An intelligence operation is the process by which governments, military groups, businesses, and other organizations systematically collect and evaluate information for the purpose of discovering the capabilities and intentions of their rivals. With such information, or intelligence, an organization can both protect itself from its adversaries and exploit its adversaries' weaknesses.


Depending on the type of organization involved, intelligence operations can result in many different types of information. Strategic or national intelligence is information about foreign nations that is collected by governmental intelligence agencies. Strategic intelligence commonly encompasses national security, political, economic, and social trends in the target nation. Military intelligence is produced by specially trained military or civilian analysts and usually includes the strengths, weapons technology, and estimated military capabilities of actual or potential enemies. Industrial intelligence is information gathered by a business firm concerning its rivals in the marketplace. Political intelligence, as practiced in the United States, is usually concerned with ascertaining the campaign strategy of a political opponent. Political intelligence can also apply to the efforts of a ruler to uncover conspiracies. Counterintelligence embraces the wide variety of activities undertaken to forestall an adversary's intelligence efforts. This is accomplished by physically protecting one's own sensitive information and by penetrating and disrupting hostile intelligence organizations.

Covert operations are often undertaken by intelligence agencies, but these are distinct from intelligence operations whose purpose it is to gather information. Covert operations are activities aimed at the disruption of another nation's political process: they can include the dissemination of propaganda, the encouragement of dissidents, acts of sabotage, and even assassination.

Whether conducted by a governmental agency or a business firm, intelligence operations follow the same pattern. The first step in generating intelligence is always the collection of information. Overt collection is the acquisition of nonsecret "open source" material. To obtain highly sensitive information, however, it is usually necessary to resort to clandestine, or secret, collection.

Intelligence derived from clandestine collection generally falls into three categories: human intelligence, signals intelligence, and photographic intelligence. Human intelligence is simply information gathered by and from human agents. Espionage, or spying, is one time-honored method of obtaining human intelligence. Whereas other forms of clandestine collection often provide a greater volume of information, especially data of a technical nature, human intelligence is essential for uncovering the thinking, as opposed to the activity, of the adversary. An outstanding example of human intelligence collection is the Soviet Rote Kapelle ("Red Orchestra") spy network that permeated German-occupied Europe in the early days of World War II.

A second form of clandestine collection is known as signals intelligence — the interception of electronic communications and other emissions. Signals are intercepted by a variety of methods, including the tapping of telephone lines and the monitoring of radio transmissions. Messages intercepted in this manner are often in code. Cryptology, the study of making and breaking codes, has become a science in itself over the years. The "Berlin Tunnel" (1955–56), which was essentially a massive wiretap undertaking, is a dramatic example of signals intelligence collection.

Another, relatively new form of clandestine collection is photographic intelligence conducted from aircraft. Reconnaissance aircraft can also utilize thermography and advanced radars to reveal details indiscernible in visible light. Photo intelligence from aircraft is especially valuable for monitoring the movement of military forces on the ground and for spotting the construction of military facilities. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 began when American U-2 reconnaissance aircraft revealed the presence of offensive Soviet missiles in Cuba.

The advent of the reconnaissance satellite has revolutionized clandestine collection. In 1961 the United States first orbited its Satellite and Missile Observation System (SAMOS), a photographic-reconnaissance satellite apparently designed for the express purpose of locating and monitoring Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) sites. Since then, the United States and other nations have launched photoreconnaissance satellites on a regular basis. Other reconnaissance satellites include "ferrets" that eavesdrop on electronic signals undetectable from ground stations and satellites that identify missile launches through infrared sensing.

Evaluation and Utilization
The collection of raw intelligence is not an end in itself. Raw intelligence must be combined with related data, significant information must be identified, and extraneous material ("noise") deleted. Computerized data storage systems aid greatly in bringing together the related pieces of information that make up a complete intelligence picture. Human intuition and creativity play important roles in developing the "informed guesses" that fill gaps in the picture. This process of digesting raw intelligence, known as evaluation, yields a product that is usable by policymakers. It is up to the policymaker to utilize the intelligence that he or she receives in a timely and responsible manner.

One of the greatest intelligence achievements in history, the British "Ultra secret" of World War II, clearly illustrates the relationships that exist among collection, evaluation, and utilization of intelligence. The collection phase of "Ultra" consisted of intercepting coded German radio messages (which had been encrypted by their Enigma machine) and passing them through a secret computerlike device that rendered them into clear German. The evaluation phase involved translating the messages and fitting them together to build up patterns of German military activity. This intelligence was then transmitted secretly to Allied officials and commanders for utilization on the battlefield. Similarly successful intelligence operations contributed to such major historical events as the English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the 1917 Zimmermann Telegram incident during World War I, and the U.S. naval victory at the Battle of Midway in 1942, during World War II.

Conversely, the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 demonstrates the price of intelligence failure — more specifically, the failure to evaluate fully and act upon abundant raw intelligence. Other infamous intelligence failures include the unpreparedness of the Soviet Union to meet the German invasion of 1941, the Bay of Pigs fiasco of 1961, and the 1972 Watergate break-in, which represented a political intelligence operation gone badly awry. In part, the unhappy U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War can be blamed on the failure to act on intelligence warnings against U.S. intervention.

Intelligence Organizations
One reason, perhaps, for the frequency of U.S. intelligence failures is the fact that not until 1942, with the creation of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), was there a focal point for the collection and dissemination of strategic and military intelligence. Today, the United States officially has two national intelligence organizations. The principal agency for intelligence activities and covert operations abroad is the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The National Security Agency (NSA) is responsible for collecting signals intelligence from all over the world and for overseeing the integrity of American secret communications. Some sources suggest that there is a third highly secret national intelligence agency responsible for satellite surveillance. Other members of the American intelligence community include the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which provides military intelligence to the Department of Defense, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which performs counterintelligence activities within the United States.

Whereas the United States is a relative newcomer to the field of national intelligence, Great Britain boasts an intelligence tradition dating from Queen Elizabeth I. Today the British intelligence community consists of two major branches. MI-5, the British equivalent of the FBI, is responsible for counterintelligence activities. MI-6, also known as the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), is analogous to the CIA; it ran the "Ultra" program in World War II.

Perhaps no nation is more reliant on accurate intelligence for its survival than Israel. Consequently, Israel has developed an excellent intelligence apparatus in three parts. The Central Institute for Intelligence and Security (Mossad) conducts external espionage and also performs covert operations abroad. General Security Services (Shin Bet) is responsible for counterintelligence and internal security. The Intelligence Corps of the Defense Forces (Aman), largest of the three, focuses on military intelligence.

The former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was heavily dependent on its intelligence community, though for a different reason. Its premier intelligence agency, the Committee for State Security (KGB), traditionally doubled as a secret police force. Outside the Soviet Union, the KGB conducted espionage, spread "disinformation" designed to discredit adversary nations, and attempted to destabilize foreign governments. Within the Soviet Union, the KGB — like its predecessors, the Cheka and the NKVD — enforced the dictatorial rule of the Communist party by crushing any and all public dissent. In retreat and under constant press attack after the abortive coup of August 1991, the agency was reorganized under a new chief. Today it is the Ministry of Security of Russia.

Christopher F. Gabel

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