HOW INTELLIGENCE WORKS

A dynamic process fueling dynamic solutions

The Intelligence Community is responsible for supplying accurate and usable information to those who make national security decisions. Generating reliable, accurate intelligence is an active, never-ending process commonly referred to as the intelligence cycle. Explore what goes into each step of the process.

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Determining what issues need to be addressed and what information must be gathered to provide the proper answers

Policymakers, including the president, his or her advisers, the National Security Council, and other major departments and agencies of government, initiate requests for intelligence. The IC’s issue coordinators interact with these officials to identify core concerns and information requirements. These needs then guide our collection strategies, and allow us to produce the appropriate intelligence products. We begin by examining finished intelligence from previous cycles, which leads us to formulate a strategic plan for new intelligence gathering and analysis.

Gathering raw information from many different sources

In this stage, also known as data gathering, intelligence is acquired through activities, such as interviews, technical and physical surveillance, human source operations, searches and liaison relationships. Information can be gathered from open, covert, electronic and satellite sources.

There are six basic types of intelligence collection.

  • Signals Intelligence (SIGINT)
    The interception of signals, whether between people, between machines or a combination of both
  • Imagery Intelligence (IMINT)
    Representations of objects reproduced electronically or by optical means on film, electronic display devices or other media
  • Measurement and Signature Intelligence (MASINT)
    Scientific and technical intelligence information used to locate, identify or describe distinctive characteristics of specific targets
  • Human-Source Intelligence (HUMINT)
    Intelligence derived from human sources, the oldest method for collecting information
  • Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT)
    Publicly available information appearing in print or electronic form, including radio, television, newspapers, journals, the Internet, commercial databases, videos, graphics and drawings
  • Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT)
    Imagery and geospatial data produced through an integration of imagery, imagery intelligence and geographic information

Synthesizing the raw intelligence into a usable state

The collection stage of the intelligence process typically yields large amounts of unfiltered data, which requires organization. Substantial intelligence resources are devoted to the synthesis of this data into a form that intelligence analysts can use. Information filtering techniques include:

  • Exploiting imagery
  • Decoding messages and translating broadcasts
  • Reducing telemetry to meaningful measures
  • Preparing information for computer processing, storage and retrieval
  • Placing human-source reports into a form and context to make them more understandable

Integrating, evaluating and analyzing all available data, and distilling it into final intelligence products

Analysts integrate the data into a coherent whole, put the evaluated information in context, and produce finished intelligence that includes assessments of events and judgments about the implications of the information for the United States. They are encouraged to include alternative scenarios in their assessments and to look for opportunities to warn about possible developments abroad that could either provide threats to, or opportunities for, U.S. security and policy interests. Analysts also develop requirements for collection of new information.

Distributing intelligence products to the policymakers who requested them

Once information has been reviewed and correlated with data from other available sources, it is called finished intelligence, and is disseminated directly to the same policymakers whose initial needs generated the intelligence requirements. Finished intelligence is provided daily to the president and key national security advisers who then make decisions based on this information. These decisions may lead to requests for further examination, thus triggering the intelligence cycle again.

There are five categories of finished intelligence.

  • Current Intelligence
    Addresses day-to-day events
  • Estimative Intelligence
    Looks forward to assess potential developments that could affect U.S. national security
  • Warning Intelligence
    Sounds an alarm or gives notice to policymakers
  • Scientific and Technical Intelligence
    Includes an examination of the technical development, characteristics, performance and capabilities of foreign technologies, including weapon systems or subsystems
  • Research Intelligence
    Supports other finished intelligence products (current, estimative, warning, and scientific and technical)