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President John F. Kennedy once said he got “far more out of the New York Times than the CIA.” Those were the days when major U.S. newspapers and the three networks maintained foreign bureaus staffed by prize-winning foreign correspondents all over the world.
In those halcyon days, Open Source Intelligence, or OSINT in the espionage vernacular, could be culled from highly knowledgeable foreign correspondents, many of them scholars who had written books about the history and culture of their wide-ranging beats. No more. At the end of World War II, there were 2,500 U.S. foreign correspondents; today, less than 250.
Newspapers, magazines and networks — victims of both a weak dollar and corporate bottom-line bean counters — have cut back foreign news coverage to the point where it no longer qualifies as OSINT. ABC slashed its staff foreign correspondents from 37 in the 1970s to four, according to veteran newsman Ted Koppel. Once-over-lightly foreign reporting — with the exception of major events like wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and 20-minute TV magazine pieces — is not what the intelligence community categorizes as OSINT. Reporters are now increasingly “parachuted” into hot stories abroad for a few days and then home to avoid exorbitant hotels bills.
A recent two-day, Washington conference on OSINT, organized by Eliot Jardines, assistant deputy director of national intelligence for open source, brought 1,200 people together from 40 countries. It was a mix of media, academia, business and the intelligence community.
All facets of OSINT were discussed, notably the constant drama of constant trivia that has afflicted U.S. media since the end of the Cold War (e.g., almost two years of O.J. Simpson that kept America’s collective eye off the international ball; infamous skater Tonya Harding, who got more airtime in a comparable news period than the fall of the Berlin Wall that collapsed the Soviet empire; Rep. Gary Condit, whose affair with a murdered staffer was dislodged by Osama bin Laden and the September 11, 2001, terror attacks; Paris Hilton, whose mind-numbing, one-hour interview on “Larry King Live” reminded the millions who watched that addle-brained celebrity has now displaced merit-based fame).
For obvious reasons, open source information is no longer the traditional collection from open sources. This aspect of the intelligence business has become infinitely more complex. There are now 26,000 individual newspapers in the world that have to be monitored because one or two might contain a piece or two of a global terrorist puzzle. To complete the global Tower of Babel babble, there are 26,000 radio stations; 21,000 TV stations; 108 million Web sites; 75 million blogs; 56 million MySpace squatters; 100 million hits a day on YouTube; 8,000 news and information portals; 200 million photos on flickr.com, increasing by 5,000 per minute; 45,000 daily podcasts, and 2.5 million Web-enabled devices.
The pipe input into the Internet doubles every six months. Some 627 petabytes crisscross the globe daily on the Internet (one petabyte equals 1,024 terabytes, or 2 to the 50th power, which comes out to 1,125,899,906,842,624). That’s several thousand times the entire contents of the Library of Congress — every day.
Cold War problems were a lead-pipe cinch next to today’s counterterrorism challenges. As Tom Fingar, deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, said, “For almost half a century it was a question of what do we do to keep nations on our side and what we do to pry the others away.” Now the intelligence community has 15 minutes to supply answers to immediate questions. Decisions will be made whether the intelligence community can weigh in or not. The magnitude of the challenge can be gauged by the inexperience of many analysts hired since the September 11 attacks. Half of some 45,000 analysts in 16 intelligence agencies (total personnel just under 100,000) have less than five years experience. They were part of the explosive growth of the intelligence community after September 11.
Now the intelligence community needs to tell its political masters something critically important they didn’t know — a lot more than Googling a profile for a living, or checking a Wiki entry. OSINT supplies the deeper knowledge that provides real insight into why, for example, a 21-year-old French Muslim living in the Paris suburb of St. Denis, whose grandparents were born in Algeria, found his way to Iraq to fight Americans and returned to France to set up a terrorist cell. A French professor who specializes in Islam would have access to such a youngster now in prison in France, not the CIA station chief in Paris.
With OSINT, the intelligence community wants to make accessibility a normal way of doing business. Too many things are stamped Top Secret, Secret or Classified, that don’t need to be. Even newspaper clippings sent from one Intel agency to another have wound up classified.
OSINT is now a matter of consulting the best experts available. A Cold War National Intelligence Estimate used to take 480 days to reach agreement among 16 agencies. It is now down to 80 days — still far too long, says Director of National Intelligence Adm. Mike McConnell.
As Mary Margaret Graham, deputy DNI for collection, says, “Open Source is a discipline of collection, not intelligence per se, but an enabler of intelligence.” The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) where this reporter dwells as a senior adviser, has just published the findings of a one-year experiment in “Open Source as a Force Multiplier in Intelligence.”
CSIS’ Transnational Threats Project, which this writer directs, recruited 15 experts on Islamist extremism in Europe from the Middle East (including Israel), North Africa, Europe, the United States and Canada, and networked them 24/7 with a state-of-the-art, electronic collaborative software tool. They were known as TIN members — for Trusted Information Network.
With a budget of less than half a million dollars, Tom Sanderson, who moderated the TIN, and his deputy Jacqueline Harned, proved such a network can produce material inaccessible to the intelligence community. It can be used for myriad problems requiring expert illumination.
Commented Eliot Jardines, Open Source Director for the Intelligence Community, “Why collect clandestinely what we can get from Open Source?” Why indeed. When Mr. Jardines came aboard ODNI in 2005, with his deputy Sabra Horne, senior adviser for outreach, they had a blank slate. They then decided to gather Open Source expertise from academia, media, corporations, the IC, the military and government. The Washington Open Source conference more than met everyone’s expectations.
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