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The goal of every intelligence service is to produce reports consisting of evaluated information and forecasts that political leaders can use in decision making. Intelligence officers must first decide what information is needed, gather it efficiently, and then evaluate and analyze the information. Case officers stationed overseas are assigned to gather intelligence and then relay the information to analysts who interpret the data for their reports. Analysts' reports make predictions and forecasts about what is likely to happen in a foreign country. High-level managers review the reports and pass them along to clients, who may include the president of the United States. Specialized analysts include technical analysts, who may gather data from satellites, and cryptographic technicians, who are experts at coding, decoding, and sending secret messages.
Contrary to the impression given by spy movies such as the James Bond series, most intelligence is available from public sources, although some agents specialize in deciphering secret transmissions written in code. Intelligence is often misused as a synonym for espionage, which is only one means of collecting information. Ways of gathering information can be as simple and open (overt) as reading a foreign newspaper, or as complicated and secret (covert) as eavesdropping on a telephone conversation or intercepting e-mails. Sources of intelligence include foreign radio and television broadcasts, reports of diplomats and military attachés, public documents, interviews with tourists, air surveillance, and camera-loaded satellites. Aerial and space reconnaissance, electronic eavesdropping, and agent espionage are considered covert sources.
There are three categories of intelligence operations: strategic intelligence, tactical intelligence, and counter-intelligence. Strategic intelligence agents keep track of world events, watch foreign leaders carefully, and study a foreign country's politics, economy, military status, and scientific advances. Political intelligence consists of determining which group holds power and looking at foreign policy, public opinion, and voting statistics. Economic factors include trade agreements, the gross national product, and possible famines, all of which can influence domestic and foreign policies. Military intelligence includes the types and number of weapons, troop deployment, and readiness for battle. Scientific and technological intelligence consists of noting recent discoveries and developments in electronics, nuclear physics, and chemical sciences. Geographic factors, such as border disputes, can affect economic and political decisions. Gathering biographical data on current government leaders and future candidates helps complete a country's political profile. Intelligence can be "hard" or "soft." "Hard" intelligence is quantifiable and verifiable—for example, military and technological information such as the number of active troops in North Korea. An example of "soft" intelligence would be attempting to predict who will be the next leader of Colombia.
Tactical intelligence agents gather the same kind of information as described above, but do so in combat areas or volatile political settings abroad, such as in a country about to undergo a military coup.
Counterintelligence agents are assigned to protect U.S. secrets, institutions, and intelligence activities from sabotage, and to identify and prevent enemy operations that would be harmful to the United States, its citizens, or its allies. Such enemy plots would include worldwide terrorism, drug trafficking, and the activities of extreme right- or left-wing groups domestically and internationally.
Gathering information may be a routine procedure of reading the local newspaper, or it may be an exciting or even dangerous job. Counterintelligence and tactical agents generally work undercover in clandestine (secret) operations. In less-developed countries, reporting is difficult because little statistical information is available. An officer might have to go into a mine, a refinery, or a wheat field to assess economic conditions. To be effective, an operative needs contacts and sources among government officials, politicians, businesspeople, newspaper reporters, importers, exporters, and ordinary citizens. Operatives often recruit foreign agents to supply intelligence about their native countries. They may also work undercover in a job or other occupation that provides a pretext for their being in a certain place or area.
The CIA and the DIA, both major employers of intelligence officers, gather political, economic, and military information about more than 150 foreign nations in order to protect national security. The director of the CIA reports directly to the director of national intelligence, while the head of the DIA reports to the Department of Defense. The activities of both agencies are reviewed by Congress. The Senate and the House of Representatives each have a Committee on Intelligence that reviews CIA activities and approves the annual multibillion-dollar budget. However, many actions of the CIA are covert, and the role of the U.S. government is not publicly acknowledged until many years later. Examples include the overthrow of the Iranian prime minister in 1953 and the Chilean government in 1973.
The DIA serves the military, and its workforce is a mix of soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and Department of Defense civilian employees. The DIA monitors foreign military affairs, weapons, and troops; tracks compliance with international arms agreements; answers questions about soldiers missing in action; and investigates the status of prisoners of war. It also keeps track of the activities of international terrorist organizations.
The Foreign Service, an arm of the State Department, employs men and women who represent the U.S. government through embassies and consulates to the governments of other nations all over the world. These Foreign Service officers keep the secretary of state informed about all aspects of the country in which they are stationed. Called "the eyes and ears" of the United States abroad, Foreign Service officers may be diplomats, consulates, or intelligence officers.
In the armed forces, communications and intelligence specialists serve as intelligence gatherers, interpreters, cryptologists, information analysts, and translators. Domestic intelligence activities usually fall under the command of the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security. In addition, the various intelligence agencies often coordinate their activities.