Tuesday, June 18, 2019


Apollo 11 in Real-Time is the very definition of cool.
HUMINT, SIGINT, OSINT--the specialized language of intelligence is all ate up with acronyms for the various collection disciplines.  Intel wags have (for at least the last 40 years I have been doing this stuff) come up with a variety of clever (?) plays on this formulation.  For example:  RUMINT = Intelligence founded on rumors alone.  DUMBINT = Intelligence too stupid to believe.

COOLINT is usually reserved for something that is, well, cool but might not be particularly relevant to the question at hand.  You want to show COOLINT to other people.  You KNOW they will be interested in it.  It's the clickbait of the intel world.

A great example of COOLINT is the Apollo 11 In Real-time website (the mobile version is OK but you will want to look at it on your PC or MAC.  Trust me).  In fact, I used the hashtag "#COOLINT" when I tweeted out this site this morning.  The guys who put this amazing site together have mashed up all of the audio and video, all of the commentary, and all of the pictures into a single website that allows you to follow along with the mission from T - 1 minute to splashdown.  It doesn't really have anything to do with intelligence, but, to a spacegeek like me, you find the Apollo 11 in Real-time website next to the word "cool" in the dictionary.

I intend to argue here, however, that there is a more formal definition of COOLINT, one that is actually useful in analytic reporting.  To do this, I want to first briefly explore the concepts of "relevant" and "interesting"

One of the hallmarks of good intelligence analysis is that it be relevant to the decisionmaker(s) being supported.  ICD 203 makes this mandatory for all US national security intel analysts but, even without the regulation, relevance has long been the standard in intel tradecraft.

"Interesting" is a term which gets significantly less attention in intel circles.  There is no requirement that good intel be interesting.  It is ridiculous to think that good intel should meet the same standards as a good action movie or even a good documentary.  That said, if I have two pieces of information that convey the same basic, relevant facts and one is "interesting" and other is not (for example, 500 words of statistical text vs. one chart), I would be a bit of a fool not to use the interesting one.  Intel analysts don't just have a responsibility to perform the analysis, they also have a responsibility to communicate it to the decisionmaker they are supporting.  "Interesting" is clearly less important than "relevant" but, in order to communicate the analysis effectively, something that has to be considered.

With all this in mind, it is possible to construct a matrix to help an analyst think about the kinds of information they have available and where it all should go in their analytic reports or briefings:
"Interesting" vs. "Relevant" in analytic reporting
Interesting and relevant information should always be considered for use in a report or brief.  Length or time limits might preclude it, but if it meets both criteria, and particularly if it is a linchpin or a driver of the analysis, this kind of info highly likely belongs in the report.

Relevant information which is not particularly interesting might have to go in the report--it may be too relevant not to include.  However, there are many ways to get this kind of info in the report or brief.  Depending on the info's overall importance to the analysis, it might be possible to include it in a footnote, annex, or backup slide instead of cluttering up the main body of the analysis.

Information that is interesting but not relevant is COOLINT.  It is that neat little historical anecdote that has nothing to do with the problem, or that very cool image that doesn't really explain anything at all.  The temptation to get this stuff into the report or brief is great.  I have seen analysts twist themselves into knots to try to get a particular piece of COOLINT into a briefing or report.  Don't do it.  Put it in a footnote or an annex if you have to, and hope the decisionmaker asks you a question where your answer can start with, "As it so happens..."

Info which is not interesting and not relevant needs to be left out of the report.  I hope this goes without saying.

Three caveats to this way of thinking about info.  First, I have presented this as if the decision is binary--info is either relevant OR irrelevant, interesting OR uninteresting.  That isn't really how it works.  It is probably better to think of these terms as if they were on a scale that weighs both criteria.  It is possible, in other words, to be "kind of interesting" or "really relevant."

The other caveat is that both the terms interesting and relevant should be defined in terms of the decisionmaker and the intelligence requirement.  Relevancy, in other words, is relevancy to the question; "interesting", on the other hand, is about communication.  What is interesting to one decisionmaker might not be to another.

Finally, if you use this at all, use it as a rule of thumb, not as a law.  There are always exceptions to these kinds of models.