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You work in intelligence? So you're a spy?

Updated: Mar 30, 2023

'So wait, you're like James Bond, is that what you're saying?'

'Oh, I guess you can't talk about your job then?'

All of these are genuine responses I've had over the years when I've told people I'm a naval intelligence officer. Typically my response to each of these questions will be along the lines of:

  • I'm definitely not a spy (though all good spies would say that anyway).

  • I hate running and I like my creature comforts, so I'm not likely to be jumping off buildings and shooting guns whilst simultaneously driving a car any time soon.

  • I can definitely talk about my job, I just can't talk about my portfolio in detail. It's the same as talking to most people who work in corporate industries; there will be confidentiality around certain aspects, but I can happily give you some insight into how it all works.

So if you want to know what an intelligence analyst does, and how an experienced analyst can support your decision-making processes, then read on.

What is intelligence analysis?

Intelligence analysis is the process of identifying the requirements, gathering information, analysing it, turning it into a report or a product that is useful for decision-makers, and then disseminating it. Most intelligence organisations will have their own variation of the intelligence cycle, which is often visually represented in a graphic such as this. Let's start the explanation at the top, with Direction.

The Intelligence Cycle.


When I met the man who became my husband, who was quite cynical about the role of the intelligence analyst. He was a naval warfare officer, whose experience of intelligence was that a trainee officer would get the news for the local area, and make sure that the ship's command team got the headlines each day. It took me a long time to convince him that this was news reading, and the process was completely different from producing an intelligence report. The whole purpose of intelligence is that it helps people make decisions. To do this well, the analyst has to understand what decisions their customer is facing.

Sometimes this direction comes easily. An army commander is planning an attack the next day and needs to understand the threats in an area. The intent will come with a location to be investigated, a time frame, and a specific target for the analyst to investigate. Other times, the direction is a bit more vague. A senior leader of an organisation wants to expand their business into a new country or territory. They ask the analyst to report on the risks involve. Do they mean physical risk, financial risk, reputational risks?

In both of these scenarios, sitting down with the customer and asking some pertinent questions will help clarify the required outcome, as well as help highlight any constraints that the analyst might face.


Once the question has been clarified, the analyst will start collecting information. Again, this isn't just a case of turning on a computer and reading some reports. To get the best product the analyst will have a collection plan of what kind of information they need. An example is useful here.

An analyst has been tasked by a government minister to provide more detail on the emerging criminal group The Crimson Syndicate. The group has claimed responsibility for a number of high-profile robberies, some of which resulted in severe injuries to innocent bystanders. Before beginning collection, the analyst would develop an Intelligence Collection Plan (ICP). A very basic example might start off like this:

An example of an Intelligence Collection Plan.

Once the requirements have been established, the analyst will start collecting the information. Some of this they can do themselves by reports or information they have access to. However, they can also send reach out to other intelligence agencies; if they have any relevant information they will then send it back to the analyst. The collection process can be challenging, as it requires intelligence professionals to balance the need for information with the need to protect sources and methods. It is also important to ensure that the information collected is accurate and reliable, as false or misleading information can lead to poor decision-making.


At this stage the analyst will take all the raw information they have collected and start turning it into something useful. They may choose to use a structured analytic technique to help build a deeper understanding of the raw information. One example of one of these techniques is a SWOT analysis, a tool that examines the strengths and weaknesses of an organisation, as well as the opportunities or threats it might face. The analyst places the information into the relevant place on the grid shown below, developing an overview of the organisation being examined.

A SWOT analysis grid for competitor analysis.

The SWOT analysis is an interesting technique as it's used by businesses and leaders in a number of ways. Typically, it will consist of a diagram that looks similar to above. However reframing the SWOT analysis can be used to show how an effect can be achieved. When the target of the SWOT analysis is an enemy or competitor, they could potentially be undermined by targeting each of the grid sectors as shown:

Recommended actions based on a competitor SWOT analysis.

This is only one technique, and most analysts will have several that they frequently use depending on their portfolio, the type of information they typically work with, and the nature of the questions they are examining.


The analyst will by this point have a written their analysis, but it still needs to be delivered to the customer, as well as potentially a wider audience of interested parties. What format is required? Is it to be delivered as a written report, or a verbal briefing? Does the customer want a written article with lots of detail, or a one-sided summary of the key points? When is it required by?

These are only some of the many questions that would be asked, hopefully at the start of the process. This stage will also be the point where classification issues and source evaluation become critical. If an analysis is too highly classified to share, then it's useless. If the analysis is based on critical information from a potentially unreliable source, then that needs to be portrayed to the customer. The organisation an

analyst works for might have visual guidelines which need to be adhered to. Many organisations have a copywriting team who normally help with this stage. However, the nature of classified information means that, for intelligence products, the analytic team typically ends up being responsible for ensuring these production standards are met.


The final stage of the intelligence cycle is dissemination. As well as the original customer, there will almost certainly be other interested parties within an analyst's own organisation, as well as in the wider intelligence community. Even at this stage there are multiple question to be answered. Do recipients need a physical copy or can it be sent via email? What IT infrastructure are they using? Is this going to a deployed military unit who don't have access to IT? Does it need to be hand-delivered? Is there a share-point that it can be posted to that allows interested parties access?


At the start of this article I gently mocked my husband for his lack of understanding about the role of an intelligence analyst. However I failed to mention an important fact—I too started my career as a naval warfare officer, and I too had the same belief that intelligence production was just like reading the news. Specialising as an intelligence officer made up the second half of my military career, and it was an opportunity that I came across by chance rather than design. I was genuinely astounded when I realised the depth of knowledge and skill required to be a proficient intelligence analyst, and it took me several years until I felt comfortable saying I had reached that standard. The basic intelligence produced by the young officer on a ship I now liken to eating fast food. It's quick and convenient, but it doesn't typically leave you feeling like your day is better as a result of it. Quality intelligence analysis is more like a five-course meal at a Michelin Star restaurant. It takes time and experience to prepare, but the end result is substantially more complex and satisfying as a result.


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