Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Open-Source Intelligence and the Importance of Information-Sharing

This morning's USA Today reports on the increasing value of open-source intelligence in the fight against terrorism.

[T]he President's Daily Brief and other crucial intelligence reports often rely less on secrets from risky espionage missions than on material that's available to just about anyone.

Intelligence officers have gleaned insights on Iran's nuclear capabilities from photos on the Internet. They've scooped up documents, including a terrorist training manual, at international conferences and public forums. They've found information in foreign university libraries and newscasts.
And why not? Open-source intelligence is what the other side uses. The challenge, in the information age, is in finding the valuable info amid the junk:
It's a challenging task, given the mountains of material to sift through. Every potentially useful nugget must be vetted because enemy states and terror groups, such as al-Qaeda, sometimes use the Internet and other open channels to put out misleading information.

Yet officials say agencies are overcoming such obstacles and unearthing increasingly valuable troves of intelligence.

"It's no longer unusual to see open-source material in the President's Daily Brief … (and) it's often a very important component of the information that's incorporated into our intelligence analyses," says Frances Townsend, who until January was President Bush's assistant national security adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism.

Open sources can provide up to 90% of the information needed to meet most U.S. intelligence needs, Deputy Director of National Intelligence Thomas Fingar said in a recent speech.
Since it can be relatively time-intensive work to sift through all the available information, most local agencies don't have the resources to do this.

That's where aggregated resources, such as fusion centers, can play a role. Fusion centers are already making use of open-source intelligence - an important point, since they are so central to the U.S. effort to share information on terrorism and other hazards. Chicago's fusion center is using open-source intelligence. Other fusion centers do as well, as this 2007 CRS report described (my post here).

But the value of open-source intelligence is limited. You don't find smoking guns in open-source intelligence. Instead, you find background information that can fill in the context for the classified information:

[O]pen-source information does not often lead to "eureka" moments in the intelligence world, says Wayne Murphy, assistant director in the FBI's Intelligence Directorate. More often, its main use is to "add perspective and context" to material gathered through classified means.
The implication of this is clear. You're not going to find the holy grail through open-source; you're only going to be able to marry the open-source intelligence with the classified intelligence. For this reason, there needs to be a strong information-sharing system to allow cross-talk between the open-source and classified sides.

Whether an analyst is operating in a fusion center or at an intelligence agency, they need to understand what they're providing context for. And someone working in classified intelligence will be all the better informed if they have a full appreciation of the context that can be discovered through open-source.

Unless there is reliable information-sharing between the open-source and classified sides, there's a risk that open-source analysis will never amount to its full potential.

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