Experiences to Go: Teaching with Intelligence Case Studies by Thomas W. Shreeve

Long associated with teaching at the graduate level in business and public administration, the case method represents a structured approach to learning from the past. The method relies on the use of historically accurate, written descriptions of events or dilemmas that students read, analyze, and meet to discuss under the guidance of an instructor. Instructors use questions to guide the discussion toward a particular pedagogical destination rather than declarative statements that tell students how or what to think about a complex issue. Learning by the case method is active rather than passive, as students are explicitly made partners in the reduction of ambiguity surrounding complex, realistic issues.

Students who learn by the case method improve their analytic skills when instructors ask them to identify the problems at hand and they fortify their decisionmaking skills when instructors ask them to propose a plan of action to resolve the problems they have identified. Driven by the constructive conflict that typically results from a group’s examination of a complex issue, case-based discussions frequently also result in improved student ability to express individual convictions in the face of criticism from peers. Any description that provokes thoughtful reflection and is historically accurate may be considered for use in a case-based class. The term “case” refers to a description of a dilemma that stops short of the outcome. The term “case study” refers to a description of a past event that has an outcome included in the document and thus is known to the students. Both vehicles are equally useful; case studies tend to be longer, more detailed, and more historical in tone.

The use of case studies as a basis for teaching in the intelligence profession requires a body of well-crafted cases and case studies that are relevant to the needs of students and faculty. There are a number of prospective sources for such material. External sources include civilian academic institutions such as the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. The JFK School’s catalog includes several dozen cases and case studies that may be appropriate for classroom use. This is particularly true for courses that feature the relationship between intelligence and national security policy; about a dozen JFK School cases examine this relationship in detail. Most of this material was created under a contract between the JFK School and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)’s Center for the Study of Intelligence. JFK School cases and case studies explore strategic issues, whereas CIA material addresses the tactical or operational levels of war, where many if not most JMIC graduates will spend their intelligence careers.

Another external source is the Intelligence Community Case Method Program, which has about 200 cases and case studies, many of which may also be appropriate for classroom use. Almost all of these are classified and cover a wide variety of dilemmas and events drawn directly from the experience of personnel from CIA, the State Department, the Armed Forces, and other elements of the U.S. Intelligence Community. Several of the case studies focus exclusively on military intelligence and counterintelligence issues, chiefly at the tactical and operational levels of war.

Other sources offer long-term value as they can be tailored specifically for classroom needs. One possibility is to convert selected existing master’s theses into case studies by careful editing and revision. The theses are available immediately and at no cost; however, a considerable investment of time and effort is required to convert them to the form of a case study. Another internal source is through faculty and student research and publication. Research by students supervised by faculty is probably the best long-term source of prospective cases and case studies.

Instructors who are unfamiliar with the case method or who need to refine their skills may benefit from attending an instructor workshop on the technique. Two workshops are conducted by Harvard University faculty, one in Cambridge meeting one afternoon per week for nine weeks and the other conducted sporadically at conferences of the American Society for Training and Development. The third is the CIA’s three-and-a-half day Case Method Teaching Workshop (CMTW), which can be conducted onsite.

Advantages of the CMTW include its low cost and the speed with which it can be used to familiarize a sizable number of interested instructors; it is also tailored specifically to the U.S. Intelligence Community. More than 250 Community instructors, including several from the Armed Forces, have attended the CMTW. Special iterations have been conducted for the U.S. Naval War College, the Armed Forces Staff College, the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and the Navy and Marine Corps Intelligence Training Center. Experience at several military educational institutions suggests that the use of cases and case studies can result in successful, engaging discussions.

Colonel Thomas W. Shreeve, USMCR, is the creator of the Community’s Case Method Program and was its director for several years. He learned the craft of case method teaching first as an MBA student at Harvard Business School from 1981 to 1983, and later as a research associate and casewriter. Tom has taught throughout the Intelligence Community using cases, and is the author of about one-third of the current catalog of cases and case studies. Colonel Shreeve is a former faculty member of the Master’s Program for Reserves at the Joint Military Intelligence College, and of the Adjunct Faculty at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico, Virginia. For several years, Colonel Shreeve, in CIA’s Office of Training and Education, developed and refined the case-study method of teaching intelligence principles and procedures. His cases, including some used at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, are realistic and historically accurate. The validity of intelligence case studies presupposes the existence of academic theory or, alternatively, worldly practice that constitutes “theory-in-action.” The National Foreign Intelligence Community, of course, offers a quintessential example of the latter, making the case studies described here both valid and reliable for a variety of instructional environments. Colonel Shreeve’s advice and examples for writing a teaching note can guide a novice case-method instructor toward an effective classroom analysis of cases. He maintains a website on the Intelligence Community Case Method Program at http://www.intelcasestudies.com and he may be contacted at tomshreeve@aol.com.

Readers should recognize that a good deal of difference exists between the teaching oriented case studies in this paper, on the one hand, and research papers using the case study design wherein sources are explicitly identified, the event context more fully explored, and the research questions carefully related to a theoretical superstructure through pertinent conclusions. Case studies generate important questions for student consideration, using the broad range of evidence derived from empirical observations by respective authors and other contributors to each case.