What is Intelligence?

What is Intelligence?

Intelligence is information gathered within or outside the U.S. that involves threats to our nation, its people, property, or interests; development, proliferation, or use of weapons of mass destruction; and any other matter bearing on the U.S. national or homeland security. Intelligence can provide insights not available elsewhere that warn of potential threats and opportunities, assess probable outcomes of proposed policy options, provide leadership profiles on foreign officials, and inform official travelers of counterintelligence and security threats. 


The U.S. Intelligence Community is a federation of executive branch agencies and organizations that work separately and together to conduct intelligence activities necessary for the conduct of foreign relations and the protection of the national security of the United States. The IC remains focused on the missions of cyber intelligence, counterterrorism, counterproliferation, counterintelligence, and on the threats posed by state and non-state actors challenging U.S. national security and interests worldwide.


The National Security Act of 1947, as amended, defines the Intelligence Community's customers as:


  • The President
  • National Security Council
  • Heads of Departments and Agencies of the Executive Branch
  • Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and senior military commanders
  • Congress

Types of Intelligence

The intelligence cycle is a process of collecting information and developing it into intelligence for use by IC customers. The steps in the process are direction, collection, processing, exploitation, and dissemination.


IC products can either be based on a single type of collection or “all-source,” that is, based upon all available types of collection. IC products also can be produced by one IC element or coordinated with other IC elements, and delivered to IC customers in various formats, including papers, digital media, briefings, maps, graphics, videos, and other distribution methods.


There are six basic intelligence sources, or collection disciplines:


  • SIGINT—Signals intelligence is derived from signal intercepts comprising -- however transmitted -- either individually or in combination: all communications intelligence (COMINT), electronic intelligence (ELINT) and foreign instrumentation signals intelligence (FISINT). The National Security Agency is responsible for collecting, processing, and reporting SIGINT. The National SIGINT Committee within NSA advises the Director, NSA, and the DNI on SIGINT policy issues and manages the SIGINT requirements system. 

  • IMINT—Imagery Intelligence includes representations of objects reproduced electronically or by optical means on film, electronic display devices, or other media. Imagery can be derived from visual photography, radar sensors, and electro-optics. NGA is the manager for all imagery intelligence activities, both classified and unclassified, within the government, including requirements, collection, processing, exploitation, dissemination, archiving, and retrieval.

  • MASINT—Measurement and Signature Intelligence is information produced by quantitative and qualitative analysis of physical attributes of targets and events to characterize, locate, and identify them. MASINT exploits a variety of phenomenologies, from a variety of sensors and platforms, to support signature development and analysis, to perform technical analysis, and to detect, characterize, locate and identify targets and events. MASINT is derived from specialized, technically-derived measurements of physical phenomenon intrinsic to an object or event and it includes the use of quantitative signatures to interpret the data. The Director of DIA is both the “Intelligence Community Functional Manager for MASINT” and the “DOD MASINT Manager.” The National MASINT Office (NMO) manages and executes MASINT services of common concern and related activities for the D/DIA in response to National and Department of Defense requirements.

  • HUMINT—Human intelligence is derived from human sources. To the public, HUMINT remains synonymous with espionage and clandestine activities; however, most of HUMINT collection is performed by overt collectors such as strategic debriefers and military attaches. It is the oldest method for collecting information, and until the technical revolution of the mid- to late 20th century, it was the primary source of intelligence.

  • OSINT—Open-Source Intelligence is publicly available information appearing in print or electronic form including radio, television, newspapers, journals, the Internet, commercial databases, and videos, graphics, and drawings. While open-source collection responsibilities are broadly distributed through the IC, the major collectors are the DNI's Open Source Center (OSC) and the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC).

  • GEOINT—Geospatial Intelligence is the analysis and visual representation of security related activities on the earth. It is produced through an integration of imagery, imagery intelligence, and geospatial information.

The National Intelligence Strategy

NIS2019 what is intelligenceIn support of the National Security Strategy, which sets forth national security priorities, the National Intelligence Strategy (NIS) provides the IC with the mission direction of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) for the next four to five years. IC activities must be consistent with, and responsive to, national security priorities and must comply with the Constitution, applicable statutes, and Congressional oversight requirements. The NIS should be read along with the National Intelligence Priorities Framework and Unifying Intelligence Strategies to inform and guide mission, as well as planning, programming, and budgeting activities.


The NIS describes seven Mission Objectives that broadly describe the priority outputs needed to deliver timely, insightful, objective, and relevant intelligence to our customers. Intelligence includes foreign intelligence and counterintelligence. The Mission Objectives are designed to address the totality of regional and functional issues facing the IC; their prioritization is communicated to the IC through the National Intelligence Priorities Framework:


Three Mission Objectives refer to foundational intelligence missions the IC must accomplish, regardless of threat or topic:


  • Strategic Intelligence—inform and enrich understanding of enduring national security issues;
  • Anticipatory Intelligence—detect, identify, and warn of emerging issues and discontinuities;
  • Current Operations—support ongoing actions and sensitive intelligence operations.


Four Mission Objectives identify the primary topical missions the IC must accomplish:


  • Cyber Intelligence—provide intelligence on cyber threats;
  • Counterterrorism—understand and counter those involved in terrorism and related activities;
  • Counterproliferation—counter the threat and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction;
  • Counterintelligence—thwart efforts of foreign intelligence entities.