Trump and Intelligence: 6 ways to deal with challenging intelligence consumers

Rick Holland | 4 January 2017

It is no secret the President Elect Trump is skeptical of the Intelligence Community (IC). He has openly questioned Russia/US election “hacking” on many occasions. This week he tweeted:

 

Trump

Trump has also shunned the longstanding Presidential Daily Intelligence Brief. The Washington Post wrote about it here: “Trump turning away intelligence briefers since election win.

President Trump doesn’t have a full understanding of intelligence tradecraft, how organizations are compromised, or the incident response process. Just to be clear, I have no partisan or hyperbolic intentions with these statements. First, he tweets about catching the “hackers in the act.”

Trump Hackers In The Act 

Second, Trump quotes Assange and talks about the DNC being so careless. He doesn’t understand that “careless” is the status quo, regardless if you are a political organization or a Fortune 500 company. He also minimizes the threat from teenager “hackers.” During the Presidential Debates, Trump alluded to 400 pound hackers sitting in their beds.

Trump Podesta Assange Tweet

It can be easy for those of us in the cyber security and intelligence communities to scoff at Trump’s perspective of these issues. The reality is that over the next four years, Trump is going to be a challenging consumer of intelligence products. To have any chance of successfully communicating with Trump, the IC is going to have to tailor their products to this very difficult intelligence consumer.

There are lessons that we can apply to our own organizations. When it comes to technology and cyber security, Trump isn’t that different than most of your key executives. They aren’t technologists; they aren’t practitioners and they certainly don’t understand things that we know to be true. With this in mind, I want to focus on six ways to effectively communicate and tailor intelligence to uninformed and/or difficult executive audiences.

 

  1. Use their terminology; not yours. Those of us from both the intelligence and cybersecurity communities have a tendency to use our own abbreviations and terminology. Unless your intelligence consumer comes from your community, they won’t understand what you are trying to communicate. Use their own lexicon and analogies to help communicate your message.
  2. Focus on what they care about. If you are creating products for a technical audience, Indicators of Compromise (IOCs) and Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs) are fine. They aren’t acceptable for executive level products. Business risk, assets, liabilities, profit and loss are terms executives are interested in. This has been said for many years; yet the problem persists.
  3. Create a personal story that resonates with your consumer. With as expansive as Trump’s business interests are and how pervasive intrusions are, it is highly likely that one of his companies has suffered a breach. The impact to his own business interests could be used to help Trump understand how intrusions work and what their impact is. Learn the art of storytelling and come up with a narrative that your audience can personally identify with.
  4. Build briefing dossiers on your intelligence consumers. You build dossiers on your adversaries, why not build them for your intelligence consumers. What are their trigger words? What are the passionate about? Understanding and documenting what to say and what not to say is key for effective communication with a challenging consumer. Capturing this information is key; you need to learn from your successes and failures. Given the rate of turnover within organizations, capturing this knowledge is important for continuity of production.
  5. You may have to alter your existing practices. Just because you have historically done something, doesn’t mean the approach can automatically be applied to a new intelligence consumer. In Trump’s, case the IC might have to shift from the daily intelligence briefing to a weekly intelligence briefing. (I know this is a foreign concept to many of us from the IC who have directly or indirectly contributed to the PDB). When it comes to intelligence products, one size doesn’t fit all. You will have to tailor your intelligence product’s format and timetable to the audience.
  6. Engage with them outside of official work channels. Look for ways to interact with your intelligence consumers outside of official forums and meetings. Would they be willing to mentor you? Could you take them out for lunch or coffee?  This should resonate with people from our space, come up with a benign social engineering strategy to establish trust that will be the foundation of an ongoing relationship.  

Challenging intelligence consumers aren’t going away, so you must develop a strategy to make the best of the situation. Shifting an intelligence consumer from uninformed or adversarial position to a champion can be successful. I’d love to hear your ideas for helping this shift be successful.