According to the type of activity involved, intelligence can be divided into four parts, often referred to as the “elements of intelligence”:

  • collection
  • analysis
  • covert action
  • counterintelligence

The following discussion is intended only to outline the nature of the collection and analysis of intelligence activities, and to sketch the relationships among them:


Collection refers to the gathering of raw data, through espionage, technical means, exploitation of “open sources” (for instance, publications, and radio and television broadcasts), or in any other manner. National Technical Means (NTM) is a euphemism for intelligence collection by reconnaissance satellites. It is normally used in reference to the activities of the United States National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). It may involve imagery intelligence, signals intelligence, electronic intelligence, or other forms, such as space-based radar. The term is often found in arms control treaties, as a method of verifying programs such as SALT and START.

There are six basic intelligence sources or collection disciplines:

  1. Human-Source Intelligence (HUMINT)
  2. Signals Intelligence (SIGINT)
  3. Imagery Intelligence (IMINT)
  4. Measurement and Signature Intelligence (MASINT)
  5. Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT)
  6. Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT)

While collection is obviously fundamental to intelligence work, opinions differ regarding the relative importance of the various methods. For example, students of intelligence have debated the relative importance of “open source” collection versus methods unique to intelligence services, and the relative importance of espionage versus technical collection. A brief discussion of each intelligence source or collection discipline follows:

HUMINT or Human Intelligence consists of information obtained from individuals who know or have access to, sensitive information that has implications for U.S. security interests. The CIA and the Defense HUMINT Service, an element of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and, more recently, the FBI, are the primary collectors of HUMINT for the Intelligence Community. Human intelligence serves policymakers by providing a unique window into our targets’ most guarded intentions, plans, and programs. The penetration of the A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network is an example of an important human intelligence activity. Since September 11, efforts to redirect human intelligence collection toward today’s threats are still not delivering as expected (Intelligence Primer, 2005, p. 365).

There were a number of reasons identified, which include:

  • Losing human intelligence resources
  • The threat has changed, but we have not adapted
  • The hardest conventional targets remain largely impenetrable
  • Human intelligence collection is uncoordinated and lacks common standards
  • Some human intelligence agencies do a poor job of validating human sources

SIGINT Signals intelligence is derived from signal intercepts comprising — however, transmitted — either individually or in combination:

  • all communications intelligence (COMINT)
  • electronic intelligence (ELINT)
  • foreign instrumentation signals intelligence (FISINT)

The NSA is responsible for collecting, processing, and reporting SIGINT. The National SIGINT Committee within NSA advises the Director, NSA, and the DNI on SIGINT policy issues and manages the SIGINT requirements system.

IMINT. Imagery Intelligence includes representations of objects reproduced electronically or by optical means on film, electronic display devices, or other media. Imagery can be derived from visual photography, radar sensors, infrared sensors, lasers, and electro-optics. NGA is the manager for all imagery intelligence activities, both classified and unclassified, within the government, including requirements, collection, processing, exploitation, dissemination, archiving, and retrieval.

MASINT. Measurement and Signature Intelligence is technically derived intelligence data other than imagery and SIGINT. The data results in intelligence that locates, identifies or describes distinctive characteristics of targets. It employs a broad group of disciplines including nuclear, optical, radio frequency, acoustics, seismic, and materials sciences. Examples of this might be the distinctive radar signatures of specific aircraft systems or the chemical composition of air and water samples. The Central MASINT Organization, a component of DIA, is the focus for all national and DoD MASINT matters.

OSINT. Open-Source Intelligence is publicly available information appearing in print or electronic form including radio, television, newspapers, journals, the Internet, commercial databases, and videos, graphics, and drawings. While open-source collection responsibilities are broadly distributed through the IC, the major collectors are the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) and the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC). Much has happened in the world of open source in the past ten years. Internet search tools like Google have brought significant new capabilities and expectations for open source information to analysts and users alike. Regrettably, the Intelligence Community’s open source programs have not expanded commensurate with either the increase in available information or with the growing importance of open source data to today’s problems. The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass

Destruction points out the following (Commission on WMD, 2005, p. 378):

  • Intelligence Community professionals need to quickly assimilate social, economic, and cultural information about a country—information often detailed in open sources.
  • Open source information provides a base for understanding classified materials.
  • Open source materials can protect sources and methods.
  • A robust open source program can, in effect, gather data to monitor the world’s cultures and how they change with time.

GEOINT or geospatial intelligence is the analysis and visual representation of security-related activities on the earth. It is produced through an integration of imagery, imagery intelligence, and geospatial information. Lesson 8 will discuss GEOINT in detail.

Analysis refers to the process of transforming the pieces of information into something that is usable by policymakers and military commanders. The result, or “intelligence product,” can take the form of memorandums, elaborate formal reports, briefings, maps, databases, or any other means of presenting information. We use the term “technical analysis” here to refer to analytical methods that transform highly specialized data, totally or virtually incomprehensible to everyone but the specialist, into data that other intelligence analysts can use.

Cryptanalysis is the analytic investigation of an information system with the goal of illuminating hidden aspects of that system. It encompasses any systematic analysis aimed at discovering features in, understanding aspects of, or recovering hidden parameters from an information system. Cryptanalysis is one of the core technical disciplines necessary for the National Security Agency (NSA) to accomplish its mission and provide critical intelligence to the Nation’s leaders, and the need for Cryptanalysts will remain constant in our ever-changing global environment (

Telemetry/Signals Analysis
Telemetry/Signals Analysis is a technical discipline that seeks to recover, understand, and derive intelligence from foreign signals. Analysts use their background in Computer Science, Mathematics, and Engineering to analyze, understand, and exploit the advanced signals that NSA targets use to communicate.

Photo Interpretation
Despite the sophistication of the equipment that can take pictures deep within an otherwise inaccessible territory, no substitute has been found for the human eye when it comes to figuring out what those images show. This is not as simple a task as it might seem; while it is often said that photographs are a particularly persuasive form of intelligence since senior officials feel more confident about the intelligence they are getting when they can “see it for themselves,” the average surveillance photograph is likely to be unintelligible to the layman. It is only after the photo interpreter (PI) points out and labels the interesting items that ordinary viewers can understand what they are seeing.

Finished Intelligence
The analysis described does not go directly to the policy maker or military commander. Developing finished intelligence involves analytical techniques not different from those of the social sciences.

Scientific Intelligence
Understanding new weapon systems that the enemy was developing thus became an important objective. It was important to obtain fairly detailed information about the way a system worked in order to develop methods of countering it.

Military Intelligence
Military intelligence deals with information about foreign militaries and preparing your own military forces for the time of war. The basic military intelligence is the “order of battle,” a tabulation of information about a military forces-amount of manpower, numbers, and types of weapons, organizational structure, and similar data. One step up is information about how the forces could be expected to fight, their tactics, and their strategy. Finally, when military operations appear imminent or are beginning, there must be information about the disposition and movement of military forces.

Political Intelligence
Political intelligence consists of information concerning the political processes, ideas, and intentions of foreign countries, factions, and leaders. The analysis that produces this intelligence is similar to all academic and journalistic research on both international and domestic politics.

Penn State. (2013). The Intelligence Process.


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