Information is anything that can be known, regardless of how it is discovered. Intelligence refers to information that meets the stated or understood needs of [the users] and has been collected, processed, and narrowed to meet those needs. Intelligence is a subset of the broader category of information. Intelligence and the entire process by which it is identified, obtained, and analyzed respond to the needs of [users]. All intelligence is information; not all information is intelligence.
--Mark M. Lowenthal, Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy

(from Special Warfare Bulletin, JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Fort Bragg.)

In today's irregular battlespaces, lethal and nonlethal operations alike require a rapid, socially sensitive awareness that is derived from intelligence operations. That requirement applies equally to counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and counterdrug activities. Whether their goal is to find, isolate, disrupt, deter, deny, influence or neutralize enemy activities, operations need to avoid inflicting inadvertent consequences, either as unintended casualties or global political fallout.

In order to leverage human intelligence, or HUMINT, today's complex operational environments require a comprehensive understanding of the human social and psychological dimensions, advanced intelligence capabilities for information-collection, and military source operations, or MSO, which involve the collection from, by or through humans of foreign, military and military-related intelligence. Success in these environments also requires a heightened battlespace analysis that provides the capability to rapidly gather, interpret and act on time-sensitive information.

Unfortunately, traditional techniques of information-collection and reconnaissance can be difficult in the irregular battlespace because of various human-terrain factors that deny or compromise observation. More advanced intelligence operations can be conducted to circumvent such challenges, but only if the intelligence analysis that supports mission planning is attuned to the particular battlespace.

Special-operations forces, or SOF, remain one of the most important elements for executing improved information-collection operations and intelligence assessments. SOF commanders can improve cultural and social awareness by adjusting the way they task their intel personnel to collect, analyze and disseminate intelligence.

When available intelligence lacks the information necessary for planning SOF operations, it is critical that the SOF commander obtain the necessary intelligence and perform a supplementary analysis. The 18F Special Forces intelligence sergeant can be a great asset by helping the commander adjust the way he requests intelligence, integrates intelligence personnel within teams and plans supplemental intelligence missions to ensure the maximum knowledge of the human terrain.

Operationalizing intel

As they execute their mission-essential tasks, SOF commanders have an imperative to acquire a situational awareness that will also provide the basis for efficient planning that minimizes risk. SOF planning, performed within the theater of operations, often requires critical information that, for a variety of reasons, may be unavailable or not operationalized, that is, not available in a format relevant to SOF operations.

In SOF operations, the commander focuses on an environment that includes the area of influence, all adjacent areas, and areas extending into enemy territory that contain the objectives of current and planned operations. With such a broad scope to consider, the commander requires intelligence that addresses both tactical requirements and the big-picture strategy. In order to provide an appropriate operational analysis and understanding, intelligence preparation of the battlefield, or IPB, and other planning mechanisms must therefore be tied to SOF operations in order to ensure that planners will have access to the best available and most usable intelligence.

Successful planning is not based solely on how well the intelligence user defines the intelligence requirements, or IRs. The intelligence product also requires skilled analysts who can discern, discriminate, filter, correlate and disseminate intelligence. Such intelligence may have to compete with contradictory information that often lacks the methodical evaluation and contextual application that SOF warfighters need.

When intelligence is operationalized, risks and options become more apparent. The resulting comprehensive awareness enhances insight, improves mission planning and heightens tactical performance by allowing quick and sure responses to rapidly shifting conditions.

Operational intelligence has two main foundations:

1) Assessments - "Intel drives ops." Customized operational intelligence, synthesized with analytical rigor, either enables planning for a specific operational environment or highlights additional requirements for intelligence collection.

2) Missions - "Intel-driven ops." Intelligence operations conducted primarily to collect information related to priority intelligence requirements, PIRs, or to develop military sources, as opposed to being a secondary objective of other missions.


Intelligence can provide a competitive advantage only if its various pieces are matched with operational experience and intuition, reasoning and analytical skills honed for the specific situation. In special operations, intelligence planning is usually tasked to the staff of the S2, G2, C2 or J2. These staffs are responsible for intelligence procurement and interpretation. If the intelligence personnel are unskilled, their typical response is to disseminate a "data-dump" of raw intelligence or to perform increased, unfocused collection activities, rather than to perform an enhanced analysis and distill PIRs or to manageable levels.

Most failures of battlefield intelligence are due not to insufficient data or intelligence-collection efforts but instead to intelligence products that were either ignored or analytically weak. The products are often weak because the analyst is unskilled or uses an intuition-based, or "gut-based," approach instead of a systematic process, or because rigid analytical processes and templated frameworks do not provide the responses that missions demand. Another problem in intelligence is mirror-imaging, in which the analyst bases his findings on the assumption that foreigners will think about matters in the same way as Americans do.

For example, a commander may be preparing for a foreign internal defense, or FID, deployment to North Africa that could involve working with indigenous Tuareg tribes in the Sahara. Based only on observations and some internal examination, the S2 may have concluded that Tuaregs are lazy, which the commander and his team may interpret as a signal to push the Tuaregs harder in training or to expect less cooperation from them. However, that analysis is weak: The truth may be that untrained observations have concentrated on an isolated group of individuals performing their social-cultural roles within the Tuareg caste system. In reality, an approach that would motivate or engage the Tuaregs would need to be based upon an understanding of their cultural conditions and their view of society. Approaches that might motivate U.S. troops could in fact offend the Tuaregs and create a resistance to cooperation. The result would be a negative relationship with a group that could assist SOF in counterterrorism initiatives or in intelligence support.

In the Tuareg illustration, a better, operationalized approach would take a broader look at the indigenous people, focusing on insights garnered from their social history and culture, and apply the findings to the execution of a particular operation and to the team's understanding of the people. In addition, the success of the mission should be evaluated in terms of short- and long-term goals, relationships formed with the Tuaregs and regional interests. A commander may ask himself: Does the analyst understand our FID intelligence-support requirements' Is the analyst a subject-matter expert who understands the indigenous society and culture' Are the IRs and PIRs specific enough to yield useful operational information, or will they reflect the analyst's narrow opinion and his need to simply check a box on an IPB template' Perhaps the commander could advise the intelligence staff of a target-analysis tool that Special Forces Soldiers use during their mission assessment: CARVER/DSHARPP (criticality, accessibility, recuperability, vulnerability, effect and recognizability/demography, symbolism, history, accessibility, recognizability, population and proximity).

Improving assessments

Our analysis of the battlespace must also be improved in the area of predictive analysis. It is not enough simply to have a list of forecasted assumptions about the area or the adversary. Intelligence needs to include validated information about the building blocks required for a particular scenario or flashpoint to materialize and clues that would indicate their presence.
The requirements for a predictive analysis of enemy activity include the intentions, will, capabilities and vulnerabilities of enemy groups and individuals. Analysis can be biased and may simply seek information that reinforces the way the analyst views the theater's inhabitants. To ensure that the intelligence assessment will not be based solely on the biases of one person or group, it should also include competing theories.

When commanders are concerned about time constraints, they frequently may not task their collectors and analysts for additional intelligence on the human terrain. They rely instead on their teams to augment the available information as they conduct their missions. Ideally, when information is not available, more interaction between the commander and the intelligence analyst would allow the analyst to describe what is known about a particular scenario indicator and what key intelligence questions still need to be answered. The commander would in turn express his mission tasking and available options for refining and refocusing intelligence collection and analysis.

At times, the information the S2 needs to arrive at a conclusion may be too difficult to obtain, so team databases or intelligence products may simply be stuffed with nuggets of information, in hopes that the user will find appropriately insightful items. Planning for SOF operations can no longer tolerate inadequacies in the analysis of human terrain and battlefield atmospherics simply because it is difficult to collect the necessary intelligence.

To date, attempts to make operational sense of massive amounts of unorganized data collected for missions often focus on obscure, technical, computer-based collection structures and complex mathematical algorithms rather than on realistic improvements to the analysis of relationships and human intelligence. Further, most analysis of these collections of information will be isolated from the operational environment in which the data originated, and the analysts will therefore be unable to apply the appropriate perspective to the intelligence assessment and correlate data to operational activities. The analysis will therefore offer little insight or contextual understanding of the way a particular piece of intelligence should be considered or whether its use may have unintended effects.


Another enhancement to operational intelligence would be the conduct of more counterthreat and counteraction activities to collect intelligence clandestinely or to gain intelligence insights for missions. Insurgencies and guerrilla movements facilitated through illicit border-crossing activities from Iran, Syria and Pakistan into Iraq and Afghanistan rely on mobility, elusiveness and availability of a safe-haven. The trade and transport of drugs, arms and humans rely on the same factors. All these illicit acts require significant active and passive civilian material support, which is deeply rooted in the human sociological framework.

Focusing on the human terrain could give the commander more mission options and provide targeting for information operations. Human factors are the motivating forces behind mobilization, opportunity, resistance or support. Countering illicit acts can be challenging when they are intermingled with ordinary, lawful activities that are central to an inhabited area. Targeting often resorts to direct-action operations, because low-level targets are the most identifiable and available for engagement. Targeting the social network for intelligence collection through MSO is a better method. The best way to break up complex, social-network-driven activities is to ensure that the network's linchpins are identified and removed or discredited with minimal disruption of the ancillary social terrain.

These linchpins and their higher-level activities for "hostile" insurgency acts and drug-transport purposes are typically masked by day-to-day socially networked routines. That makes it virtually impossible for outsiders who are not part of the local structure to identify anything in particular as being illicit. In this complex operational environment, special-operations personnel should maintain a persistent presence mingling with the locals and their commerce, cultivating trust and goodwill, thereby increasing opportunities for developing potential sources for intelligence operations, counterinsurgency activities and stability initiatives.

Successful synergies of local-intelligence collection and MSO can be traced back to the Office of Strategic Services. The OSS developed underground associates; organized guerrilla groups and supplied them with funds or materiel; and performed local work, such as farming and tending livestock, to better observe enemy movements.

Operational intelligence activities must be similarly dedicated to, teamed with and supported by operationalized intelligence analysis to ensure mission success and the proper identification of appropriate intelligence targets. Refining analysis through real-time observations at the operator level must become a primary function, because the majority of available, prefabricated intelligence will be either dated or of too high a level for the commander to use.

An example will support that point: In Iraq and Afghanistan, the ability to remain in place clandestinely over extended periods of time can be compromised by the area's high density of children, animals and families, who may alert the target under observation. Furthermore, intelligence support to SOF units lacks the local nuances required for them to work effectively within small areas. The result is that recon teams in these areas have become less oriented on physical terrain and more oriented on people for intelligence and insights.

Special Forces use a host of collection assets in trying to satisfy the ever-shifting PIRs of operational commanders and their subordinate elements. At its base camp, the team can rely on its internal organization to accomplish its mission, with enhancement by force-multiplying indigenous camp residents and proximate locals. Advanced collection operations against broadly networked, decentralized threats require additional human sources and informants, electro-optics ground sensors, small measurement and signatures intelligence devices, unmanned aerial sensors, ground and fixed-wing signals intelligence and enhanced human-intelligence MSO.

These collection capabilities enable effective target examination for identifying enemies, tracking illicit activities and assessing risk factors, which are based on a range of motivational, ideological and social factors that can't be observed when intelligence collection is a cursory activity of a mission. By enhancing the role of intelligence operations, SOF personnel can find subtle, ambiguous or fleeting observables that indicate seemingly hidden enemy activities or behaviors. Operators must not only collect this information but also quickly record and report mission results, which will prompt additional analysis and result in a better understanding of the situational atmospherics.

SOF field collectors are able to immerse themselves within an area and have daily contact with numerous sources. With their analytical skills, they develop a capacity for judgment, and they may be in the best position to comprehend indicators or warnings that likely would not set off the same alarms within the larger intel apparatus. Under many circumstances, their comprehension is beyond the scope of a distant analyst, who may frequently discard what he deems as irrelevant information. In short, the local collectors can become their own camp-based intelligence community.

Best practices

Improvements to the operational intelligence domain do not require a complex overhaul of the doctrine for special operations or intelligence. From the moment they contemplate operations, commanders and intelligence specialists can launch a continuing, interactive process to develop and refine the estimate of any situation. Within that process, the commander's operational requirements must be the principal determinants of the intelligence-system components, staff organization, intel services and products. Simultaneously, intelligence personnel must act as expert advisers.

The process of operationalizing intelligence, driven by the commander and supported by an advisory intelligence expert, will bring greater specificity to mission planning and execution. By customizing insights and findings, it ensures that everyone is working with the same data and situational awareness to create a plan for specific contingencies. When correctly managed, the intelligence will be more proactive and pre-emptive and less a reactive, "off the shelf" product that has not been framed for the situation.

Once intelligence has been operationalized, its content can correlate to the desired operational effects, adding flexibility and agility to planning and execution. Such refinement enables the intelligence tradecraft, collection architecture and deeper social-cultural observation required for gathering the actionable insights needed for engaging complex enemy centers of gravity.

Under the intelligence-operations framework, SOF commanders can enhance their mission success with timely insights that minimize the risk of direct-action civil infringements and unintended opportunities for insurgent propaganda. Without proper intelligence guidance, capture-and-kill solutions can have significant countereffects: alienating and angering the inhabitants of a region, as well as people in bordering regions. The perceived social infractions create more discontent within communities and increase the resistance to participation that SOF are trying to deter.


To conclude, when implemented as doctrine, an effective framework for building ideal intelligence and decision-making dynamics corresponds to the current procedures of Joint Pub 2-0, Joint Doctrine for Intelligence Support to Operations. Best practices of turning information into intelligence can immediately improve the quality of interaction, insights and mission success by six factors:

1) Inclusion. Until the completion of the operation, the intelligence staff should participate in virtually all decision-making and planning that is based on an active intelligence estimate. Integration of the intelligence personnel embedded with the SF teams, whether they are formally assigned or temporarily dedicated, should be encouraged by the SOF commander. The operationally focused individual will learn more about intelligence and intelligence-collection capabilities, while the intelligence personnel will learn the mission types and associated tasks to which SOF groups and battalions respond, as well as how to inject intelligence-based assets and capabilities into the operational concept. The interactive process will soon transform the intelligence specialist into the commanding officer's adviser instead of a low-level support arm.

2) Focus. Effective support to the commander requires synchronized, detailed intelligence framed in the context and the requirements of operations. This focus helps all parties determine their priorities and should be used to determine whether additional collection operations can fill information gaps. Intelligence-driven targeting is especially effective when the intelligence personnel are well-schooled in the operational arts of SOF missions. From the onset, the intel staff should establish a set of lines-of-operation collection tasks, and the commander should support it. From these collection tasks, analysts can create a subset of questions for each task. These questions become the IRs that can be assigned to a collector. When the refinement and updates are ready for the commander, another process of distillation and evaluation can turn information gaps into PIRs.

3) Missions. Operational forces must be tasked to collect information, employ locals as intelligence sources and report all discoveries. The information from MSO, reconnaissance and surveillance must be integrated with intelligence from other sources to ensure primacy for future operations. Examination and cross-referencing of multiple sources of intelligence also enhance the quality of analysis by reducing the possibility that information anomalies may be assessed as a "big picture" finding.

4) Framework. Establish an operations-intelligence architecture (task force or fusion cell) for greater coordination and situational awareness, with specific emphasis on fusion analysis, collection management, targeting and theater human-terrain expertise. The Joint Intelligence Operations Center model, facilitating the tactical overwatch program, is a similar concept. An intelligence infrastructure must be created to ensure a unity of effort for complete, accurate and current intelligence that will develop the best possible understanding of the adversary and the situation and reduce unnecessary duplication. Members of the intelligence staff and mission-planners cannot operate in a vacuum; therefore, the integration, consolidation and expanded access to intelligence and operations in a "war room" or "battle pit" can foster better harmony of efforts to ensure that the commander's priorities are being met. Consolidation also minimizes the withholding of information, because there are no walls or stovepipes to act as barriers.

5) Flexibility. Intelligence structures, methodologies, databases, products and personnel must be flexible enough to meet changing operational situations, needs, priorities and opportunities, and they must apply to all possible strategies and tactics. Intelligence-related technology and processes must be less complicated and constraining than the operations they are facilitating. Often intelligence products are incorrectly prioritized to look doctrinally correct, as opposed to ensuring that they are effective for mission targeting and assisting the commander to meet his objectives. Technological analytical tools can be helpful, but they must be user-friendly, or they may cause confusion and frustration for the analyst.

6) Backup. Augment national- and theater-level intelligence support with a "virtual" reach-back and reach-forward capability of subject-matter experts to enhance the ability to turn available information into actionable insights. At times, national and theater intelligence organizations may not be able to produce specific operational insight because of constraints in access, capability, capacity or expertise. During those times, commanders benefit from supplemental experts who may come from the private sector, academia or other parts of the public sector that have knowledge or connections pertaining to intelligence needs dealing with areas, peoples, operational concepts, etc.

Authors' note: Special thanks to CWO 4 Charles Hof (USA, ret.), Elizabeth MacIntosh (OSS, ret.) and Barbara Podoski (OSS, ret.).

Lieutenant General William G. Boykin, U.S. Army (ret.) is a professor at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. He retired from the Army in 2007 with 36 years of service, most of them in Special Forces. His assignments include Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence; commander, JFK Special Warfare Center and School; commander, U.S. Army Special Forces Command; and a variety of positions within the U.S. Special Operations Command, the Joint Staff and the Army staff. He has played a role in almost every recent major American military operation, including operations in Grenada, Somalia and Iraq.

Scott Swanson is a specialist in irregular warfare and socio-cultural intelligence covering operational considerations with specific focus on Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. As chief of special projects for Delphi International Research ( and subcontractor to Eagle Crest LLC and Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, he has provided intelligence and social-network disruption advisory assistance to USASOC, SWCS, USSOCOM, STRATCOM, the Joint Chiefs, Department of State INR, NIC, MCIA, DIA, TRADOC, CGSC SAMS, CGSC SOF Studies and DoD special projects. He holds a bachelor's degree in foreign culture and communication (Arabic, French and Spanish language study) and a master's in strategic intelligence. Swanson can be reached at