In the intelligence community it is (and has been) an issue of concern.  In my daily weekly first-time-in-too-long scan of my RSS feeds, I came across a reference to an article in Studies in Intelligence, the CIA’s professional journal, titled “An Intelligence Role for the Footnote: For and Against.”  The article is actually a reprint of an article that originally appeared in the journal in 1964.  It was reprinted, in part, because of directives by policymakers in recent years calling on the intelligence community to be more explicit in citing sources in finished intelligence products sent to policymakers.  In particular, recommendation ten of the report of the Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction stated,

Recommendation 10. Finished intelligence should include careful sourcing for all analytic assessments and conclusions, and these materials should—whenever possible in light of legitimate security concerns—be made easily available to intelligence customers. We recommend forcing analysts to make their assumptions and reasoning more transparent by requiring that analysis be well sourced, and that all finished intelligence products…provide  citations to enable user verification of particular statements. (p. 412)

The bulk of the article is an argument in favor of citing sources.  (The author, John Alexander, is not making an argument in favor of the textual use of the footnote.  In fact, he recommends against it as a practical matter.  Rather, “footnote” here means citation of sources.)  Alexander details the potentially negative effects of not citing sources, as well as the potential benefits of citing sources, for the intelligence community.

As an academic, I was predisposed to agree with his arguments, especially considering that he held up academic scholarly work as something to be emulated.  And I did, and still do, agree…but only to a degree.  The moment of welcome surprise came when I read the rebuttal which appears in the last couple pages.  Another intelligence professional, Allan Evans (an historian by training), did a fine job of countering the arguments made in the bulk of the text.  I won’t rehash them here.  Rather, I would encourage folks to go and read through the entire thing.  Especially for academics, I think the benefit is that it causes one to think critically about a fundamental, taken-for-granted element of scholarly practice.

Ultimately, of course, I will not give up on citing sources.  I couldn’t even if I wanted to!  And on the issue of citing sources in intelligence products, though I have not worked in the intelligence community, I know enough to know that the work that happens there, though similar in many respects to research “outside the fence,” has its own demands, some of which make the citation of sources problematic, to say the least.

Nonetheless, I think that there exists the possibility of a compromise position between the two extremes found in the article cited (!) above.  The preface material to the article makes it clear that there is more citation of sources happening today within the intelligence community than there was in the past.  There were a number of logistical difficulties mentioned by both authors (e.g. difficulties of typesetting, adding, removing, altering, etc. of citations in the print-based environment of the 1960s) that should be easily dealt with today through the use of computerized systems.  Thus, technologically anyway, it should be easier now than it was before to answer the “For or Against?” question with a resounding “Yes!”  That is, the question may no longer be a binary one.  Rather, the question could be about when and when not to cite sources in such documents, possibly even which sources to cite and which not to cite depending on the reader and his/her need to know, level of security clearance, etc.

But, of course, this is not merely a technological issue.  More precisely, most technological issues are not even solely technological.  Rather, there’s always that pesky social and cultural stuff to deal with, not to mention the agency of those factors over which we humans don’t always have the control that we would like, what is sometimes lovingly (but too simplistically) called the “real world.”  So maybe this kind of in-between solution would be too complicated, devolving into meaninglessness as producers were unclear and uneven in their use of citations and consumers were equally unclear about what the presence versus absence of a citation meant.  To make the system work, at minimum, there would have to be a set of clear guidelines for the use of citations that are understood by producers, as well as clear explanations of the meaning of citations (or lack thereof) for the consumers of those products at various levels.  And the solutions to these difficulties would have to respond to the very real demands placed on the intelligence community–i.e. sometimes it really is the case that identifying a source can get a real human being killed.  While things might be done (a great deal) differently, we can’t do just anything.

Finally, a note of question/speculation.  I wonder to what degree increasing exposure to new media, blogging in particular, may be a contributing factor in the increased interest in citation within the intelligence community.  Some have pointed out that bloggers exhibit and enforce an “ethic of citation” similar in some ways to that found in scholarly communities–i.e. citation, in this case, in the form of hyper-linking, is essential to building authority and legitimacy within the community.  Might the increased use of citation and the reprint of this article be one more data point indicative of the larger socio-cultural trend in which more individuals have become familiar with hyper-textuality such that they come to expect it, even demand it, as a feature of their daily lives?

In the spirit of citation (and in footnote format no less!):

  1. John Alexander and Allan Evans, “An Intelligence Role for the Footnote: For and Against,” Studies in Intelligence 52, no. 2 (2008): 59-69.

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