An Argument for Open Source Intelligence Secrecy

“There is altogether too much discussion about the deliverables that OSINT [open source intelligence] can produce,” said Jennifer Sims, a former State Department intelligence official, at a DNI conference on open source intelligence last week.

Open source intelligence refers to intelligence that is derived from unclassified, legally accessible information sources.

But the fact that the underlying sources of OSINT are unclassified doesn’t mean the resulting intelligence can be disclosed, said Dr. Sims, who is now director of intelligence studies at Georgetown University.

“If it is providing decision advantage [to policymakers], then it is sensitive” and it should be withheld from disclosure, she said. “And decision advantage has nothing to do with the classification of the sources and methods. It has to do with the insights that the intelligence can deliver.”

Consequently, “OSINT needs to become a bit more closed-mouth about its deliverables,” she said.

By the same token, said Dr. Sims, if it’s not classified, then intelligence agencies should not be doing it.

“Democracies should sharply curtail classified intelligence organizations to the business that absolutely must be kept secret: gaining and keeping decision advantages in national security policy-making. Everything else should be unclassified and funded outside the intelligence establishment,” she wrote in an email message.

“Of course, if the processing of open sources gains you those insights, then ‘OSINT’ must be one of the jobs that intelligence institutions perform. But the measure of its success will always be the competitive edge it provides; and edges disappear if you give them away.”

The argument for greater open source intelligence secrecy suggests that U.S. intelligence agencies have been recklessly broadcasting OSINT products and thereby compromising the unique advantages that they provide. But most OSINT products are withheld from the public anyway.

And although some OSINT products have reportedly been included in the President’s Daily Brief, few of them seem to offer operationally significant insights that could be compromised by disclosure.

“Copyright, not classification, is the main barrier to disclosure of OSINT products,” said Kim A. Robson, deputy director of the DNI Open Source Center. But she added that “The better we get at OSINT, the more the need to classify it.”

Dr. Sims’ views were reported in “Analysis: Classifying open source intel?” by Shaun Waterman, United Press International, September 16.

A new recruitment video for the DNI Open Source Center presents the Center as it sees itself and would wish to be seen by potential recruits. A copy of the seven-minute video is posted here.

See also Open Source Intel Rocks — Sorry, It’s Classified by Noah Shachtman, WIRED Danger Room, September 17.

No Responses to “An Argument for Open Source Intelligence Secrecy”

  1. Hm? September 17, 2008 at 7:49 PM #

    “Democracies should sharply curtail classified intelligence organizations to the business that absolutely must be kept secret: gaining and keeping decision advantages in national security policy-making. Everything else should be unclassified and funded outside the intelligence establishment,” she wrote in an email message.”

    I’m hoping this statement was taken out of context, otherwise it is just silly. Open source information outnumbers classified data by probably several orders of magnitude. For an intelligence agency to ignore the information just because it wasn’t collected by a spy or satellite would be akin to a scientist ignoring field survey data because it wasn’t data taken from lab experiments.

    Also, creating some kind of parallel open source analysis structure is redundant and ignores the fact that the data must be combined at some point for the policymaker anyway.

  2. Steven Aftergood September 17, 2008 at 9:29 PM #

    Thanks for the message. But I think the context for the comment you quoted was provided in her very next sentence, which essentially made your point: “Of course, if the processing of open sources gains you those insights, then ‘OSINT’ must be one of the jobs that intelligence institutions perform.”

  3. Daphine September 18, 2008 at 1:24 AM #

    Sims sounds like an MBA new hire at a Fortune 100 company who feels obligated to include the latest “buzz word”, “decision advantage”, in every power point slide.

    Decision advantage is as undefined and nebulous as “mosaic theory” and will create and perpetuate similar mischief.

    We want to open our intelligence communities, not close open source–let’s not waste another decade inching toward the sunshine or worse toward darkness.

    It seems obvious but maybe useful to explicitly state, our government Is Not Fortune One.

  4. Matthew September 18, 2008 at 5:00 PM #

    Jennifer Sims’ notion of classifying anything that gives government policymakers “decision advantage” is fascinating.

    This seems to me to raise fundamental questions about democracy that were not addressed in your original write-up. Who should get the “advantage” from open information collected and analyzed with public funds? In a democracy, should not the public also have the “advantage” of having such information available when it is making its decisions? How should we balance maintaining a “decision advantage” for U.S. policymakers over foreign competitors with the side effect of preventing the public in a democracy from having access to information that might be important in, for example, choosing whether one candidate’s foreign policy makes more or less sense than another’s, or whether we should be doing more or less about a particular international problem? Where would this process stop? Should we classify much MORE information than we do today, particularly about what the government is doing in various areas related to the international scene, to maintain a larger “decision advantage” over competitors? It seems to me this line of thinking leads us down a slippery slope pretty quickly.

    Moreover, if it is the case that open-source analysis that is NOT going to be classified should be done outside the intelligence community, who should do it? A strong case can be made that the academic world is better suited to doing some of this than anyone in government is today — but the government is mostly not especially well set-up to provide the funding necessary for the academic world to do this, and then to rely on this as a source of information (on issues such as what influences the people making nuclear policy decisions in Iran, for example). Wrenching institutional changes might be needed to make that happen.

  5. Tyler September 20, 2008 at 11:59 AM #

    With the advent of the Internet and self-publishing I would argue that each of us, as individuals, has an incredibly powerful OSINT capability sitting on our desktops at home. I think this is proved by the fact that we’re sitting here reading a FAS blog on national security, and I’m sure we could each provide numerous links leading to many different online national security resources. As far as the government is concerned, I’m not entirely convinced that I need to see every tidbit and morsel of information declassified and sent out. I would be content, however, if we had a more vibrant press and a more ‘investigative’ public out there digging and poking around. I think the threat of public humiliation and ridicule is the only way to get change.