America’s Spy Network: What Does It Do?

From the Lecture series: The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You

By Paul Rosenzweig, The George Washington University Law School

The US intelligence community had a great makeover in the aftermath of 9/11 when it was criticized for failing to join the dots. And today, with at least 17 standalone intelligence agencies, the American spy network is quite extensive. So, how does it function? What are the different agencies, and how are they connected in terms of work distribution?

A close-up of a human male lips that has a zipper attached to it that is three-fourths zipped up, and the man's facial hair is very short on his upper lip and chin.
Sharing the assembled data and analysis tends to compromise the sources and methods by which the information was initially collected. (Image: AR Images/Shutterstock)

Gathering “Good” Intelligence

The Intelligence Community’s (IC’s) job is to collect and analyze information, creating intelligence. And, creating good intelligence is a multistage process—including requirements, collection, processing, analysis, and dissemination. To see what that means in practice, let’s consider a fairly typical, hypothetical problem.

Let’s think about the Russian leader Vladimir Putin and what he might have been intending to do in Ukraine, prior to the Russian-backed uprising in the eastern part of the country. Here’s how the IC might have approached the problem.

Intelligence Gathering: Identifying the Target

First, we have to set priorities and define what targets we’re interested in.

The Director of National Intelligence—in consultation with the director of CIA and the director of NSA—would identify Putin’s Ukrainian intentions as a significant strategic issue.

In doing so, they’d be responding to consultations they’d also held with the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and the President’s advisors on the National Security Council.

Information-gathering Campaign

Through that collaborative process, the need to understand what was in Putin’s mind would become identified.

Some collection might happen through human intelligence, what we call HUMINT; some might be through signals intelligence, or SIGINT, which is the interception of communications; and some might be acquired through image intelligence, IMGINT, such as satellite photographs of Russian troops movements, and so on.

This is a transcript from the video series The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

A Note on the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), is one of the newest intelligence operations, with its very own acronym, GEOINT. Established in 1996—then under the name National Imagery and Mapping Agency—the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency charts 160 million square miles of ocean; it keeps electronic files on 45,000 airfields worldwide.

It integrates that information with other intelligence to reveal where threats might arise, what their patterns of activity are, and how those forces relate to other pieces of the picture. In short, the NGA gives us as comprehensive a picture of what is where on the globe as we can possibly create.

Satellite Imagery in Intelligence Gathering

Let’s see what can be done using open-source satellite imagery. After the breakaway effort in eastern Ukraine got underway—and even as Russian authorities disclaimed any direct involvement—a research institution in Washington—called the Atlantic Council—released an analysis based, in part, on the freely available Internet-based services Google Earth and YouTube.

Image of a satellite
Using satellite imagery is a part of intelligence gathering. (Image: Andrey Armyagov/Shutterstock)

They found photographs of large craters in Ukraine and videos of rocket launches on nearby Russian territory and figured out that Russian units had fired across the border.

The report also used satellite photographs, along with indiscreet social media posts by Russian soldiers, to identify the Russian military camps being built near the border.

The bottom line was pretty clear. Russian troops and gear were operating in Ukraine territory. And if we can reach that conclusion readily using publicly available information, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency likely had even more convincing data.

Learn more about the history of surveillance in America.

Analysing the Intelligence Gathered

Now comes the most important phase of the intelligence production cycle: analysis. What exactly do Russian troop movements on the Ukrainian border portend? Is it preparation for an invasion? Or is it merely an intimidation campaign, designed to cow the Ukrainian government? What does our image intelligence show us? And, does it match, or conflict with, what we think we know from the interception of Russian communications?

And how does all of this fit into the over-arching economic circumstances that Russia finds itself in because of, say, the price of oil? One thing that is often lost on people outside the IC is how dependent intelligence analysis is on the concatenation of small, seemingly disparate, pieces of information.

Reasoning and Intelligence

Diverse team of government intelligence agents standing around digital touch screen table and satellite tracking suspect, pointing at display. big dark surveillance room.
Experts may consider alternate hypotheses or use game-theory analysis to analyse the intelligence gathered. (Image: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock)

We don’t always have hard facts on which to rely. Analysts will consider alternate hypotheses, or use game-theory analysis, for example. In the end, the process might produce some findings and a scenario forecast, accompanied by a statement of the degree of confidence with which the analyst views his findings and forecast.

If you want a real-world example of how far analysts will go in their theorizing, consider this: One Pentagon study several years ago examined whether Putin might have Asperger’s syndrome.

The report concluded that Putin’s neurological development was significantly interrupted in infancy and that analysis of his physical movement revealed that the Russian president carries a neurological abnormality. We aren’t sure if that’s right or wrong, but it gives you a sense of how detailed the intelligence sometimes is.

National Intelligence Estimate

To return to our own example, satellite imagery of Russian troops moving to the border might be combined with economic analysis of Russia’s oil reserves, and human intelligence from someone who recently participated in a discussion with Vladimir Putin.

On important matters such as this, the IC would collect all the information available to it. And it would use a number of analysts to produce a National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, reflecting the considered judgment of the community.

Such judgments are not always correct, of course. The infamous conclusion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction is an oft-cited example of that kind of mistake.

Learn more about the tension between surveillance and the rule of law.

Dissemination of the Intelligence Gathered

Sharing the assembled data and analysis tends to compromise the sources and methods by which the information was initially collected. It also gives those who read the analysis an insight into the analytic strengths and weaknesses of the authoring agency.

Everybody has a blind spot; hence distribution of this sort of information is usually limited to a select few—ideally, those who will best benefit from it. Prior to 9/11, we probably limited dissemination too much, preventing people from connecting the dots.

And that, in summary, is the intelligence life cycle. Decision-makers identify information they need to know, and the IC attempts to collect the data relevant to the question and provide its best analysis of what that data forecasts. It’s an imperfect science, at best.

It’s also a never-ending cycle. Facts and circumstances change. Once you complete the analysis, you have to start over again, way back somewhere near the beginning.

Common Questions about America’s Spy Network

Q: What does the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency do?

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency charts 160 million square miles of ocean and keeps electronic files on 45,000 airfields worldwide.

Q: What is a National Intelligence Estimate?

Once a target is identified, the intelligence community collects all the information available to it and use a number of analysts to produce a National Intelligence Estimate that reflects the considered judgment of the community.

Q: In short, describe the intelligence life cycle.

An intelligence life cycle begins when the decision-makers identify information they need to know, the intelligence community then attempts to collect the data relevant to the question and finally provides its best analysis of what that data forecasts.

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