Intelligence research involves collating facts to give an advantage over a competitor or enemy. Researchers work with the people and systems that provide raw intelligence. Their research is used by analysts, “customers” and intelligence personnel.

The description here is an introduction to support the stories on this website. Intelligence research varies enormously across the world and the different areas of specialisation, and it is evolving because of new technologies.

Intelligence researchers

Intelligence researchers are highly skilled professionals who focus on assembling facts and indicators (best guesses). There are other people in the intelligence profession who can perform research activities, but it’s not their primary profession (although it might have been in the past).

Researchers specialise in human-sourced intelligence, communications and electronic intercepts, imagery, open source intelligence, and a variety of specialised areas such as for radar and sonar. Some researchers specialise, others spread across multiple areas.

Examples of intelligence researchers

  • A researcher in a civil intelligence agency directed to identify and categorise the contacts of 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 open source intelligence (OSINT) to find information about a client’s competitor.
  • A researcher in a criminal cartel embedding cyber tools to identify weaknesses in a target’s computer networks. (Intelligence research also plays a key role in the activities of terrorist groups.)

Why are intelligence researchers secret?

They’re not all secret. Open source intelligence (OSINT) is also used by companies, think tanks, journalists and the police.

For researchers working in intelligence agencies, it’s different. They have access to classified material and secrets.

  • So they need all the protection that is possible from hostile interference (recruitment, blackmail, and so on).
  • It’s best for researchers to adopt a “say nothing about intelligence” approach when talking to the general public. “Say nothing” is much easier if they don’t know your work.
  • But there are problems that come from this. See Ethical challenge #1: Obsessive secrecy threatens everything ethics of secrecy.

What makes a good intelligence researcher?

People who love dealing with massively complex problems, who work in a team, are comfortable with technology, and can live within the atypical world of intelligence. They also need to accept obsessive levels of secrecy, unless they are working exclusively with OSINT.

Motives vary. Some researchers are fascinated by secrets, some are driven by ideals, but some just enjoy the intellectual element of the work. Most researchers want to stay in the office, although there are exceptions.

Diversity helps. For the best intelligence research, agencies need as diverse a range of researchers as possible, within the constraints of security. Results count. For example, a person with dyslexia will struggle with the endless acronyms, but dyslexic people are more likely to have the unusual minds suited to complex research. And people from diverse cultural background can have special insights.

Be a specialist or a generalist? Researchers in small units need to be able to use a variety of tools – but given the complexity of many of the tools, they’ll not be expert. Within big intelligence agencies there are people who are expert and can tease subtleties of raw data in record time.

Intelligence researchers are investigators. Researchers are charged with uncovering the truth even if the truth is uncomfortable and labelled with caveats and uncertainties. This is not just an organisational matter or part of the so-called intelligence cycle – it’s a necessity. Researchers are regularly working with truly horrible facts. It’s safer to leave the implications to other people – they too, have their own ways of handling the horrors.

Thinking of becoming an intelligence researcher? A checklist

  • Do you like big challenges? Very close teamwork? And the relentless pressure?
  • Can you handle the secrecy and introversion?
  • Which areas of intelligence interests you? (There’s very much more to intelligence than researching terrorists.)
  • Can you live with the moral questions?
  • And will your own security risk profile be within tolerance?

Work focus

Research specific themes. A theme is something very narrow with a clearly defined scope:

  • the finances of a suspect, or
  • the capability of a rogue state to source a particular component used in nuclear weapons, or
  • the experience of a criminal cartel to use a particular type of cyber weapon.

Research broad themes. This involves working with the output from other intelligence researchers. (It’s research, not analysis, because the focus is to provide evidence.)

Maintain research databases. Databases are the core of the knowledge used by researchers, analysts and more. Even with automation, it takes human researchers to know what to include in databases, and how to “tag” it so it can be found and the AI engines can use it. Some intelligence databases need a team of researchers to keep them up to date and provide specialised reports.

Collection tools. There are specialists who work with the tools that handle raw intelligence data. Proficient researchers also know how to use many of these tools in there area of expertise – indeed, they may have started their careers as intelligence collectors.

Who are the customers of intelligence research?

For work-in-progress:

  • Other researchers, covering overlapping subjects or broader subjects that cross over different research areas.
  • Intelligence analysts, to study the consequence and options, and explain the potential implications. (Analysts and researchers work in a continuous cycle, feeding off each other’s ideas and needs.)
  • The intelligence officers assigned to the investigation.

For the final “product” that is more widely distributed:

  • Other intelligence workers, who did not have access to the work-in-progress.
  • The “domestic customers” – that means, the government ministers, and key members of the foreign service, police and so on.
  • External agencies.

(Publication from intelligence agencies involves different versions for different audiences, to remove material that is sensitive. In private intelligence, research is typically bundled with analysis in the final report to the client.)

The tools of intelligence research

  • The same tools for viewing raw intelligence that are used by the research collectors. For example, sifting through automated transcripts of phone calls, and looking for specific words or phrases of interest.
  • Digital libraries of research reports, as well as material from open publications and the specialised summaries from intelligence collectors.
  • Multiple specialised databases. These typically include an aggregation (summary) of information from raw intelligence sources. An OSINT example is the IISS Military Balance database that tracks the military capability of every country in the world over the last years.
  • AI engines (artificial intelligence) operating on raw intelligence data, like phone call records. The upside of AI: it finds things that the search queries miss. The downside: Artificial intelligence is narrowly focussed and regularly gives stupid results. It takes human skill to use AI engines well.
  • Visualisation tools, such as mapping the contacts of a suspect, or their geographic movements.
  • Secure document storage and document distribution, such as the UK’s STRAP system.

Related reading

Related topic on this site: Who are secret intelligence researchers?

2-page stories about researchers, on this site:

Securing the State, by David Omand (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.