Intelligence analysis is using information about situations, characterizing the known, and, with appropriate statements of probability, predicting future situations. The descriptions of the future situations are drawn from what may only be available in the form of deliberately deceptive information; the analyst must correlate the similarities among deceptions and extract a common truth. A set of problem-solving approaches is essential for analysts. Because of the nature of the problem, the analyst must be tolerant of ambiguity, false information, and of partial information, far more than the experimental scientist. According to Richards Heuer, analysis involves incremental refinement.
The analytic process resides within the larger intelligence cycle. The intelligence cycle drives the day-to-day activities of the Intelligence Community. It starts with the needs of those who are often referred to within the Intelligence Community as intelligence "consumers" - that is, policymakers, military officials, and other decision makers who need intelligence information in conducting their duties and responsibilities. These needs - also referred to as intelligence requirements - are sorted and prioritized within the Intelligence Community, and are used to drive the collection activities of the members of the Intelligence Community that collect intelligence.
Once information has been collected, it is processed, initially evaluated, and reported to both consumers and so-called "all-source" intelligence analysts at agencies like the CIA, DIA, and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. All-source analysts are responsible for performing a more thorough evaluation and assessment of the collected information by integrating the data obtained from a variety of collection agencies and sources - both classified and unclassified. This assessment leads to a finished intelligence report being disseminated to the consumer. The "feedback" part of the cycle assesses the degree to which the finished intelligence addresses the needs of the intelligence consumer and will determine if further collection and analysis is required. The cycle, as depicted in the figure below, is thus repeated until the intelligence requirements have been satisfied.
The intelligence cycle is a five part process that describes how intelligence is produced. Step one begins with the identification of a requirement and building of a plan to satisfy the requirement. Step two, Collection, is the gathering of source materials needed to satisfy the requirement. Step three, Processing and Exploitation, involves digital data processing and human review of the data. Step four, Analysis, is the fusion of all available data to formulate an intelligence product. The final step, Dissemination, is provision of the product to the customer who generated the initial requirement.
The cycle is a concept that describes the fundamental intelligence processing in a civilian or military intelligence agency or in law enforcement as a closed path consisting of repeating nodes. The stages of the intelligence cycle include the issuance of requirements by decision makers, collection, processing, analysis, and publication of intelligence. The circuit is completed when decision makers provide feedback and revised requirements. Any circular process is as weak as its weakest component. Another problem is stovepiping. In the traditional intelligence use of the term, stovepiping keeps the output of different collection systems separated from one another. This has several negative effects. First, it prevents one discipline from cross-checking another. Second, a newer usage of stovepiping is bypassing the regular analysis of raw intelligence, and sending only raw intelligence that supports a particular position to the highest national leadership.
The term "intelligence process" refers to the steps of the cycle. Intelligence, as practiced in the United States, is commonly thought of as having five steps. Mark Lowenthal (2006) added two phases for seven phases of the intelligence process as (1) requirements, (2) collection, (3) processing and exploitation, (4) analysis and production, (5) dissemination, (6) consumption, and (7) feedback.
Identifying requirements means determining those policy issues or areas to which intelligence is expected to make a contribution, as well as decisions as to which of these issues has priority over the others. It may also mean specifying the collection of certain types of intelligence. The impulse is to say that all policy areas have intelligence requirements, which they do. However, intelligence capabilities are always limited, so priorities must be set, with some requirements getting more attention, some getting less, and some perhaps getting little or none at all. The key questions are: Who sets these requirements and priorities, and then conveys them to the intelligence community? What happens, or should happen, if policy makers fail to set these requirements on their own?
Once requirements and priorities have been established, the necessary intelligence must be collected. Some requirements will be better met by specific types of collection; some may require the use of several types of collection. Making these decisions among always-constrained collection capabilities is a key issue, as is the question of how much can or should be collected to meet each requirement.
- Processing and Exploitation.
Collection produces information, not intelligence. That information must undergo processing and exploitation before it can be regarded as intelligence and given to analysts. Conversion of large amounts of data to a form suitable for the production of finished intelligence includes translations, decryption, and interpretation of information stored on film and magnetic media through the use of highly refined photographic and electronic processes.
- Analysis and Production.
Identifying requirements, conducting collection, and processing and exploitation are meaningless unless the intelligence is given to analysts who are experts in their respective fields and can turn the intelligence into reports that respond to the needs of the policy makers. The types of products chosen, the quality of the analysis and production, and the continuous tension between current intelligence products and longer-range products are major issues. Analysis and production includes the integration, evaluation, and analysis of all available data, and the preparation of a variety of intelligence products, including timely, single-source, event-oriented reports and longer term, all-source, finished intelligence studies.
Significantly, most discussions of the intelligence process end here with dissemination and the intelligence having reached the policy makers whose requirements first set everything in motion. However, Lowenthal bundles dissemination with consumption and adds feedback:
- Dissemination and Consumption.
These two steps (5 and 6) are taken together by Lowenthal for seemingly good reasons. The process of dissemination, or the process of moving intelligence from producers to consumers, is largely standardized, with consumption being assumed in the 5-step process. However, Lowenthal points out that policy makers are not pressed into action by the receipt of intelligence, and if and how they consume intelligence is key (Lowenthal, 2006, p. 62).
A dialogue between intelligence consumers and producers should take place after the intelligence has been received. Policy makers should give the intelligence community some sense of how well their intelligence requirements are being met, and discuss any adjustments that need to be made to any parts of the process. Ideally, this should happen while the issue or topic is still relevant, so that improvements and adjustments can be made.