By Sarath K. Ganji
On a brisk winter morning in New York City, W. Park Armstrong was dispatched to the U.N. Secretariat Building to deliver an urgent briefing. A week earlier, in late October 1956, Israeli paratroopers had touched down in the Egyptian Sinai, followed days later by British and French aircraft. The invading coalition had taken aim at Egyptian positions across the Sinai Peninsula—the culmination of a months-long posturing by both sides over stewardship of the Suez Canal. Stateside, American officials had secured an audience with U.N. Secretary-General Daag Hammarskjold, hoping to head off a wider conflagration. Among these officials was Armstrong, the Department of State’s intelligence chief. Drawing on the Department’s vast catalogue of contacts and briefings, he underscored the need for immediate U.N. action to Hammarskjold. His remarks lasted but 15 minutes. Five days later, the still infant U.N. deployed its first peacekeeping force—and order slowly returned to the peninsula.
Armstrong spoke analytical truth to power in a moment of consequence—one in a series of moments that have come to define his office, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). This year marks the 75th anniversary of INR’s founding at the Department. In that span, it has provided timely, independent, all-source analysis to equip executive principals with intelligence insights and policymakers with decision-making advantage. Bolstering that mission are generations of INR analysts and researchers who, in the rooms where it happened, were the incessant questioners, the lonely dissenters, and, like Armstrong, the pivotal briefers. That, above all, is the legacy that links the stories of INR’s remarkable past to the innovations driving its bold future.
That past begins amid the tumult of World War II and the launch of America’s “Chairborne Division.” Tasked by President Franklin D. Roosevelt with coordinating U.S. intelligence efforts, General William “Wild Bill” Donovan formed the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to recruit foreign agents, combat enemy spies, conduct special operations, and process intelligence. The last of these functions fell to a 900-person unit of scholars assigned to the Research and Analysis Branch. The image of chair-bound intellectuals may seem contrary to popular portrayals of wartime operatives. In fact, the Branch embodied Donovan’s belief that most intelligence came from “good old-fashioned intellectual sweat,” and his team proved it. Drawing on deep expertise spanning a dozen disciplines, Branch scholars combed open sources to identify and exploit Axis vulnerabilities, including those critical to the Allied invasion on D-Day. After the war, their contributions to public life continued in the achievements of diplomat Ralph Bunche, economist Walt Rostow, and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., among others.
Much like its scholars, the Branch too found purpose after the war—as part of the Department. During its early years, INR channeled the academic bent of its predecessor to produce a series of basic intelligence studies called the National Intelligence Surveys. Their aim was to prepare “warrior-diplomats” for deployments. As Cold War tensions intensified, INR’s outputs increasingly emphasized current intelligence. This translated into daily morning briefings for the secretary of state and around-the-clock estimates for bureau principals. As its products diversified, so too did INR’s personnel. Foreign Service officers began rotating into INR in greater frequency, layering in-country experience onto the organizational perspective of Civil Service personnel. In the decades that followed, INR would be called upon to separate actionable signals from geopolitical noise, from China’s race for the bomb to Iraq’s missing stockpiles. Time and again, INR’s products and personnel—and the culture underwriting them—would deliver.
INR’s culture, according to journalist David Ignatius, centers on an “intolerance for mediocrity.” That intolerance manifests in unmatched expertise. The Bureau’s analysts and intelligence officers have, on average, 14 years of experience in their regional and functional fields. That intolerance delivers consistent quality. More than 90 percent of INR’s clients consider its products and services to be “useful” or better. That intolerance derives from agility amid uncertainty. Public opinion polling, academic exchanges, 24/7 crisis support, and the country’s chief geographer—all reside within a Bureau that has augmented its capabilities to meet the moment. Crucially, that intolerance pivots on outsized performance. INR provides policymakers 300–500 briefing books, oral briefings, and emails each week and is the largest per capita contributor to the president’s daily brief. Even in its less lauded intelligence advice and coordination role, INR covers the diplomatic side of the intelligence community’s work: reviewing sensitive operations, managing overseas presence, and making intelligence usable for policymakers by processing more than 1,000 requests annually. It is no wonder then that former Defense Secretary Les Aspin described INR as the “biggest little intelligence shop in town, where they really do a lot more with a lot less.”
Today, that shop is as relevant as ever. Over the past several months, INR has played an important role in the U.S. government’s global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bureau’s Analytic Outreach Office convened an expert discussion on the pandemic’s origins; its Geographer and Global Issues Office developed a dashboard to inform U.S. missions of the virus’s global reach; and its analysts have been monitoring how COVID-19’s domestic toll is being reported in international sources. In response to domestic COVID-19 conditions, INR developed a new unclassified product, Commentaries, and a new SharePoint platform, Tempo-U, to give Department personnel access to them. In the late summer of 2020, INR will scale that platform into Tempo (a digital platform), furnishing bureaus, intelligence agencies, and cleared policymakers with easier access to all of INR’s intelligence analysis and insights.
INR’s storied past and ongoing contributions are part and parcel of the history of the Department, the intelligence community, and the nation. To mark this milestone, Assistant Secretary Ellen McCarthy launched the INR 75th Anniversary Campaign—a series of activities, including panels, exhibits, and a symposium, that span the next several months. McCarthy kicked off the campaign in June with a special screening of the WWII documentary “Operation Overlord: OSS and the Battle for France” followed by a panel discussion with the film’s director and OSS experts. More than 750 guests attended the digital event and INR looks forward to more upcoming celebrations.
Sarath K. Ganji is a consultant for the U.S. Department of State.