U.S. Spies: Understanding the World's Second Oldest Profession - ITS Tactical

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U.S. Spies: Understanding the World’s Second Oldest Profession

By Oscar M

1 of 3 in the series U.S. Spies

I’m often asked what I do and I feel obligated to respond, “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” When people mention intelligence professionals, they always seem to be describing CIA Agents for some reason. However, it just so happens that I carry a silenced weapon with me daily, but only in an expensive, tailored suit while driving my Aston Martin. The list of pop culture references goes on.

Not surprisingly, many people have misunderstandings regarding intelligence organizations or the Intelligence Community (referred to as the “IC”). The purpose of this article is to clarify some of these misconceptions and to briefly discuss what intelligence support at the national and tactical levels entail, by providing a framework of understanding.

The information contained here will by no means be all-encompassing and only scratches the surface of what the IC is capable of. We’ll also discuss operations and the notion of intelligence organizations as a whole without violating any OPSEC.

Intelligence vs. Information

In this article, the terms intelligence and information will be used almost interchangeably, although there’s a critical distinction.

Here’s the critical concept: all intelligence is information, but not all information is intelligence.

Meaning, that if it hasn’t been analyzed, processed, or exploited in some form, information is not intelligence. That’s the function of intelligence organizations — to task, collect, process, exploit and disseminate information that then becomes useful due to its timeliness, accuracy and relevancy to whatever operation it’s in regards to (and is because of this process now deemed classified information).

At the top level of the US intelligence apparatus is the IC. The IC is a massive entity* that comprises all of the national-level, DoD-related and other intelligence organizations that form our nation’s intelligence-sharing community. This would include the CIA, FBI, INR, NRO, NGA, DIA, AFISRA, ONI, USMCIA and many more.

Intelligence Community Structure

All of these organizations fall under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, whose responsibility is to coordinate, manage, and oversee the massive tasking, collection, processing, exploitation and ultimately the most important — dissemination of timely, accurate, relevant, analyzed information at the strategic level, also known as intelligence. Chief among the concept of the IC is information sharing. In a post-9/11 world, ensuring that the countless intelligence entities are sharing their information rather than keeping it to themselves is paramount.

Operational Support

Often there is a distinction placed between support entities and operational entities, especially in the military and at the tactical level. The same holds true for the IC and all intelligence organizations. Often intelligence units are considered a separate entity from their operational or policy-making counterparts, much like the legislative branch is separate from the executive branch. There are the decision-makers and agencies that execute the law, and then there are those that support it and create it. Not a perfect comparison, but close enough.

President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Situation Room

This stems from the concept that intelligence is a support function, one that provides the necessary information to the operations units and decision-makers, who can then execute the appropriate actions to act on the information that the intelligence organizations provide. It is a continuous cycle — policies and operations produce intelligence, which then enables more actionable operations and policies, etc.

At the tactical level, intelligence entities can be embedded in operational units in order to fuse the intelligence capabilities with the needs of their operations counterparts. In the IC, this relationship is defined by using terms such as the “customer”. The IC works to create “products” (exploited and analyzed information that is timely, accurate, relevant, etc) that are provided to various “customers” who need certain information for their work.

At the strategic level, this may be an in-depth report on the intent and structure of a new terrorist organization and the scope of their activity as it pertains to international politics. At the tactical level, this may be a trend analysis of various threats to friendly forces at a FOB in Afghanistan based on the TTPs (tactics, techniques, and procedures) of known insurgents, to include weapons used, possible times for an impending attack, the location and even specific individuals involved.

The Intelligence Community

Intelligence is a very broad but capable function. The support that it provides to operational units is critical and cannot be replaced or performed by any other function. Functionally, it provides national level decision-makers with insight to the thoughts and pending decisions of other world leaders, monitors the enforcement of treaties, provides indications and warnings of pending attacks at the national, operational and tactical levels, offers trend analysis for threat reporting, delivers analysis regarding current events, shapes commanders’ understanding of the environment and environmental effects and ultimately is the enabler that allows operations and missions to be conducted successfully.

Access to the world of the IC is highly restricted and requires a security clearance, a need-to-know and the signing of [multiple] non-disclosure agreements. But once secured, this access is a vast wealth of information that can be tailored to the needs of the customers, and is mission-critical in today’s day and age. Intelligence is the world’s second-oldest profession and for a good reason. It’s a privilege to work with and understand the intelligence function in such a dynamic world.

CIA Library


  • *While the concept of information sharing among intelligence entities was full of well intent, an entire book could be written on the bureaucratically ridiculous problems inherent in attempting to facilitate the coordination of terabytes’ worth of daily information exchange between government agencies. This article by Nada Bakos summarizes a recent issue quite well.

Editor-in-Chief’s Note: Please join us in welcoming Oscar M. as a contributor on ITS Tactical. He’s a Junior Active-Duty Intelligence Officer supporting a conventional airborne-capable unit. “My goal is to serve by protecting the US Constitution, keep the bad guys of the world at bay, fighting them when necessary and ensuring that the American people don’t have to.”

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  • Gary

    Great article. Now when people ask me questions about what I used to do in the Army, I can point them to this article.
    Thank you.

    • Oscar M

      Thanks, Gary! Now to determine what you did in the Army: was it the Aston Martin or the suit?

  • Jason Crist

    Really cool stuff!

    • Oscar M

      Thanks for reading, Jason! We appreciate the feedback.

  • Raven

    Welcome to ITS, Oscar! Glad to have you aboard! Great article and thanks for the peek through the looking glass.

    • Oscar M

      Thanks for the welcome, Raven! Looking forward to getting involved with the community and learning more.

  • Jer

    And of course, when tied in properly with the world’s oldest profession, we get the likes of the Mata Hari and a multitude of other honeytraps which can provide real-time information of unsurpassed intelligence value. When used properly, it can bring an organization to its knees. The converse is true as well.

    • Oscar M

      Jer, funny that you should mention that combination…I’m currently reading a book covering the history of Mossad, and have to say that their emphasis on human intelligence definitely demonstrates its value, especially when it comes to near real time information. Thanks for the thoughts!

  • Nathan

    I feel its a great article distinguishing those who work in the intelligence community and those involved in espionage. Awesome article!

    • Oscar M

      Thanks for the support, Nathan! Glad you enjoyed it.

  • Stephen Douglass

    Oscar Mike and ITS: This was a great article, thank you.
    I was going to say a little something about the connection between the first and second oldest professions, but I see that was hit upon already.

    When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I’m in field data collection and analytics. They tend to hear the word “collections”, and suddenly change the subject. For some in the know, I give them the unofficial response for Litigation Support Services: I task stupid, if I told you, you’d die of boredom.

    • Oscar M

      Stephen, thanks for the feedback!

      The combination of the first and second oldest professions (nicknamed a “honeypot”) is something definitely important to bring up…there are certain countries who use it fairly well (and others, not so much), and recently: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/mar/19/us-defense-contractor-arrested-passing-secrets-chi/?page=all

      As for what people do for a living, the key is always to lull them into a sense of complacency; they’ll either stop asking, lose interest, or fall asleep – a win-win!

  • David

    Always great to hear from follow Intel folk! As a former IS2 (SW/AW), I had no idea what i was getting in to because the detailer didnt have a clue either.

  • Jack Devine

    For the love of God, when people refer to CIA, FBI, DEA, etc…there are proper terms for their respective employees.  CIA employees are called officers, NOT AGENTS.  FBI employees are called AGENTS, DEA employees are called AGENTS and so on and so on.  Our minds have been trained to think that CIA and Intelligence professionals are called agents because Hollywood makes it sound cool to us but in reality we are doing a disservice to those brave individuals willing to risk their lives to gather intelligence on our enemies in those very dark corners of this world.  Please ITS Tactical, tell your writers to use the proper terms.

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