analytic tradecraft”, a notable omission in the available open-source references became apparent. Somewhat to my surprise, while every member of the intelligence community has an almost endless number of instructions, recommendations, and regulations about the analysis of information and intelligence, the legal and security considerations for intelligence products, and the proper dissemination and classification markings for intelligence products, there seems to be little in the way of actual instruction on how to actually write an intelligence report.

Obviously, analysts and other potential authors have – or should have – a more than passing familiarity with the written language (and if they don’t, the military has a number of references for them.) However, aside from the fundamentals of English, it seemed there would be other instructions for the creation of written intelligence products, given the sizable online presence of the world’s intelligence communities.

There are a large number of websites with information about intelligence and the analysis thereof, but they offer little more instruction in the nitty-gritty details of dissemination than “keep it brief”, “focus on the bottom line”, and “form is never more important than substance”. That might work in the burgeoning private-sector intelligence field, but surely there’s a right way to write reports, the wrong way… and the Army way. Right?

As it happens, there is an Army way of doing things, but the available literature has a particularly heavy emphasis on battlefield military intelligence, and the various reports all boil down to “where’s the enemy, and who’s going to kill them?” Too, the various bomb reports, shell reports, weather reports, and similar products follow very concise, specialized formats, specially tailored to suit the Army’s whims. However, the military does include some helpful guidance on intelligence products: “[R]eports are feeders of information into the intelligence system. If a gap in the information flow develops, or a problem is too complex for a report to solve, a study should be initiated.” When something is too complex for a report, a “study” is appropriate. Happily, the Army provides clear and concise instructions for correctly formatting a study – in just six easy paragraphs – the “problem”, the “assumptions”, the “facts bearing on the problem”, a “discussion”, “conclusions”, and “recommendations”.

In the Army, it seems, complex problems can be solved in just six paragraphs. Evidently, the various websites and manuals really are right, when they say that brevity is important, whether you call your finished product a “report”, an “analysis”, or a “study”. Oh, sure, there’s room at the end for annexes, supporting documents, concurrences, nonconcurrences, annexed summaries of lengthy concurrences and nonconcurrences, and all that rot – but that’s just details. One complex problem, six paragraphs, Bob’s your uncle, and the world’s a better place, apparently.

In conclusion, the “Army way” may not be – indeed, almost by definision is not – the “right way” to approach the formatting and layout of intelligence reports outside of its hallowed confines. In the absence of other available public guidance on the subject, if “keeping it brief” works successfully, it’s probably advisable to infer that another piece of “conventional wisdom” – namely, that form is never more important than substance – is equally valid advice, and follow it, by doing your own thing.

Published in: Geekiness, General, Security | on October 25th, 2007| Comments Off on Brevity is Good

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