Intelligence (government)

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Intelligence is both the process and the final product of efforts to collect, analyze, and disseminate information for policy-makers. Almost all governments have some form of intelligence agency, though the United States probably takes the lead in quantity, with somewhere around 17 of them.

There are many kinds of intelligence, depending on the techniques used to acquire it.

  • SIGINT: Signals intelligence is the art of eavesdropping on other states and decrypting it. This can play a huge part in all intelligence operations. A classic example is the Berlin Tunnel, in which US forces dug under the Berlin Wall to tap Soviet phone communications. (This is sometimes referred to as COMINT, for communications intelligence.)
  • IMINT: Imagery intelligence, this is the use of high flying cameras (like on the U2 or in our satellites) to give us direct imagery of the ground. Still requires a great deal of analysis to make sense of it. (This is sometimes referred to as GEOINT, for Geospatial Intelligence.)
  • MASINT: Measurement and Signature intelligence, this is intelligence using various kinds of sensors not covered in IMINT. Often times, MASINT can include things like Geiger counters and seismographers to determine nuclear blasts, or chemical analysis of factories to determine what is being built there.
  • TECHINT: Technical intelligence, the study of the technical aspects of military equipment belonging to someone else.
  • OSINT: Open-source intelligence, this is the study of "open-source" (non-classified) information sources as a support for other intelligence branches. (There is some discussion still underway whether this constitutes a legitimate form of intelligence or not, given that nobody is really trying to keep it secret.)
  • HUMINT: Human intelligence, this is the classic intelligence of spy movies. This is the acquisition of intelligence from human sources, usually by turning foreign nationals against their home governments.[note 1] Interestingly, despite being an overall tiny part of the overall intelligence budget (within the United States), it is often one of the most contentious parts. It always involves a degree of manipulation and secrecy, much more so than the other forms.
  • CI: Counter-intelligence is also usually a part of every intelligence services portfolio. CI is the art of keeping others from conducting any of these kinds of intelligence on you, especially HUMINT.

The Intelligence Cycle[edit]

Intelligence officers do not simply go out, find information, and give it to policy makers. Instead, all intelligence agencies run through the following cycle (in some form or another).

  1. Planning: This is where policy makers tell intelligence agencies what they need to know.
  2. Collection: This is the entire process of acquiring information, either through the deployment of satellites, the paying of bribes to foreigners, or infiltration.
  3. Processing: This is the necessary step of stating what the hell is on that photo, or of translating from Urdu into English.
  4. Analysis: This is where all of the information is brought together and made sense of.
  5. Dissemination: This is getting the info to those who need it, the policy makers.

An analogy[edit]

Picture someone sitting at a table in a single spot of light in the middle of a giant, dark room. In front of them are fifty telephones which correspond to fifty people out in the darkness who are trying to find out the shape of the room. Some of them can't be trusted, and none of them are waiting for any of the others, so the phones are constantly ringing. The person in the middle can only pick up a couple of phones at a time to listen to them.

What do they do?

Well, most likely they go with what they think they might be looking for. They discard the more farfetched claims and focus on the ones that seem believable, or stick with the people who have a pattern of making detailed claims.

It's easy once the lights have come on to see what shape the room was and which people they "should" have listened to, but this ignores what the actual problem was.

American Intelligence Services[edit]

The United States has more intelligence services than its citizens recognize. Some of the most important are:

  • CIA — In theory the main and most important agency, the Central Intelligence Agency is tasked with taking care of the needs of policy makers in all fields of intelligence. In reality, it focuses strongly on SIGINT and HUMINT, and works together with other fields on other kinds of intelligence. By law, it is forbidden from spying on US citizens,[note 2] though this has been bypassed in the past. It is also despised by both conservatives and liberals; by liberals for its part in various (President-approved) coups and "dirty tricks", by conservatives for its strong liberal bias. Its headquarters are in the amusingly-named "George Bush Center of Intelligence" in Langley, Virginia.
  • FBI — They are primarily responsible for CI. This is the one that liberals should focus on, as under Hoover, it was a massively conservative organization bent on destroying anything remotely liberal, and yet many are fond of it. Conservatives still hate it, though, as a bunch of "jack-booted thugs".
  • DIA — The Defense Intelligence Agency was created to centralize all military intelligence, and to put an end to the duplication of each service having its own intelligence agency. Like everything else in the US bureaucracy, the military agency is (thought to be) better funded than the civilian one.
  • Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Space Force, and Coast Guard Intelligence — Just because the DIA was created to get rid of these doesn't mean they couldn't come back, and they did.
  • NRO — National Reconnaissance Office — Functionally responsible for IMINT. (Under the DoD.)
  • National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency — Wait, no, they're the ones responsible for IMINT. (Also under the DoD.)
  • National Security Agency — Does not exist. Move along. (Really, they're responsible for a lot of SIGINT work, particularly the decryption part.)
  • Department of Energy — Yes, they have their own spying service. They even have their own CI unit. This makes a surprising amount of sense when you consider that all American nuclear weapons are technically owned by the Department of Energy and are on lease to the Armed Forces.
  • Department of State — Because having spies in the embassies isn't enough, some of the actual diplomats need to be spies too. Was the sole agency that produced accurate intelligence with regards to Iraqi WMDs and intentions; Bush and his coterie dismissed them with even more casual disregard than the previous contributor.
  • DEA — Yep, the anti-drug guys have their own intelligence agency. Again, this makes sense, given how much power organized crime can and does wield.
  • Treasury — Yes, the Treasury. They do the financial intelligence work.
  • CTU — Counter Terrorism Unit. Hollywood's own intelligence agency. Does not use torture.

Of course, in most other countries, all of this is brought under one or two departments, with far greater efficiency and better results for the money invested.

United Kingdom Intelligence Services[edit]

See the main article on this topic: UK intelligence services
  • Joint Intelligence Organisation — A subsidiary of the Cabinet Office, HQ in Whitehall. Supervises the other services.
  • Military Intelligence Section 5 (MI5) — Now more correctly known as the Security Service. HQ in Millbank. Equivalent of the FBI — purely domestic intelligence.
  • National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit — An agency of the Metropolitan Police.
  • National Crime Agency — Intelligence on organised crime.
  • National Ballistics Intelligence Service — Intelligence on crime involving firearms.
  • Military Intelligence Section 6 (MI6) — Now more correctly known as the Secret Intelligence Service. HQ at Vauxhall Cross. Dedicated to foreign intelligence. It is not terrifically secret, but unlike the US Secret Service, it does not have a listed telephone number.
  • Defence Intelligence — An integral part of the Ministry of Defence, Whitehall.
  • Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) — Dedicated to SIGINT, HQ at The Doughnut, Cheltenham.

Effect of 9/11[edit]

Additional Big Brother surveillance is seen in the interception of e-mails and phone calls following 9/11. Even such activities as Google searching (say for "pipe bomb") might be intercepted.

The U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba ("Gitmo") houses a Big Brotheresque prison camp where there is little or no chance of appeal against injustice.[1] Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown pushed for twice the current legal time limit on "holding without charge" - to 56 days for suspects in terrorism related cases.[2]



  1. While HUMINT does sometimes involve infiltration, up to and including sneaking into guarded facilities Mission Impossible-style, when intelligence agents are called upon to get their own hands dirty, good old-fashioned social engineeringWikipedia is still employed more often and to generally greater effect than rappelling in, choking out guards, and swiping documents like a burglar.
  2. That's the FBI's job.