Armed Hostilities

Defense Intelligence Agency in Counterterrorism Operations

Table of Contents
  1. Introduction
  2. Summary of Functions
  3. Available Tools
  4. Interactions with Other Agencies
  5. Types of Intelligence and Restrictions
  6. Conclusion
  7. References


The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) is part of the Department of Defense involved in combat support activities. It is one of the major intelligence organizations in the United States Government primarily responsible for military intelligence, such as the collection of information about the production and distribution of weapons. Intelligence services are important contributors to the international effort aimed at combating terrorism and to specific counterterrorism operations (Falk & Morgenstern, 2009). To address the DIA in the context of counterterrorism, it is necessary to summarize the Agency’s functions, describe the tools it can use in its work, examine its interactions with other agencies, and identify the types of intelligence in which the DIA is involved and major restrictions it faces.

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Summary of Functions

The DIA is responsible for collecting, processing, and disseminating intelligence information that is supplied to military missions. According to the classification of the types of intelligence (Federal Bureau of Investigation, n.d.), the activities in which the DIA is mostly involved are associated with Measurement and Signatures Intelligence (MASINT). This type of military intelligence concerns weapons, military capabilities of other countries, and industrial activities abroad. In terms of counterterrorism, a major function of DIA and its primary contribution to the national security is counterterrorism analysis, for which a separate department of the Agency exists. The analysis consists in estimating the capabilities of terrorist organizations and assessing the risks associated with possible terrorist attacks.

The DIA’s Central MASINT Office (CMO) processes large amounts of data obtained through clandestine operations or from open sources, and the role of the Office has become more significant due to the growing concern that weapons of mass destruction can be spread and used around the world. Military intelligence focuses on identifying weapons used in specific conflicts and analyzing the characteristics of weapons systems in case a certain system is unknown to the Agency. A major component of this process is detecting, collecting, and examining traces of materials that may be associated with weapons (in the case of weapons of mass destruction, such materials may be chemical, biological, or nuclear) and thus supporting efforts of preventing, investigating, and prosecuting terrorism.

The DIA is one of the 17 organizations that comprise the United States Intelligence Community (IC), and the work of all those organizations is coordinated by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) (n.d.). Former DNI James Clapper, then-incumbent, called the process of coordinating intelligence work in the country “herding cats” (The Aspen Institute, 2015) and emphasized the importance of creating more integrated IT systems across parties involved in intelligence. Clapper used to be the DIA Director before he was appointed the DNI, and he also discussed another key function of the Agency: reporting to the President (although the DIA does not report directly to the President but reports to the Secretary of Defense). According to Clapper, the President receives intelligence briefs every day, and he (when the interview was recorded, the office was held by Barack Obama) “is a stood and voracious consumer of intelligence” (The Aspen Institute, 2015).

Available Tools

Despite the widespread perception that intelligence agencies collect and deliver to policymakers only secret information obtained through clandestine methods, the speakers of the IC have repeatedly stressed that much of the data associated with intelligence is collected from open sources. There is an abundance of information that can be easily accessed by the general public, especially with the development of electronic communications; however, specialists are needed to analyze relevant information properly so that it can be used in the decision-making process on the level of national security.

In counterterrorist operations, various types of information may be needed to be collected for intelligence purposes, including human intelligence, signals intelligence (communication and electronic transmissions), imagery intelligence, and MASINT (see Summary of Functions). The latter, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (n.d.), which is involved in intelligence, too (although mostly within the United States), particularly includes advanced processing techniques applied to the data received from systems that collect images and signals intelligence from overhead and airborne devices.

Specific intelligence subtypes that contribute to MASINT and in which the DIA is involved include telemetry intelligence and electronic intelligence. The former refers to the collection of data associated with the use of weapons; when a weapon is used, certain signs are generated that can be detected and processed by telemetry intelligence. Electronic intelligence refers to the signs of the use of weapons, too, but these signs occur in the form of electronic emissions produced by modern weapons and tracking systems. Also, human intelligence is part of the Agency’s activities, which is why personal contacts, either secret or open, are also included in the DIA’s toolkit.

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Interactions with Other Agencies

Another government agency that is part of IC and cooperated with the DIA is the Department of the Treasury and, specifically, its subdivision called the Office of Intelligence and Analysis (OIA) (Office of the Director of National Intelligence, n.d.). As it has been established, one of the primary concerns of the DIA is analyzing how weapons are produced and distributed in other countries; at the same time, one of the responsibilities of the OIA is “safeguarding the financial system against … weapons of mass destruction proliferators” (Office of the Director of National Intelligence, n.d., para. 13). Also, it is the OIA that is involved in investigating financial systems and schemes used to fund weapons-related operations conducted in other countries with various illicit purposes, including terrorist purposes.

One more agency with which the DIA cooperates is the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). Apart from humanitarian functions, such as tracking natural disasters, e.g. fires and floods, and providing humanitarian missions with the necessary information from their geospatial intelligence, the NGA also supplies data related to imagery intelligence to the DIA. This data is collected through monitoring zones and territories in which weapons are used or transported or any terrorist activity is detected.

Also, the DIA interacts with the FBI. Part of counterterrorism operations is often conducting human intelligence and arranging contacts or surveillance of persons who are suspected of being involved in planning or organizing terrorist activities. In such cases, human intelligence aimed at people in other countries can be carried out by the DIA and CIA, while within the United States, it is the responsibility of the FBI.

Types of Intelligence and Restrictions

Several types of intelligence have already been identified, but they can also be discussed separately. The DIA is engaged in such intelligence collection disciplines (INTs) as human intelligence, signals intelligence, imagery intelligence, and MASINT; one more INT that was previously mentioned is open-source intelligence. The variety of types shows that the Agency is in a wide range of specialists responsible for collecting, processing, and disseminating intelligence data. The agency employs more than 16,500 people (Office of the Director of National Intelligence, n.d.), including military people from different corps as well as civilians associated with the Department of Defense.

Like all intelligence services, the DIA faces restrictions in terms of obtaining information, and it can be argued that the most important ones are associated with ethics. There is a widespread image of intelligence agencies as organizations that are involved in unconventional methods of interrogation, which can mean torture. Several controversies occurred in the history of the DIA, and the important thing to understand in this regard is that the agency should commit to the ethical principles and humanistic values to dispel the image of an organization that violates human rights. In this context, the DIA cannot torture the targets of its human intelligence and cannot resort to any unconventional methods in its interrogation techniques.


Exploring the DIA’s functions, available tools, cooperation with other agencies, types of intelligence, and restrictions has demonstrated that the Agency makes a large contribution to counterterrorism. By collecting intelligence data related to the production and distribution of weapons, the DIA ensures that policymakers and decision-makers in the United States Government are properly informed about the capabilities of terrorists. Cooperation with other members of the IC provides a vast array of tools and types of intelligence data collection available to the DIA. However, the organization must commit to ethical principles in its activities so that the public image of counterterrorism as something associated with torture and other unconventional interrogation techniques is not reinforced.


The Aspen Institute. (2015). Herding cats: Synthesizing the intelligence community.

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Falk, O., & Morgenstern, H. (Eds.). (2009). Suicide terror: Understanding and confronting the threat. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (n.d.). Directorate of intelligence

Office of the Director of National Intelligence. (n.d.). Members of the IC. Web.

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