Say again?

September 14, 2012

Whirling around the stories of the recent assassination of the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans is the issue of whether or not the United States had an intelligence “warning” about this.

The issue seems to have begun with the UK publication, The Independent, which reported.

According to senior diplomatic sources, the US State Department had credible information 48 hours before mobs charged the consulate in Benghazi, and the embassy in Cairo, that American missions may be targeted, but no warnings were given for diplomats to go on high alert and “lockdown”, under which movement is severely restricted.

The White House quickly responded, saying that

“I have seen that report, and the story is absolutely wrong,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “We were not aware of any actionable intelligence indicating that an attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi was planned or imminent.”

Well, that’s that, right?  The Independent made a charge, and the White House denied it.  Not by half.  Simply based on reading the statements, slowly and carefully, it is possible that both statements are supported by the facts.  How is that? It lies, among other places, in the important distinction between raw intelligence and actionable intelligence.

The U.K. publication called out the U.S. Administration based on “credible information” that “American missions [unspecified] may be targeted”.  Note that the article did not state that the consulate in Benghazi and/or the embassy in Cairo were targeted, but simply referred to American “missions”.  Also note that the article claimed that they “may” be targeted, not that they “were” targeted.

Now, consider the response.  The White House said that the Administration, at least that is what I assume from the word “we”, was “not aware of any actionable intelligence indicating that an attack on the US mission in Benghazi was planned or imminent”.  That statement contains at least four separate thoughts:

  1. That “we” were “not aware” of something.  What exactly does aware mean?  I guess it depends on who “we” are. The White House? The US Intelligence community? The article said that the US State Department had the information. Was “we” the State Department?
  2. That the lack of awareness was of “actionable intelligence”.  Actionable intelligence is intelligence on which you can take action.  That is certainly a much more precise and refined item than mere “credible information”, which is just another way of saying believable raw data.
  3. That the standard being applied by the White House was that the intelligence had to deal with the US mission in Benghazi.  The Independent article simply referred to unnamed U.S. “missions”, considerably broader and undefined. In Libya? In the Mideast? Worldwide?
  4. That whatever was out there had to indicate that an attack “was planned or imminent”.  The Independent article referred to the fact that some American missions “may” be targeted, but for what was not clear for what. Demonstrations? Blockades? Assaults? Fire bombings? Assassinations?

What does all of this mean? It means that The Independent and the White House are talking at cross purposes.  That’s why I say they could both be correct.

By the way, for those of you who are really into learning about the use and misuse of language, consider Goggling the term “negative pregnant,” and reading what this legal concept says about an answer to a question which is highly, highly specific.  I’m not saying were facing one here, because I don’t know what question(s) the White House spokesman actually answered.

Start Right or Don’t Start at All

When you’re faced with starting your first DIY CI project, your instinct probably tells you to dive into it.  That is totally wrong.  You have to step back and consider what it is you are going after before you go after it.

Start by writing or typing what it is you want to know.  Let’s say you found out that the competitor has launched a new product.  Your question may be “What does that mean to us?”

That is too broad.  Try narrowing the question down by asking couple of sub questions like, “What do they expect to gain by offering this product?”, or “Is it aimed at eventually replacing a product already in their inventory?” or “Is it the first in a line of future products?”

Then look at these questions, and eliminate those that really are not important.  The goal is to leave you with a targeted question that you can focus on.

If this sounds too bookish, try another approach.  Ask yourself,

“If I had the answer, the competitive intelligence, that I think I need, what decision could I make or what action could I take that I can’t do now without it?”

If your answer is unclear or uncertain, then why are you doing this? Your goal is unclear.

What I’m trying to show you is that you should use CI for “need to know“, not “nice to know” problems.  Nice to know is – well – nice.  Need to know is actionable and in your hands the CI you develop can be proactive.