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Part 3 – Intelligence assessment officers
Intelligence operations generate a great deal of data from human sources and technological means. In this day and age, the quantities of data are simply staggering, and they also include data coming in from social media networks. Very shortly after the beginning of the operational stage of an intelligence mission, the quantities of data reaching organizational HQ are immense and even more so, diverse.
Human intelligence sources provide recorded or written reports; day and night imagery from unmanned systems are constantly flowing in; sensors transmit dedicated data, and engaging various communications infrastructure provides huge quantities of text messages, audio data, positioning data, email content, website and so on.
The first phase – which is perhaps the most difficult one for the intelligence officer tasked with initial screening of incoming data – is deciding which intelligence materials to receive and which to reject. This decision may be crucial, and it must be taken with the utmost speed, reliability and expertise.
Each intelligence body has its own criteria and considerations which materials to handle, and even they change from time to time, according to the objectives, circumstances, handling capacity, etc.
Conversely, the criteria for implementing intelligence material are universal. Intelligence officers will look for data that they are yet to encounter. No less important, this data needs to be “fresh”. They will then cross-reference and verify it, thereby meeting the requirements set by the political and military chiefs.
In tandem with the initial screening of intelligence data and the decision how to apply it, the data received is also classified. This process too changes according to the nature of the intelligence organization and the type of operation or the products expected from it. Nevertheless, the major classification categories normally comprise the material’s level of secrecy (whether derived from open sources or from a spy’s report), the type of data (visual, audio, text), its assessed reliability and how urgent it is to handle it.
These many and varied bits of information (from audio files to satellite imagery) are uploaded to technological systems capable of handling immense quantities of data and deriving its “common ground” so that it may be accessible to intelligence researchers.
When the data is accessible at the intelligence body’s computerized systems, dozens of researchers from diverse albeit relevant disciplines perform professional analysis, each in their own field of expertise.
Very early on, the principle and practice of compartmentalization limits the researchers’ respective access to material they have no authorized access to. Compartmentalization has both advantages (preventing leaks) and disadvantages (limited and ‘flat’ intelligence products).
Data analysis and further investigation are carried out based on the urgency of handling the intelligence materials, as designated early on when they were first received. This is sometimes performed “live”. For example: wiretaps by law enforcement agencies worldwide target criminal elements.
At the same time the specific intelligence material is being analyzed, intelligence assessment officers begin appraising the products at hand along broad terms. Compartmentalization also applies to assessment officers, who are usually in charge of specific fields, such as specific weaponry, targets or scenes – territorial or thematic.
The intelligence assessment officers’ conclusions and work products make their way “up” the analysis chain and reach senior assessment officers, who in turn create the overall intelligence map. This is derived from the general total of intelligence material, complete with their conclusions and recommendations. Senior assessment officers deliver their finished product directly to the political recipients who set the requirement for the product in the first place.
The process of intelligence production, however dependent on numerous technological systems and enormous mechanization, relies heavily on human beings from the moment the material is first received and initially screened – and perhaps even before that, when the operational decision is taken where to extract intelligence data and how. Then, it is human expertise that classifies the data, analyses it and interprets it.
The intelligence products delivered to the top echelons are ultimately impacted by the personal opinions of assessment officers, their political stances, beliefs and cultural and religious traits. This is also due to the natural barriers that always abound between rivals, such as language and dialect, religion and faith, culture and lifestyle.
“US intelligence under-assessment of ISIS’s strength and over assessment of the Iraqi Army,” as professed by US President Obama on “60 Minutes”, is now much clearer. There is no doubt the sheer quantities of intelligence material American intelligence bodies had to handle were indeed enormous, comprehensive and appropriate. Nevertheless, “human” barriers such as culture, language, worldview and personal stances and traits were probably at the root of biased assessments.