Intelligence research specialist jobs focus on narrow areas that require high expertise. Here are some of the perils of conducting different types of research, tips for coping with secrecy, and thoughts on how to survive the politics.

To start, intelligence research specialists are not spies. They are investigators, they’re curators of knowledge. It’s an office-based job, and it doesn’t involve electronic surveillance – although some specialists use intel collected by subterfuge.

Intelligence research specialists are expert at helping their “customers” understand the research. The implications and options of the research is for intelligence analysts and the customers.

Death Valley, USA - a reminder of the challenges for intelligence research specialists
Death Valley, USA.
Even in the most uninhabitable places there is life and beauty. The intelligence research specialist can find “life” among the most awful facts known to mankind.

Examples of the perils faced by intelligence research specialists

ELINT “electronics intelligence” research specialists use data “harvested” from mobile phones. An example of a researcher is someone working for a homeland intelligence agency and directed to identify and categorise the contacts of a suspected terrorist.

  • There is a huge demand for this research, the timelines are tight, the technology is often tricky, and the rules shift without warning. It’s hard to keep up. And if you miss a clue that could have prevented a tragedy, you’ll be living with the moral consequences of that for the rest of your life.

A researcher working on HUMINT – human intelligence from covert sources and undercover operatives.

  • The technical details supplied by “assets” (person) goes to the various specialists. However the HUMINT researcher has to monitor the person, what’s happening to them, what dangers they face, and whether they can still be trusted. It exposes the researcher to the tragedies in a person’s lives, their fears, and their mixed-up psychology.

A researcher working on the nuclear capabilities of foreign powers, and following the supply of parts and technological know-how for timing mechanisms.

  • Such research shows the appalling levels of corruption in the world, including from people who already have sufficient wealth. There’s a shattering level of intimidation and disregard for human life, and the hopelessness of those involved is depressing.

A researcher in the police, untangling the social media records of a rapid victim.

  • The research involves prying into the victim’s secrets, and discovering her or his mistakes. And too often, it involves the horrible realisation that her/his testimony will not convict the rapist.

A researcher in naval intelligence, tracking the signatures of enemy submarines.

  • In a military conflict, a mistake can end in tragedy. But most military activity is not active conflict. Intelligence research can provide warning of where your existing defences are weak, and it provides indicators of when your opponent changes tactics or technology.

An intelligence research specialist in a criminal cartel, and tasked with embedding cyber tools to identify weaknesses in a target’s computer networks.

  • A mistake could mean prison or death for the researcher.  Yet the pressure to deliver intelligence results grows and grows, there is seemingly no way out, and it was clearly a mistake to become involved.

Seven survival tips for your mental health

Think like an athlete: your mental health is as important as your physical health. Train it, monitor it for symptoms of problems, and find new ways to enhance it.

Try to live a “normal” life outside work, with hobbies, friends, and routine.

If your agency provides psychiatric services, treat them as part of your life in the same way as your doctor or dentist.

Do the same as psychiatrists when they have difficult patients yet patient confidentiality is critical: develop friends at work and talk it through with colleagues.

If you encounter distressing human cases, it’s potentially within the remit of research to look at ways the victims can cope. Within the remits of secrecy, get your suggestions to someone who could help.

Within an agency, this is team-work, not heroics. Share the responsibility with your manager and colleagues.

Plan your escape route, and keep your plans up to-date. So if you need to get out, you can. Sometimes it’s better to leave than stay and suffer.

The descriptions here are inspired by open source research I conducted while writing stories about modern espionage.

Specialists are not generalists

Intelligence research specialists develop expertise in narrow areas. In comparison, there are also generalist roles within intelligence research. Some examples:

  • A researcher working in a classic mission-focussed team, led by an intelligence officer and including a second researcher, an analyst, and a liaison.
  • A researcher in the police, charged with using a variety of intelligence sources to learn about a suspect.
  • A researcher in military intelligence, supplied with newly acquired enemy documents, and charged with searching for an arms movements that could be attacked.
  • A researcher in industry, using a selection of open source intelligence (OSINT) techniques to find information about a client’s competitor.

Unlike intelligence research specialists, some research generalists get involved with covert activities – spying. And some generalists may also become involved in intelligence analysis, blurring the roles and potentially creating problems for themselves.

Coping with secrecy

Is intelligence research top secret? That’s very rare. The term “top secret” is for state secrets that could cause significant damage. Access to top secrets requires an intrusive level of security checks and regular reviews. It also brings inconvenient layers of security and loss of privacy. The intrusion continues for years, even after you leave. It costs a vast amount to your agency, so it’s seldom granted.

Most research is “secret”. It’s disclosure could harm individuals, and reduce the competitive advantages of the home side. The biggest risk may be to the researchers, because if they break secrecy they become vulnerable to enemy agents. And if the enemy doesn’t catch you, your own side may detect an accidental security breach, remove your security clearance and fire you. That is part of the background to A delicate liaison – a 2-page story of fear and bullying.

Some research is just “sensitive” – it causes problems if the competition sees it. That includes the OSINT used by think tanks, journalists, academic researchers and the police.

Too much secrecy can become a problem.
See Obsessive secrecy threatens everyone [Ethical challenge, #1].

Your work-in-progress

Forget privacy. Your work-in-progress will be scrutinized by your research lead, pushing you to deliver more, with fewer mistakes and in less time. That’s a part of their job, but whether the pressure is supportive, negative or random depends on them.

Your work-in-progress is also read by other intelligence research specialists with a different brief, covering subjects that overlap or cut directly across yours. Some researchers want to help, some want to show how smart they are, some want to trick you into doing their own work, and some are self-destructive.

There are the intelligence analysts whostudy the consequences of research, and the options. Analysts and researchers work in a continuous cycle, feeding off each other’s ideas and needs. It can be very constructive and intellectually rewarding, but there are hazards: many analysts have general research skills and try to double-guess your methods.

And there are internal stakeholders, with titles such as intelligence officer or special agent. Some stakeholders have very specific agendas and push for things that are not in your brief. Many have a lack of knowledge of your area or a lack of logical reasoning. And there are intelligence officers who are expert at exerting pressure in subtle and forceful ways that can be hidden from your colleagues.

The customers

For the parts of your research that go through a review, security assessment and publication cycle, the final “product” is distributed to internal customers (other intelligence workers) who did not have access to the work-in-progress.

The domestic customers of intelligence agencies includes government ministers, key members of the foreign service, and domestic security organisations. These facts alone are frequently not enough – such customers need training and support with interpretation. (Some research specialist have a strong focus in customer liaison.)

There are international customers in friendly agencies. The feedback can be valuable for its insights, but it is infrequent and it may be via intermediaries.

And for the private sector, the customer is the company or people who pay for the research. The formal presentation to the paying customer can be tense. And at the back of your mind, there’s the suspicion that your research will also find its way to your nation’s intelligence services.

Seven survival tips for work pressure

Network. Use every opportunity to make contacts and new friends, and build trust so you can talk relatively openly. Look for contacts in other agencies, court people who can act as intermediaries, and try to find ways of giving back to the people who help you.

Practice mentoring and training skills. A start point is to use every opportunity to explain things in one-to-one and internal meetings, and grow your skills from there.

Not enough time? Watch how other people find their way through the conflicting priorities. Try and get a steer on importance and urgency from your research lead. Look for “short cuts” that are permitted. Try to avoid distractions.

Become a counter intelligence-officer specialist. That’s for use against the harder intelligence officers you will encounter. Spot when they are starting to use tricks to pressure people. And watch your colleagues for how to deflect and combat that pressure.

Watch for fluffy briefs. At the start of each project or case, you should be getting a brief; or if your work is continuous, the brief is in the job description. Fluffy briefs bring a risk of mission creep and arguments about whether you’ve finished.

Avoid big mistakes because they’re not just bad for your reputation, but also disruptive to your focus, and resolving big mistakes takes time you can’t afford. However …

Treat small failures as a badge of honour. If you’re growing and taking new challenges you’ll make mistakes. The people who make no mistakes are keeping in their safe zone. Failures come because you are investing in your future. So when things go wrong, stop quickly and tell people what you’ll do next time to avoid repeating it. Like that you’ll grow from setback to strength, and it will repeat until you become something special.

Related reading on intelligence research specialists

2-page stories about intelligence research specialists: The Assassination, Blackout and Fabrication.

Securing the State, by David Omand (a former director of GCHQ, who also served 7 years on the Joint Intelligence Committee). See chapters 5 on the intelligence cycle and variations, and chapter 6 which covers research activities. Published by Hurst, 2010, ISBN 978-1-84904-188-1.

Intelligence research is also covered in Intelligence power in peace and war, by Michael Herman. Published by Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN-13 : 978-0521566360. (It is also available as a free PDF.) However automated intelligence collection has come a long way since then, specialism has increased, and the distinction between researchers and collectors has blurred. Herman also relies on the 1990’s concept of an intelligence cycle, which is a sequence that’s now only used in some specific areas.

Open Source Intelligence Techniques, Resources for Searching and Analyzing Online Information, 7th edition, by Michael Bazzell. This is a large and expensive book. Read the table of contents on Amazon. See also the online materials and courses from the author at IntelTechniques.com .