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How do we get good intelligence?

Posted by Halvor Nilsen Mar 23, 2017 9:13:08 AM


intel.pngIf you look into manuals, doctrines or just plain google how to get good intelligence, you will sooner or later (rather sooner) find a concept called the intel cycle (or some other similar name), usually accompanied by a colourful drawing, which tries to explain the different sub-processes necessary to create intelligence. We won’t be an exception.

The number of lobs in the intel cycle (picture below) might vary, as well as their names, but let’s keep it simple for now, stick to four, and look at each one in turn.


It all starts here. Although it’s fully possible for someone to just go out and collect interesting tidbits of information at random, you might want to go back to out previous post, where we wrote about the fact that it is all about giving a decision maker the answers she needs to make good decisions. And to get good answers we need good questions, right?

So direction can be as simple as to just phrase a few good questions related to the problem at hand. Will Kim Jong-un attack South Korea and unleash a nuclear holocaust? Will the Russian hybrid warriors occupy the peaceful town of Kirkenes without us noticing? Will Achmed the still-alive terrorist try to do his thing just outside the Norwegian embassy in Kabul? It is the decision maker’s prerogative to ask these questions, but intel people might lend her a hand to phrase them precisely.

Another part of direction is to find out who, usually amongst a limited number of resources, can be tasked to find out about these questions. This might entail checking asset availability for the desired timeframe, finding out who’s in the best position to explore a certain geographical region, and having knowledge about your own resources’ capabilities and limitations. And then you coordinate in order to avoid gaps and unintentional overlaps.



Collection is simply to go out there and try to answer the questions, within the allotted timeframe and with the required accuracy. Put another way – transfer real-world phenomena into data. So, acquiring raw data is what this is all about, but these data will come in a myriad of different forms. We’ll mention a few.

Everybody knows the archetypal cloak-and-dagger style old-fashioned spy, epitomized through James Bond or the books of John le Carré. In its simplest form this is just someone going out to talk with someone who’s in the know about something. It could also be done by applying clandestine or covert methods to gather information illegally. Another form of human-based collection is to just use ordinary military units, and have them report whatever it is they observe.

Read also: What characterizes good military intelligence?

Open sources also play an important part. Whether you are into business intelligence or military intelligence you will probably read newspapers, browse the Internet or watch TV, and glean data that might be of use to you. The difference between a formal collection and someone just reading a paper, is that we in our context will have a list of questions, formulated as part of the Direction process above.

Imagery and video from aircraft, satellites or just bystanders with mobile cameras is a major source of data. The trick is often to search through large amounts of raw footage in order to find what’s interesting – again based on a set of questions.

Listening in on phone calls or using radio direction finders to find the adversary are grouped into the field of signals intelligence. Once more we’re trying to find a diamond in a pile of cow dung (or a needle in a haystack, if you’re into that), since the amount of data potentially is colossal.

There are other collection methods, but these are fine for now.

Read also: What is the difference between knowledge and intelligence?


Earlier on we promised to explain the difference between information and intelligence. Here goes. We saw that collection was all about getting relevant data about the real world. Processing, which also entails activities such as exploitation, analysis and integration, brings data up the value chain in an orderly and gradual fashion. To simplify, let’s pretend that this occurs in just two steps:

Single-source processing is where someone, usually a specialist within a specific field, looks at the collected data and starts to make sense of it. Take, for instance, an aerial picture, where a layman would see nothing but woods, lakes and open fields. Not so fast – the imagery intelligence specialist can see that the enemy has parked some really well camouflaged vehicles in the woods, and annotate the picture to say just so. She has transformed the raw data into information that is intelligible by a non-expert.

Multi-source processing, then, is about assembling several pieces of information, looking at them together, and trying to figure out the big picture. So, the analyst takes the annotated image from above, combines it with radio intercepts collected from the same area, and a report from a local friendly spy who told you that there were some guys speaking Russian in the woods, and voilà! – deduces that we indeed are looking at little green Russian men hiding among the trees, and that they are up to no good. Thus intelligence is born from information.


The phrase ‘dissemination’ might seem a bit old-fashioned, since it indicates tying a secret message to the foot of a carrier pigeon in order to send it to your liege lord. This goal of this process is to make your intelligence available to whomever might be interested (and authorized to receive it), at least including the commander who asked the question in the first place. This can of course be done by sending a letter or a radio message, but in the real world it might just as well be posting the information on a web page or making it available through an information system.

The crux here is to give the potential users of the intelligence a clear overview of what’s available, including the reliability and credibility associated with it. The users, be they the commander or other decision makers, demand the very best intelligence they can get, and everything here leads up to this.

Bottom line

This post has barely touched the surface of a vast field, occupying a vast number of people in militaries and other government agencies all across the world. Not to mention private organization doing business intelligence using (almost) the same methods, albeit under slightly different labels.

In a future blog post we will delve into the arcane dark depths of some of the topics mentioned, looking at processes, methods and tools that might assist you.

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Halvor Nilsen's photo

By: Halvor Nilsen

Halvor Nilsen has background as a computer systems professional, manager and military intelligence officer. He is currently group head of intelligence within Defence Systems at Teleplan Globe.



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