Judging Single Source Intelligence Information – Forward Observer Shop

Judging Single Source Intelligence Information

Single source intelligence information is a double-edged sword.  Sometimes a potential source of information is so well-placed that there’s no way to corroborate the information.  For instance, a buddy calls you up and tells you that he’s on the scene of a car crash on the corner of 15th and Main Street.  How can we confirm this?  We could check the news or call up the police department to confirm or deny this report.  But what if we’re in a different scenario — say, a buddy calls me to provide early warning that the local National Guard unit is about to receive an order to respond to a catastrophic emergency, and they’ll be mobilizing within the next six hours.  Other than traveling to get “eyes on” the armory myself to see increased activity (an indicator that the source report may be accurate), I have few options other than to wait for corroborating information to be reported.  What follows are five parts of a litmus test that we can judge the reliability of single source information.

Single source information, as opposed to multiple source information, is readily available but in many cases difficult to analyze or verify.  With multiple source information, the more people reporting the same information, the more indicators we have that the information is true, or is at least being reported accurately.  Specific pieces of nearly identical information that come from multiple sources corroborate themselves, so to speak.  If all four local news broadcasts say that a woman murdered her husband on 15th Ave last night, then I can make a judgement that it happened… or at least that all four news outlets are reporting accurately what they were told by police.  I have four corroborating sub-sources (news outlets) from the same source (police).

Single source information, on the other hand, comes from one source; it’s one guy or one news outlet reporting information that can’t be found anywhere else.  There’s likely to be limited to no availability of information to corroborate what our source is saying.  Similarly, there may be limited or no time with which we have to reach a decision based on that information.  This time-sensitive, single source information manifests itself in the real world through an anonymous tip that a suspect of a crime is in a white sub-compact vehicle headed north on Main Street.  In some cases, we may have a very short window of opportunity to act.

Our ability to quickly analyze single source information is critically important during emergency scenarios, so let’s go over a checklist that allows us to make inferences quickly about the veracity of the information.  Keep in mind that this is a cumulative checklist; the failure of one category shouldn’t indicate a failure of reporting accurate information.

Source Reliability

Is the source of the information reliable himself?  Forget momentarily what he’s telling you, and give an honest assessment of how reliable he is as a source of information.  If we know this individual, is he someone that you’d trust with your children?  Can he be trusted to do the right thing?  What are his motivations for passing you this information?  Has he reported reliably in the past?  If he’s communicating this information secondhand, then who is his source, and is his source reliable?  If at all possible, inquire about the firsthand source of this information: who told you this, or how’d you get this information?  Remember that just like the game telephone, the longer the line of sources and sub-sources, the more we have to assume that the information has been modified, or that pieces of the information have been accidentally or deliberately omitted.  Be objective, not emotional, regardless if you like or dislike this person.


Is the information plausible under any circumstance or just this one?  Could this information be true?  Plausible: a report about your county sheriff receiving an MRAP vehicle.  Implausible: your county sheriff receiving an F-22 Raptor.  Knowing whether something is plausible or implausible dictates that you have a working knowledge of the subjects involved, and we should strive to be subject matter experts on our areas of focus.  Scrutinize the plausibility of the information even you if you believe it’s plausible at first.


What is the source’s proximity to the information or original source?  Does he have placement and access to the original source?   A cab driver in San Diego who passes me sensitive information about White House communications isn’t in physical proximity to the original source.  The farther removed our source is from the target information, the more I’m concerned with the validity of that information.  And unless I know that cab driver’s method of gaining access to this information, I see red flags.


Is it appropriate for this piece information to come from this source?  It would be inappropriate for the cab driver in San Diego to be providing such sensitive information about White House communications.  How would he know unless he had a direct or indirect source in the White House?  Even the can driver has access to this information, why would such a trusted person from the White House be passing information to a cabby on the other side of the nation?  On the other hand, if a White House attorney was telling me information, then it would be appropriate for him to know that information, but inappropriate for him to tell me that information.  Is it appropriate for this source to have access to the information he’s reporting?


Did we expect this information to be made available?  Did we expect this information to come from this source?  Is this information expected based on what we already know?  In other words, is this information consistent with what’s already been or being reported about the topic?  More leaked emails and sensitive information leaked through the mainstream or alternative press is expected.  Leaked emails being first published by your county’s weekly newspaper is unexpected.  Support is a slippery slope indicator because numerous outlets could be reporting inaccurate information supplied by an authoritative source.  Remember that we have reason to doubt the first reports about an event or emergency; not that they’re necessarily always wrong.  If the source’s information is wrong, then so will everyone else be even though the information is being reported consistently


Before we believe and act on the first reports made available by a single source, we should run that information through this matrix.  This is a more structured process to solving the problem of judging single source intelligence information. Should you so desire, you can make a matrix of these five categories and grade each piece of information.  You may want to build this matrix and assign a grade of 0-3 to each category; 0 being no support and 3 being the most support.  Either way, this checklist should give you a better idea of the strengths or weakness of single source information.

Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.

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