Al Qaeda’s Christmas Day “underpants bomber” has again put discus - sions of intelligence policy and national security organizations, once relegated to obscure academic journals, squarely at dining room tables across Middle America.
Here’s some food for thought: White House policymakers and Congress can help develop an increasingly robust national intelligence capacity by investing new money in the pursuit of a centralized open-source intelligence (OSINT) infrastructure.
Investment in centralized, programmatically managed open-source intelligence has been recommended by two major independent commissions as a needed area of doctrinal development and increased capacity for the U.S. national security community.
Among the top 10 recommendations of the Robb-Silberman Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction was that the director of national intelligence (DNI) “should create an Open Source Directorate in the CIA to use the Internet and modern information processing tools to greatly enhance the availability of open source information to analysts, collectors, and users of intelligence.”
Earlier, the Sept. 11 Commission report already had gone so far as to advocate creation of a new “Open Source Agency” to lie closely alongside the CIA’s National Clandestine Service and all-source analysis efforts.
In 2005, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence announced the creation of an Open Source Center in Northern Virginia around the framework of what formerly was the CIA’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service. This existing center is a perfect point from which to create a national OSINT program management enterprise.
The Open Source Center is staffed with seasoned intelligence professionals and appropriate resources to serve as a central hub for open-source intelligence management within the national security apparatus. Major offerings of the Open Source Center include OSINT analysis, exploitation, translation, doctrinal development and education.
The Open Source Center houses an Open Source Academy, which trains intelligence professionals from throughout the U.S. Intelligence Community in cutting-edge tradecraft and reach-back capacity to support their home agencies and units.
The center also has developed an unclassified, secure Internet portal for the Intelligence Community called OpenSource.gov, which is becoming a one-stop shop for research and dissemination. OpenSource.gov also functions as a sort of “basic cable” for national security professionals, providing comprehensive, unclassified, commercial research tools and services from recognized tier leaders such as LexisNexis for aggregated content and search, Jane’s industry publications, and Oxford Analytica analysis.
The benefits of an unclassified, yet secure, analytical and communication platform for intelligence professionals support two major initiatives of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in both open-source intelligence and creation of an information-sharing environment with the flexibility to support federal, state, local and private-sector partners.
Additionally, Open Source- .gov enables the intelligence community to leverage economies of scale on the basics of these vital unclassified, commercial intelligence resources while retaining flexibility to meet specific agency needs.
Importantly, the Open Source Center is becoming a site for a growing body of corporate knowledge on best practices in open-source intelligence at the national and tactical levels. Experts at the Open Source Center receive constant feedback from national agencies and troops in the field, supporting combat elements with a need for real-time tactical intelligence and decision support tools.
While all of these resources are valuable and should be developed further, they are not free and are forced to compete with espionage programs in the intelligence budget for funding. New money is needed from Congress to fund greatly enhanced development of OSINT sources and methods. Our intelligence professionals should all have access to the same kinds of tools and information on which American private businesses, law firms and corporations rely for information advantage.
There is a difference between intelligence and espionage. Intelligence is a process that drives decisions and operations by answering important questions with relevant, actionable information. Espionage is a means of acquiring certain information surreptitiously.
American intelligence consumers can be agnostic about where their answers come from, so long as the answers are accurate, timely and relevant. A centralized, well-funded OSINT enterprise would conserve covert and clandestine collection capabilities for their best, highest use.
OSINT is not in competition with traditional espionage but instead is a logical and needed complement. Unfortunately, in the current political and budgetary framework, Intelligence Community agencies are faced with a dilemma in which they might be forced to choose between continuing a traditional collection program or investing in open sources and methods. The point should not be to reduce clandestine collection capacity but to conserve those assets for intelligence requirements that cannot be met with open sources.
OSINT tools and sources are considerably less expensive than traditional means of collecting intelligence, such as covert human sources, satellite collection and signals exploitation. OSINT also does not raise the specter of foreign and domestic political risk that can accompany other means of intelligence-gathering. The result could be a nonlinear increase in the effectiveness and efficiency of Intelligence Community operations.
We should not deliver our intelligence policymakers a dilemma of choosing between funding existing covert collection programs and significantly enhanced investment in OSINT capacity. In this time of unconventional war, no rational American would argue for any reduction in the $49.8 billion being spent on traditional intelligence, yet significant new investment in open-source intelligence is vital for our national information advantage.
Our nation’s security and competitive advantage should be top priority for Congress. If a congressional champion exists, additional money in future intelligence budgets might wisely be dedicated for open-source centralization.
Andrew M. Borene is a manager with LexisNexis in Washington. He is a former associate deputy general counsel at the Department of Defense and teaches courses on intelligence policy at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.