CIA Secrets Revealed - Part 1

How the CIA Intelligence Cycle Works

By Jake Morphonios

Blackstone Intelligence Network

January 17, 2020

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) collects intelligence to provide reports on:

Current Events looking at day-to-day events.  

Estimative looking at what might be or what might happen.

Warning giving notice to our policymakers of urgent matters that may require immediate attention.

Research providing an in-depth study of an issue.

Scientific & Technical providing information on foreign technologies.

But what the CIA is most known for is its spy craft & foreign clandestine missions. Before CIA field operatives can carry out a mission, the agency must first gather intelligence.

The CIA uses a process to develop actionable intelligence called the "Intelligence Cycle" - a system by which information is gathered from various sources & assembled. When a mission is ordered, intelligence officers review current intelligence & determine what additional intelligence is needed.

The Operation Commander uses this early intelligence, called the "Intelligence Estimate" or "Basic Intelligence" as the foundation for additional intelligence collection, called "Current Intelligence". When this preparatory intelligence has been assembled, the Commander can begin Intelligence Planning.


There are 5 primary considerations in the CIA Intelligence Planning phase:

  1. What intelligence is required for the mission

  2. The priority of need for each intelligence item

  3. What enemy activities could alter #1

  4. What new intelligence or circumstances could alter #1

  5. Which assets will collect intelligence & in what manner


After the Intelligence Estimate & planning are complete, the next step in the Intelligence Cycle is the Intelligence Collection phase from:

  • Human Intelligence (HUMINT)

  • Signals Intelligence (SIGINT)

  • Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)

  • Geospacial Intelligence (GEOINT)

The Intelligence Planning phase produces the Collection Plan (CP) - a fluid working model altered as needed based on new overt or covert intelligence or changing circumstances. The CP includes Priority Intelligence Requirements (PIR) & Operation Intelligence Requirements (OIR) & what specific intelligence is needed for each.

The Collection Plan determines which HUMINT collectors will be used out of:

  • Physical Surveillance Teams

  • Technical Surveillance Teams

  • Undercover Teams

  • Interrogation Teams

  • Counterintelligence Investigators

  • Operational Agents

CIA HUMINT collection can be derived from: Informants (incidental, unwitting, casual, official, trusted & directed) & Agents (recruited, principal, resident, action, site & support).

INCIDENTAL SOURCES: include anonymous tipsters, deserters, refugees, travelers, locals, etc. who provide information on enemy weaknesses, damage & casualty assessments, arms supplies, infiltration routes, identifying collaborators, base locations, etc.

UNWITTING SOURCES: provide intelligence without realizing they are doing it. The information can be transmitted through technology surveillance, eavesdropping, elicitation, observation, surreptitious entry, etc. They can be retired workers from the fields of technology, military, science, academia, politics, government bureacracies or other experts, corporate officers, high level socialites or other in-the-know assets.

CASUAL SOURCES: prominent citizens, members of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), retired police, military or political leaders who willingly impart sensitive intelligence or useful information. Information can be obtained from casual sources by direct interview or subtle elicitation methods.

OFFICIAL SOURCES: government officials, law enforcement, security, technology experts & others who are obligated by their office or position to provide information to intelligence agencies as part of their official duties. Developing deeper relationships with official sources can yield far more intelligence than they are required to give.

TRUSTED SOURCES: informants who have accurately reported on at least 3 occasions over a period of time, who have passed background checks & who can be considered for agent development.

DIRECTED SOURCES: well-positioned informants with histories of accurate intelligence reports who have continued access to special insider information. They accept direction from CIA handlers & are often groomed for recruitment as Guides or Designators.


All of the information that is collected through HUMINT & other intelligence sources is put into an intelligence report. The report contains everything from documents that have been translated to transcripts of recorded phone calls to satellite photos.


After CIA collectors have gathered information from their various sources, the next step in the Intelligence Cycle is to combine the fragmentary information, as it comes in, into actionable intelligence using the 3 step process of: 1) recording, 2) evaluating & 3) interpreting. Because intelligence is fluid & ever-changing, reports must be continually updated for accuracy as new information becomes available.


The last phase of the Intelligence Cycle is dissemination. The most up-to-date intelligence is conveyed to the CIA Operations Commander through personal briefings, electronic & written reports. The intelligence & analysis is designed to answer questions related to what is happening, why it is happening, what might occur next, & how it affects US or CIA interests. This process is referred to as a "cycle" because the flow of updated intelligence & analysis never stops.

The Operational Cycle can now begin.


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