An Intelligencer's Guide to: Assessing Information Part One
Updated: Aug 21, 2021
In our first "Intelligencer's Guide" we considered the six questions to ask when investigating any subject. Continually asking "Who?", "What?", "When?", "Where?", "Why?" and "How?" allows the critical thinker to collect as much information as possible. By so doing a more accurate picture is built and, consequently, a deeper understanding developed of the subject under investigation.
Intelligence Cycle Such questioning forms part of, but is not limited to, the 'Collection' phase of the Intelligence Cycle (see right). The latter is the common name, used in the military, police and other agencies, for the intelligence process. Within the cycle, intelligence staffs conduct tasks and operations to produce relevant, accurate and timely intelligence to decision-makers. The activities undertaken are focused through the four core functions of direction, collection, processing and dissemination. For our purposes, the same process can be applied to historical or other research, establishing the veracity of something reported in the media, or pretty much any question one may have.
Definition Before proceeding further, it might be worth defining a couple of key concepts. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, 'information' is actually distinct from 'intelligence' since the latter is derived from analysis of the former. The UK military defines intelligence as 'the directed and co-ordinated acquisition and analysis of information to assess capabilities, intent and opportunities for exploitation by leaders at all levels. Information is defined as unprocessed data of every description that may be used in the production of intelligence' .
Processing From this definition, one has to do something with all the information collected to convert it into intelligence . Outside of military or police circles, we might consider the 'intelligence' simply as the answers to our many questions or a better understanding. Regardless, to convert information into something useful requires it to be processed. The key processing tasks are:
● Collating information for comparison . Collation is a step in the processing phase in which the grouping together of related items of information provides a record of events and facilitates further processing. If you are researching a particular subject, then collation might involve placing each piece of information into an appropriate category or group. This can be done by logging the information, marking on a map or chart, filing or indexing, or through the entry into an electronic database.
● Evaluating the reliability of sources and the accuracy of information. This is fundamental to analysis, as the judgement of relative value will determine how different or conflicting reports are considered.
● Analysis and integration of information. During analysis, collated and evaluated information is reviewed for significant facts that will enhance understanding. These are then related to other known facts, and deductions drawn from the comparison. This aspect of processing, as with evaluation, is in practice almost totally based on human judgement, informed by subject matter expertise and is a critical point in the process. Analysts closely examine raw data, facts, statements, opinions and ideas, and then combine them to determine their meaning, relevance and significance.
● Interpreting information. The final step in the processing phase judges the significance of information and/or intelligence in relation to the current body of knowledge. It is a process of comparison and deduction based on expertise and experience. It requires the comparison or addition of new information with existing material to produce a fresh or updated assessment. It may lead to a complete re-processing in the light of new information.
Evaluating sources and information The second bullet points is our focus, however. The information collected may not be wholly reliable or accurate. It may lack sufficient detail, be subjective rather than objective, it's source may be biased or intent on active deception . Evaluating any item of information in respect of the reliability of the source and the credibility of the information is, therefore, an essential part of the processing phase of the intelligence cycle. Evaluation is fundamental to analysis, as the judgement of relative value will determine how different or conflicting reports are considered. So, how do you assess the reliability of the source and the credibility of the information?
Grading of Intelligence During evaluation, the reliability and credibility of information are considered independently to ensure each does not influence the other. In the intelligence world, allocating an alphanumeric rating reflects the level of confidence in the material. This allocation is based on experience of other information from the same source or, in the case of information produced by technical means , on the accuracy or limitations of the particular system. It is worth remembering, however, that even the most reliable sources can produce wrong information. Equally, providing confirmed information does not indicate a reliable source. When assessing any report, whether written, on the radio or on television, a source’s expertise, motivation and access will affect both reliability and credibility. The grading system for source reliability and credibility is shown below:
Combining values produces ratings for individual pieces of material that can be a useful indicator of the degree to which confidence can be placed upon it.
An "A" rating might mean a thoroughly trusted and reliable source, but if they are relying on a piece of information that has been discredited, then the reliability might be rated 5 (known false) and the report would be graded A5. When listening to a report in the media, a human source's reliability should be rated lower if they are reporting on a technical subject and the reporter's expertise is unknown. Moreover, it is sometimes impossible to rate the reliability of the source, so an "F3" could be a reasonably probable report from an unknown source. And remember, an extremely trusted source might submit a report that cannot be confirmed or denied, so it would get an "A6" rating.
In Part Two we will consider the Principle of Objectivity and the need for reports to be corroborated to rate their reliability and credibility.
1. Joint Doctrine Publication JDP 2-00 'Understanding and Intelligence Support to Joint Operations' (3rd Edition), Chapter 1, Section III, paragraph 118, (accessed July, 21st, 2020).
2. Ibid., Chapter 3, Section IV, paragraph 334.
3. Ibid., Chapter 3, Section IV, paragraph 332.
4. Some examples might include photography, ground penetrating radar. sound or video recordings, etc.