IC Deep Dive: Learn the 6 Types of Intelligence
November 5, 2020
When popular culture depicts the intelligence profession, we see a clandestine spy operating in a foreign country, gathering closely guarded secrets from unsuspecting enemies.
Is it accurate?
But the bigger picture is much more complex.
Data and information come in many forms, from official foreign government meetings and open source internet articles to satellite imagery and highly technical equipment specifications. The U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) gathers information from all these sources and stitches together a picture of what is happening in the world today and what is likely to happen tomorrow.
This flexibility, the capacity to expertly collect information from a variety of sources, is one of the reasons the IC is a highly collaborative team of 17 agencies, each complementing the next. While one agency is an expert in one form, another excels in a different form.
What will always be true, however, is that the IC never relies on a single form of intelligence to draw conclusions. One agency may contribute a piece of the puzzle while another agency contributes a second piece, and so on, until visibility into world events becomes clear.
This collaboration, orchestrated by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), is what makes the IC such a formidable weapon in the U.S. government. The ability to gather information from several sources not only leads to new discoveries, but also helps analysts verify and validate findings, which leads to a higher level of confidence in the accuracy of intelligence reports.
Intelligence Types in the IC
The IC recognizes six major buckets of intelligence. Some agencies use many of these sources, while other agencies excel and specialize in a specific type.
- Open Source Intelligence (OSINT): Open source intelligence is exactly what its name implies: information found in the public domain. It can be from news reports or social media, online databases or videos, academic journals or photo sites. If you’ve researched a report online, you have used open source data. While many IC agencies use open source, ODNI’s Open Source Center is major collector and distributor of open source intelligence.
- Signals Intelligence (SIGINT): Signals intelligence is intelligence derived from intercepted communications and electronics signals. Think radio wave communication, voice over IP or texting and email. A big part of signals intelligence is cryptography, cracking the codes used to disguise messages and encrypt electronic signals. The leader of signals intelligence in the IC is National Security Agency (NSA).
- Imagery Intelligence (IMINT): Imagery intelligence derives from images produced optically or electronically, such as photographs, satellite imagery or radar imagery. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is the manager of imagery intelligence for the U.S. government.
- Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT): Geospatial Intelligence is the analysis and visual representation of security matters on Earth. It is produced through imagery intelligence and geospatial information. NGA takes the lead on geospatial intelligence.
- Measurement and Signature Intelligence (MASINT): Measurement and signature intelligence is highly technical data that locates, identifies or describes characteristics of targets. It can, for example, identify distinctive radar signatures of specific aircraft systems or chemical compositions or air and water samples. The Defense Intelligence Agency’s (DIA’s) Directorate for MASINT and Technical Collection has responsibility for Department of Defense MASINT activity.
- Human Intelligence (HUMINT): Finally, human intelligence is intelligence derived from human sources. Although popular culture equates human intelligence almost exclusively with espionage and clandestine activities, it also includes overt collection by known actors. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is the IC’s lead on human intelligence.
With all types of intelligence combined, the IC develops a picture of world events and reports that activity to the president, policy makers, law enforcement and the military. Accordingly, the IC’s assessments play a major role in shaping public policy and military strategy.