Intelligence Gathering 101

In feudal Japan, the ninja families that conducted covert operations throughout the Warring States period were set up with three different levels. At the bottom of the network, the field operative was known as the “genin,” and it was his/her job to gather intelligence. This information was then passed up the hierarchy to the middle man, the “chunin.” The chunin acted as both a manager of genin and a cut-out, preserving the secrecy of the network if one of his agents was caught and tortured for information. The genin could only realistically give up or compromise certain aspects of the network, but not enough information for the network to be completely dismantled. At the top of the network sat the jonin. It was the jonin’s job to analyze all the information his network had collected and then take appropriate steps to influence happenings and occurrences such that they benefited either the ninja family itself, the community, or even the feudal lords the ninja sometimes worked for.

To this day, the nature of intelligence gathering has largely remained unchanged. Operatives are sent out to collect “raw” intelligence and then send these fragments of data back to headquarters. Computers and satellites suck in massive amounts of information and then stream this back to headquarters as well. You could liken the intelligence gathering process as a whale with its mouth open as it swims, sucking in enormous amounts of plankton. But intelligence gathering operatives only see a FRAGMENT of the information – and usually NEVER the whole picture.

Once the data is gathered, it then needs to be analyzed. This is where experts examine the data and then, based on seeing MORE fragments, begin to form the barest sketch of what the whole picture looks like. The information is further refined – indeed, it is often “tailored” to the expectations of leadership – until a detailed picture forms about the situation.


What is critical to understand about intelligence gathering is that it is simply that: gathering. It is not “analysis.” And problems happen when operatives or wanne-be ninja start thinking they see or know the whole picture and then attempt to analyze the data they’ve overheard or seen or otherwise been witness to. This forced analysis happens for a variety of reasons: it could be ego (“I want to be the top guy here and earn praise and attention from my leader”); it could be inept behavior (“I’m going to do my leaders a favor and analyze this data for them”); or it could be a fault on the part of leadership in not giving out clear directions (“I’m not sure what they want so I’d better give them my opinion on this information.”) Sometimes, it’s a critical failure involving all three.

Here’s an example: you and a partner are conducting surveillance on a garage in an inner city neighborhood popular with a certain Middle Eastern nationality. You’ve been directed to “sit on” this target and report back what you see and hear. One of you watches while the other one catches a bit of sleep, gets food and drink, etc. Then you switch off. You have “eyes-on” the entire time.

Twenty hours into your surveillance, you see two men approaching the garage carrying a large green trash bag. Both men are in their late-20s, athletic, wearing long beards, and seem “switched on” to the surrounding area (meaning they are aware enough to be able to spot anything out of place in their environment). They enter the garage at 1430 (2:30pm) and leave at 1700 hours (5pm). During the time they were inside the garage, a strange smell wafted out and there were sounds of drilling at various points. When the men left, they carried nothing with them. They exited the alley on foot and disappeared around the corner.

A proper intelligence gathering report from this team would look like this: “Team A5 reports that two men of apparent Middle Eastern extraction in their late-20s, athletic and with beards, entered Target Location Bravo at 1430 carrying a large green trash bag. While inside Target Location Bravo, Team A5 noticed strange metallic smells in the air, along with the noise of drilling. The two men left Target Location Bravo at 1700 hours carrying nothing and exited via alley 3-B on-foot. No further information at this time.”

An IMPROPER reports would look like this: “Team A5 reports that two Afghani men with Taliban-style beards who looked like they trained with weights entered Target Location Bravo at 1430 carrying a large green trash bag that looked like it had some lumpy pieces of metal inside. While they were inside, Team A5 noticed a metallic burning smell like melted copper wire and the sound of drilling. The two men left the building at 1700 hours carrying nothing and exited via alley3-B on-foot. No further information at this time.”

Now, these reports aren’t too dissimilar. In fact, to the untrained eye, they’re pretty much the same. But report two is a bad report because the GATHERERS stopped gathering and became ANALYSTS instead. Even more dangerous to the operation is they became analysts without knowing what the WHOLE PICTURE is.

Bad intelligence is what happens when your operatives stop being OBJECTIVE about what they see and become SUBJECTIVE. At that point, they stop being an asset to the operation; they become a LIABILITY.

Look at the reports again: the first reports mentions the men are of “apparent Middle Eastern extraction.” The second report states they are “Afghani.” But how do the operatives know that, short of breaking cover, exposing themselves, and demanding to see identification? They don’t. They simply assumed that because the men look Middle Eastern and wear beards like what Taliban members wear, they must be Afghani. Report one states the men were “athletic” while the second report states the men “looked like they trained with weights.” Again, unless this team trailed the men to the local gym and saw them putting up three hundred pounds on the bench, this is incorrect. Worse, report two states that the green trash bag the men carried looked like it had “lumpy pieces of metal” inside and during the time they were in the garage something that smelled like “melted copper wire” seemed to be burning. This is where operatives start seriously compromising the integrity of the operation because now they are giving their opinion that these two guys are potentially building something in this garage and it’s no far leap to think it could be a bomb. Before you know it, units are scrambled, helicopters are buzzed, and a team takes down the garage only to find these two “suspects” are running an electronics repair shop out of a rented garage. There’s no bomb. There never was. But now the operation is blown because everyone within five miles heard all the ruckus and knew there must have been someone around spying on them.

Contrast this with a proper report that objectively states what was observed and analysts are better able to make decision and leaders can then make better decisions about how to act. In this case, more surveillance determined that the men were doing repairs out of the garage. Target Location Bravo was deemed not dangerous and the team was quietly pulled off the target without exposure or compromise, redirected to another suspect location, and the operation continued.

Gathering intelligence properly demands an individual with the ability to master their ego and make careful OBJECTIVE observations untainted by their personal desires, inclinations, etc. An improperly trained operative – or worse, someone who THINKS they’re a trained operative/ninja/superspy – dirties the waters and prevents the formation of a clear picture. Think about how many times in your own life a friend has come up to you and said something like, “Hey Jimmy said he thinks that Tanya’s not going to band practice enough. He seemed pretty pissed when he said it. Guess that means he thinks Tanya’s a crappy clarinet player.”

No. It doesn’t.

It means Jimmy said Tanya’s not going to band practice enough.

That’s it.

What your friend has missed is the context of the situation and other key tidbits of information. Instead of objectively stating what happened (that Jimmy then went on the state that Tanya’s not going to band practice enough because she lives in the next state and the commute time is really long preventing her from getting to band practice as much as she would like) your friend has colored the information he’s given you with his own subjective interpretation on the event. Now you think Jimmy’s pissed at Tanya, your friend thinks that, and soon others will, too. All because your friend wasn’t smart enough to properly gather information. USEFUL INTELLIGENCE was distorted into USELESS GOSSIP because your friend only saw one fragment of the information and then simply assumed he knew the entire picture – when he didn’t.

Any fool can gossip. It takes no skill and no effort to do it. It shows no mastery of self; it displays all the insecurity, all the failings, none of the self-discipline, and none of the control of ego that is required to be a good intelligence gatherer.

Tragically, we see bad examples of intelligence gathering all around us. In recent years, the invasion of Iraq is a perfect example of bad intelligence gone wrong all the way up to the highest levels of leadership. When you have people being ordered to “refine” intelligence until it meets the needs of leadership, then you have a very, very bad problem on your hands. And the result was a war we should not have been involved in, thousands of lives lost, and billions of dollars that could have been better spent on our own country.

On more personal levels, we are surrounded by people who gossip each and every day. Their own lives are so tragically pathetic that they seek praise or some manner of self-worth by insinuating, assuming, and obfuscating the truth of a situation until they think they have gained some degree of power or somehow bettered their position within the group.

In fact, all they have shown is how utterly incapable they are of being an asset to a team, how completely enslaved they are to their egos, and (in the case of ninjutsu training) how little they understand about the lineage they claim to study.

Years ago, my teacher asked the advanced black belt training class on a Friday night to research the concept of what the moon on the water meant. As is so often the case, Mark, who runs the Boston Martial Arts Center, provides some amazing lessons to his students, but some are more difficult than others. This was one of them. I walked away from that night wondering what he meant about the moon on the water. He’d also been talking about “ego-hooking” lately – using it to illustrate how we so often get caught (hooked) by our own ego and trapped by it and our own insecurities/expectations, etc. instead of progressing. I thought there might be a connection between the two topics and proceeded to study it accordingly. A few years later, it finally made sense.

There’s a direct connection between being enslaved by your ego and one perspective of the concept of the moon on the water (there are other perspectives not germane to this conversation). The moon on the water is just that: the moon’s reflection on the water. IF you’re objective and unhindered by your ego. If you’re enslaved by your ego – to your subjective wants/needs/desires – then the moon on the water becomes something else entirely. And the more subjective you are about it, the further away from the truth you travel.

For those who want to understand intelligence gathering, or those who purport to study ninjutsu, the mastery of self and ego is of paramount importance because you cannot be objective if you haven’t first cleaned out your own mental/spiritual closet. Until you take the time and effort to make sure your own mirror is polished to accurately reflect the truth of who you really are, you will never be able to accurately and objectively report the truth of any other situation. Cleaning out your own junk is hard and it can take years to do. But until you do it, pretending to be anything of an intelligence gatherer/ninja/superspy is simply masquerading as something you most definitely are not.

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