Center for Strategic Communication

[ by Charles Cameron — embassy or consulate — a minor detail for an editor, perhaps, but all the difference in the world for Ambassador J Christopher Stevens ]

Here’s a screen grab of a piece posted on the Atlantic site today:


The article itself is worth your time, and I’ll get back to the screen grab later. Here’s the text para that interests me:

In the famous “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US” Presidential Daily Brief of August 6, 2001, one of the major analytic points was that “Al-Qa’ida members — including some who are US citizens — have resided in or traveled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks” (emphasis added). Notice that this analysis uses two hedges in a single sentence. Given the lack of certainty on the issue, such linguistic dodging made sense — as it does in report after report where individuals are discussing information below the level of actionable intelligence.

Leah Farrall has been tweeting about the way this characteristically cautious phrasing used by analysts gets lost as “the higher up the food chain an analytical report goes the greater the tendency for bosses in [the] food chain to add their two cents worth” — so that by the time it reaches the politicians, “there is absolutely WMD.”

The shift from “apparently” to “absolutely” is an interesting one.


The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate featured a section on the nomenclature of such distinctions, which I trust and imagine was directed more at its readers than towards the analysts who produced it:

What We Mean When We Say: An Explanation of Estimative Language

When we use words such as “we judge” or “we assess”—terms we use synonymously — as well as “we estimate,” “likely” or “indicate,” we are trying to convey an analytical assessment or judgment. These assessments, which are based on incomplete or at times fragmentary information are not a fact, proof, or knowledge. Some analytical judgments are based directly on collected information; others rest on previous judgments, which serve as building blocks. In either type of judgment, we do not have “evidence” that shows something to be a fact or that definitively links two items or issues.

Intelligence judgments pertaining to likelihood are intended to reflect the Community’s sense of the probability of a development or event. Assigning precise numerical ratings to such judgments would imply more rigor than we intend. The chart below provides a rough idea of the relationship of terms to each other.

We do not intend the term “unlikely” to imply an event will not happen. We use “probably” and “likely” to indicate there is a greater than even chance. We use words such as “we cannot dismiss,” “we cannot rule out,” and “we cannot discount” to reflect an unlikely—or even remote—event whose consequences are such it warrants mentioning. Words such as “may be” and “suggest” are used to reflect situations in which we are unable to assess the likelihood generally because relevant information is nonexistent, sketchy, or fragmented.

In addition to using words within a judgment to convey degrees of likelihood, we also ascribe “high,” “moderate,” or “low” confidence levels based on the scope and quality of information supporting our judgments.

• “High confidence” generally indicates our judgments are based on high-quality information and/or the nature of the issue makes it possible to render a solid judgment.
• “Moderate confidence” generally means the information is interpreted in various ways, we have alternative views, or the information is credible and plausible but not corroborated sufficiently to warrant a higher level of confidence.
• “Low confidence” generally means the information is scant, questionable, or very fragmented and it is difficult to make solid analytic inferences, or we have significant concerns or problems with the sources.


You could think of these as counter-telephone measures — attempts to avoid the distortions and corruptions that tend to arise when a message is passed from one person to another, And that’s important a fortiori when an ascending food-chain of transmitters may wish (or be persuaded) to formulate a message that will assure them the favorable attention of their superiors — but also because the higher the report goes, the closer it gets to decision-time..

As the Atlantic article says, this kind of “linguistic dodging” (aka attention to nuance) makes sense “in report after report where individuals are discussing information below the level of actionable intelligence.”

Inevitably there’s a shift in tempo between contemplation and action.


Anyway, messages tend to get distorted as they’re passed along.

Consider, for instance, the caption to the photograph that graces the Atlantic piece at the top of this post:

The U.S Embassy in Benghazi burns following an attack in September. (Reuters)

There’s only one problem there. The US didn’t have an Embassy in Benghazi — they had a Consulate — and that’s not a distinction that lacks a consequence. Whatever else may be the case, Ambassador Stevens would certainly have been better guarded had he been back in Tripoli in his embassy.

Whoever wrote that caption wasn’t as deeply immersed in the situation as the former CIA analyst who write the article. And when you’re not deeply immersed, it is perilously easy to get minor but important details wrong.