By Dr. Charles M. Russo  |  06/28/2024

hand holding pen writing in notebook


Intelligence analysts must be critical thinkers. They need to be able to synthesize contrasting information received from multiple sources and use that information to anticipate and prevent illicit activities, including terrorism, human trafficking, and organized crime. The entire intelligence process explores various facets of critical thinking and how it toughens the analytical skills of industry professionals.

Analysts must also be strong writers, able to share information both clearly and concisely. Ultimately, intelligence analysts are responsible for presenting data through comprehensive written reports, maps, or charts based on their research, collection, and analysis of intelligence data.

In my years of being an intelligence analyst for the U.S. federal government (civilian and contractor), active-duty military, and reserve, I have seen my share of analysts and their work, good and bad. Throughout my 26-year career, I cannot pretend that I was always a stellar analyst myself.

But as the years went by, I learned a lot and greatly improved my critical thinking and writing skills in regard to the art of intelligence analysis. How did I accomplish that? By adopting a reflective framework and proactively reading, writing, and thinking more.

Such a framework potentially influences the entire Intelligence Community by ensuring that analysts can effectively communicate their findings, positively influencing decision-making processes and operational outcomes. When analysts adopt a reflective framework, they not only improve their ability to analyze information, but also enhance their capacity to create intelligence products that are clear, concise, and actionable.


Improving Your Critical Thinking

When intelligence failures happen, the failures are often blamed on the lack of imagination by the analysts, as in the 9/11 Commission Report. The importance of critical thinking within the context of intelligence analysis has been heard again and again from:

  • The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI)
  • The U.S. Intelligence Community
  • Many professional schools, such as the National Defense Intelligence College, National Intelligence University, Central Intelligence Agency University, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy

The first thing analysts need to do to improve their critical thinking skills is to spend time thinking about how they think. Improving critical thinking skills requires one to be self-directed, self-monitored, self-disciplined, and self-corrective.

Practitioners must be mindful of commanding their thinking and adopting a critical thinking stand. Humans have biases, assumptions, and preconceptions that often distort the quality of thought. If the analyst understands what critical thinking is and how to think critically, their ability to process information should naturally and ultimately lead to improved analysis.

Like anything, improving how you think takes practice. Analysts should exercise their minds by reading and talking about what they’re learning.

There are a plethora of books, articles, and tips to help you improve your analytical thinking skills and to add structured reasoning to your repertoire. The majority of articles encourage active reading and playing brain games as a practical and fun way to improve cognitive functionality and intuitive thinking. Spending just 15 minutes a day on such activities has been shown to boost brain power.

Reading and comprehending materials meant specifically for those in the intelligence field will further advance your critical thinking skills. Here’s a list of resources to help an analyst improve critical thinking and analysis skills:


Ways to Improve Your Writing

In addition to critical thinking, it is vital for analysts to be effective writers. Being able to write well is something that can be taught and often improves with time and experience.

Author and historian David McCullough once stated: “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” That’s why critical thinking skills are so important and directly contributes to strong analytic writing skills.

Analytical writing is used to synthesize and interpret information, not to describe. An analyst renders what is complex and makes it simple to show relationships between pieces of information.

Since the analyst’s mission is to read, weigh, and assess fragmented information to determine its meaning, the analyst has to look for the “big picture.” The analyst has to be able to draw conclusions that are greater than the data they are based on.

Follow BLUF

When writing, an analyst should present conclusions first, also known as the “Bottom Line Up Front” (BLUF). Leading with an assessment and proceeding with supporting information allows a reader to immediately know the message.

Writing must exemplify clarity and brevity. An analyst writes primarily in an expository style, which requires the use of precise words and simple language. It cannot be stressed enough that when writing an intelligence document, the analyst must focus on clarity and structure.

A successful intelligence product is one that conveys the same message to all who read it. To ensure this, the analyst must write clearly and concisely in a way that is simple, yet succinct, so that any reader cannot misunderstand the message. Analysts should always be working to enhance their writing skills to improve clarity, brevity, precision, and structure.

Know Your Audience

Part of writing well is knowing your readers and what they need. As an analyst, you should be asking two questions:

  1. What is the message you are conveying?
  2. So what?

Your audience is looking for insight into situations, and your judgments will help them make decisions. While you’re writing, visualize the client and pretend like you’re speaking directly to them. Play devil’s advocate and try to anticipate the questions readers may ask about your work.

Edit, Edit, Edit

Few analysts get it right on the first draft. Each analyst should take time to edit and further develop their intelligence products.

Too many times, individuals want to write something and immediately push it further up the chain without review. Unless there’s a strict timeline, this practice is often unwise.

Analysts must take the time to read, review, and revise their work. Proofread, check for grammar and punctuation, evaluate if your language can be more direct and simple, and continuously revise your writing to improve its clarity.

Read It Out Loud

It helps to read your work out loud to hear how it sounds. This practice can help you catch problems with sentence structure or word usage. While this suggestion may seem very basic, it is one often- overlooked way to improve your writing.

Ask Others to Review

Turn to others for insight about your writing by asking for feedback and suggestions. It’s often very beneficial to have a fresh set of eyes on an intelligence product since the author tends to become so engrossed in the material. When someone provides feedback, take the time to evaluate their suggestions or corrections so you can learn from it and avoid those mistakes in the future.


Enroll in Writing or Academic Courses

Look for opportunities to write more. If you’re pursuing a degree, get feedback from your professors on your papers. Many agencies within the U.S. Intelligence Community also offer writing courses.

For instance, the National Intelligence University and the Naval Postgraduate School offers writing courses to their students. In addition, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence offers Analytic Tradecraft Standards (ODNI Intel Community Directive 203), which provides a common foundation for developing analytic skills.

Analysts should check with each agency within the U.S. Intelligence Community from time to time to see if new writing courses are being offered.


Other Resources to Improve Your Writing

One of the most authoritative books to help both the aspiring analyst and the seasoned veteran improve their writing is James S. Major’s “Communicating with Intelligence: Writing and Briefing in the Intelligence and National Security Communities.” What makes this book significant is Major's inclusion of practical exercises to reinforce his key points at the end of each chapter.

This book focuses on “writing with intelligence.” It covers the value of reading intelligence publications, the basic tools of writing, critical drafting and polishing processes, and techniques for reviewing analytical papers.

The book also focuses on briefing techniques. It lays out the elements of a good briefing and the manner in which it should be delivered.

Other features included in the book are a glossary for writers, a briefing checklist, a sample briefing, and a self-evaluation form. This book should be in every intelligence analyst’s repertoire of intelligence literature for how to become a better analytic writer and briefer.

Becoming a better thinker and writer takes time, experience, and practice. Every analyst must be self-motivated to improve these skills to produce stronger, more thorough intelligence products.


Intelligence Studies Degrees at American Military University

American Military University (AMU) offers both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in intelligence studies. These programs are tailored for adult learners who plan to pursue job opportunities in the intelligence, national security, and corporate sectors or who are industry professionals seeking to upskill their knowledge and abilities.

With an online format and monthly course starts, these programs offer the flexibility needed for students balancing other commitments. The faculty comprises experienced professionals from the U.S. intelligence community and military, bringing real-world expertise to the curriculum.

Bachelor of Arts in Intelligence Studies

The objectives of AMU’s online bachelor's degree in intelligence studies include developing a thorough understanding of the entire intelligence analysis process, counterintelligence, and ethical considerations. Students will have the opportunity to research intelligence practices, integrate various intelligence disciplines, and evaluate intelligence activities within legal and ethical frameworks.

Master of Arts in Intelligence Studies

The online master's degree in intelligence studies at AMU offers a more advanced education in strategic intelligence, emphasizing analysis, collection, and operations shaped by defense sector experts. Students will have the chance to explore counterintelligence, international relations, and homeland security.

In addition, students will potentially learn to analyze the Intelligence Community's evolution, understand the intelligence cycle, investigate data sources, and assess security threats. They will examine national intelligence structures, study planning, collection, and analysis methods, and evaluate security threats.

For more details, visit our program page.

About the Author
Dr. Charles M. Russo

Dr. Charles M. Russo is an instructor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Public University. He possesses a PhD in Public Safety Leadership from Capella University and an MA in Intelligence Studies from American Public University. Charles served in the US Navy for 17 years as an Intelligence Specialist and has taught Criminal Justice, Homeland Security and Intelligence at American Public University, Colorado Technical University and several other state universities. He is a retired US Intelligence Community Intelligence Analyst after serving over 26 years, which included the US Navy, US Air Force, Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He is the CEO of Intelligence Career Services, a provider of mentoring and assisting individuals looking to become active in the IC. He is also a consultant supporting intelligence, law enforcement and emergency response training and education efforts across state and local government. He currently lives and works in Carson City, Nevada. To reach him, email [email protected].

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