Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 12, 2010

Connecting Puzzles, Dots, and Intelligence

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing — by Christopher Bellavita on January 12, 2010

Today’s guest contributor is Lt. Vinicio Mata, Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety.  Sunnyvale is one of the few cities in the country to have a single, unified Department of Public Safety.  That means public safety personnel in the department are cross trained — and depending on the incident — can respond as police officers, emergency medical technicians, or firefighters.

In March, Lt. Mata will receive a master’s degree in homeland security from the Naval Postgraduate School.


The “inability to connect the dots” has become a rallying cry for pundits who want to criticize the intelligence gathering, analysis and dissemination performed by various agencies.

The connecting the dots analogy is an inaccurate way to explain alleged failures in the intelligence world.

Intelligence analysis is not like following numbered dots sequentially from 1-100 and creating a picture. That implies that we know there are numbers, that they are sequential, and that we know the range of those numbers.

Analyzing intelligence is not as simple as connecting the dots.  It is more like putting a puzzle together.

Imagine you are given such a task.  But with these limitation:

You have a partial idea of what the picture should be.  But you don’t know how many pieces the puzzle is supposed to be.

From your experience and by looking at the size of the pieces, you estimate that it is a 1500 to 2000 piece puzzle. The pieces are inside a box.

The majority of the pieces that belong to the picture you are making are missing. These pieces are in the box mixed with pieces from many other puzzles that are in no way related to the picture you have been tasked to put together.

These other pieces look like the ones you need.  But they don’t fit.

In order to determine whether you are holding the right piece, every one of the pieces needs to be looked at, compared against the partial picture you have, and compared against the pieces you have already deemed relevant.

From the relevant pieces, you are expected to put a picture together that is clear enough to be actionable.

The puzzle analogy is a much more accurate way to think about what intelligence analysts have to do.  The information they have to analyze is often incomplete, seemingly unrelated, and not sequential.

Connecting dots is a children’s game.  Transforming data and information into intelligence and making sure it gets to the right people at the right time is a skill, painstakingly acquired.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

January 12, 2010 @ 9:05 am

Certainly agree with the comment. “Connecting the Dots” though has become shorthand for failure to communicate, collaborate and cooperate since non of the barriers to interorganizational cooperation among the 16 INTEL community members has really changed. How do I know this? Rarely are INTEL community members detailed to other organizations! Rarely are they allowed to bypass need-to-know barriers erected to largely circumvent infor sharing. Rarely, are the personnel encouraged to have significant contacts insided or outside the INTEL communities own organizations! Finally, the ego, hubris, and training is totally wrapped around the notion that “we” know secrets and therefore must be important people. Again, stovepipes are in particular treated in compartmented programs and their cultures. Hey Top Secret used to be good enough. The compartmented programs are totally designed to evade any oversight by the DNI or OMB or the Congress. Question? Who has reviewed the training materials on Islamic Culture and various languages since 9/11 that is used by the INTEL community? Has that been reviewed by experts outside the government? And why not because how Islam and Islamic Culture is studied and discussed and examined by the INTEL community could be an important telltale of its bias with respect to that WESTERN religion.

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January 12, 2010 @ 10:08 am

Homeland Security Watch…

Of course homeland security could not be outsourced that easy as other combat duties. But it is OK to have guest contributors in the homeland security blog, especially if it is just a watch blog and if the guest is a member of the Homeland security him…

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