A Push to Elevate Open Source Intelligence

Open source intelligence — which is derived from open, unclassified sources — should be recognized as a mature intelligence discipline that is no less important than other established forms of intelligence, the House of Representatives said last month in the FY 2022 defense authorization act (sec. 1612).

The House directed the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence to develop and implement “a plan to elevate open-source intelligence to a foundational intelligence for strategic intelligence that is treated on par with information collected from classified means (for example, human intelligence, signals intelligence, and geospatial intelligence).”

Considering that those classified disciplines have large dedicated agencies of their own (CIA, NSA, NGA), it would seem to be a major undertaking to “elevate” open source intelligence to the same level and to treat it comparably.

Significantly, the House directive is driven not by some abstract preference for open sources but by “the intelligence priorities of the commanders of the combatant commands.” The thinking appears to be that open source intelligence — that can be shared widely or even (sometimes) publicly disclosed — offers practical advantages to military commanders that other, highly classified forms of intelligence typically lack.

A related sign of dissatisfaction with unchecked military secrecy can be found in another provision of the House authorization bill that would require the Space Force to “conduct a review of each classified program . . . to determine whether the level of classification of the program could be changed to a lower level or the program could be declassified.”

In recent years, open source intelligence has been managed by the elusive Open Source Enterprise (OSE) which is administratively housed at the Central Intelligence Agency. To the bewilderment and frustration of many users, the OSE decommissioned its own website in 2019 and made its products exceptionally difficult to access.

In response, last year’s intelligence authorization act (sect. 326) required a plan “for improving usability of the OSE” as well as other steps to enhance the utility of open source collection for intelligence. But so far, there is no externally visible sign of any change for the better.

Earlier this year, the CIA denied a Freedom of Information Act request for an unclassified OSE publication on North Korean ballistic missile tests. The CIA did not dispute that the document is unclassified, but it said the report was exempt from disclosure anyway. An appeal of the denial is pending.

The US military’s interest in open source intelligence is longstanding and arguably dates back to colonial times. The Army’s Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin devoted an issue to the subject in 2005.

A 2006 Army Field Manual (since superseded) presented interim doctrine on the collection of open source intelligence.

Energy Dept Issues More Declassification Decisions

The formerly classified fact that one metric ton of plutonium metal was to be moved from the Savannah River Site in 2019 for use in nuclear weapon pit production at Los Alamos was declassified in 2018. This recently disclosed declassification decision was one of a handful of such actions that are taken each year by the Department of Energy.

DOE is required to perform “continuous review” of information that is classified under the Atomic Energy Act (sec. 2162) and to periodically determine which information can be removed from the category of Restricted Data and declassified. And so it does, every now and then.

Some of the resulting declassification decisions pertain to specific events, like the transfer of nuclear material from one site to another. Others are narrowly technical, like the declassification of “the static and dynamic equations of state for 71 < Z < 90 for pressures > 10 Mbar.” (Z is the atomic number, where 71 is Lutetium and 90 is Thorium.)

In one anomalous case, the scope of the declassification action itself was redacted and remains undisclosed. This is somewhat hard to understand but DOE apparently holds that, having been declassified, the entire subject of this action now falls within the category of “unclassified controlled nuclear information” which is exempt from disclosure.

Declassification decisions under the Atomic Energy Act through last year were released under the Freedom of Information Act.

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The Federation of American Scientists last week renewed its petition to the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense to declassify the current number of weapons in the U.S. nuclear stockpile and the number that have been dismantled.

“US nuclear weapons policy should be conducted on the basis of accurate public information to the extent possible,” the FAS petition said. “Declassification of stockpile data supports a factual deliberative process in Congress and elsewhere.”

“We will begin the process of evaluating your proposal and conducting the necessary coordination,” replied Nick Prospero, the acting director of the Office of Classification at the Department of Energy.

The size of the US nuclear stockpile was previously declassified and disclosed by the government for each year through FY 2017, when the Trump Administration ended the practice.

Update: On October 5, the Department of State and the National Nuclear Security Administration released annual stockpile and dismantlement figures through FY 2020.

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Another FAS petition, filed in 2018, to declassify the size of the current US inventory of highly enriched uranium has lately received a favorable response from the Department of Energy.

“The program office has indicated they are ready to support the declassification request,” said Andrew Weston-Dawkes, then-director of the DOE Office of Classification, on September 8. “I suspect there is a good amount of work to collect and process the HEU data so hopefully we can provide an update on status in a couple of months.”

US Army Views Chinese Military Tactics

How would China fight a war against the US?

A new US Army publication sets out to answer that question, offering a detailed account of the military tactics China could employ. See Chinese Tactics, Army Techniques Publication (ATP) 7-100.3, August 9, 2021.

The 250-page document is mainly intended to help provide a realistic basis for training of US forces. But in doing so it sheds some new light on China’s military forces, at least as they are perceived by US military observers. It is based primarily on open sources.

“This publication presents PLA [People’s Liberation Army] military theory largely as written and prescribed by the PLAA [PLA Army],” the manual says. “Real world practices of PLA units are . . . generally not included as part of the analysis underpinning this document.”

The description of Chinese military tactics is necessarily speculative to some extent. “The PLA has not participated in an active conflict in nearly half a century, so real-world applications are minimal. [But] available information on Chinese military training exercises and the few recent examples of conflict seem to indicate that PLA practices — including those of the PLAA — conform closely to its military theory.”

As for the command structure of the Chinese military, it “is complex and opaque to outsiders. . . . There are no fewer than ten different national-level command organizations in China, organized across at least three different levels of a complex hierarchy.”

“Deception plays a critical role in every part of the Chinese approach to conflict,” according to the document. “Rather than focusing on defeating the opponent in direct conflict — as most Western militaries do — [Chinese military] stratagems consider deception, trickery, and other indirect, perception-based efforts to be the most important elements of an operation.”

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The current volume on China is the second in a new Army series on foreign military tactics. A previous volume on North Korean Tactics (ATP 7-100.2) was published last year. Two more volumes on Russian Tactics (ATP 7-100.1) and Iranian Tactics (ATP 7-100.4) are expected to appear later this year.

While unclassified, “these assessments are based on the most up-to-date information available,” wrote Army intelligence specialist Jennifer Dunn (“Training Today’s Army for Tomorrow’s Threats,” Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin, Oct-Dec 2020). “Subject matter experts within the Department of Defense and intelligence communities have vetted them, ensuring their veracity and applicability to the greater Army training and intelligence community.”

“It is also essential for the Army, especially for the regionally aligned elements, to thoroughly understand the adversary they are most likely to encounter in future conflicts,” she wrote, in an unwitting paraphrase of Sun Tzu’s famous dictum about knowing the enemy.

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The US government can and should do far more to produce such open source materials on national security and foreign policy, say some members of Congress. A bill (HR 4747) sponsored by Rep. Joaquin Castro and several bipartisan colleagues, would create a new “Open Translation and Analysis Center (OTAC).”

“OTAC would be charged with translating into English important open source foreign-language material from the People’s Republic of China, Russia, and other countries of strategic interest,” according to a July 28 news release. “The translated material would be available on a public website, serving as a key resource for the U.S. and allied governments, media outlets, and academics and analysts around the world.”

“Along with translations, OTAC would provide information to help readers understand the meaning and significance of the published material. It would also produce key analyses of translated material to enhance the understanding of the governments and political systems it covers.”

For decades the US intelligence community provided open source materials to the public through the CIA’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS). But that mission has been abandoned by US intelligence and the Open Source Enterprise, the successor to FBIS, has gone completely dark as far as the public is concerned.

New Declassification Reforms Are Classified

Legislative measures to improve the process of declassifying classified national security information were introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden in the pending intelligence authorization act for FY2022. But they were included in the classified annex so their substance and import are not publicly known.

“I remain deeply concerned about the failures of the Federal Government’s obsolete declassification system,” Sen. Wyden wrote in a statement that was included in the new Senate Intelligence Committee report on the intelligence bill. “I am therefore pleased that the classified annex to the bill includes several amendments I offered to advance efforts to accelerate declassification and promote declassification reform.”

But the nature of those amendments has not been disclosed. “As absurd as it is to be opaque about the topic of declassification I’m afraid I can’t tell you more right now,” a Committee staffer said. “Sorry.”

“Putting aside the irony of declassification amendments found only in a classified annex, I can confirm that we’re tracking it,” said an intelligence community official.

It requires some effort to think of declassification reforms that could themselves be properly classified. The idea seems counterintuitive. But there are agency declassification guides that are classified because they detail the precise boundaries of classified information. And any directive to declassify an entirely classified topical area would have to begin by identifying the classified subject matter that is to be declassified.

“True perfection seems imperfect,” says the Tao Te Ching (trans. Stephen Mitchell), and “true straightness seems crooked.” Still, some things are truly crooked.

Pentagon Sees “Increased Potential” for Nuclear Conflict

The possibility that nuclear weapons could be used in regional or global conflicts is growing, said a newly disclosed Pentagon doctrinal publication on nuclear war fighting that was updated last year.

“Despite concerted US efforts to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in international affairs and to negotiate reductions in the number of nuclear weapons, since 2010 no potential adversary has reduced either the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy or the number of nuclear weapons it fields. Rather, they have moved decidedly in the opposite direction,” the Department of Defense document said.

“As a result, there is an increased potential for regional conflicts involving nuclear-armed adversaries in several parts of the world and the potential for adversary nuclear escalation in crisis or conflict.”

The publication presents an overview of U.S. nuclear strategy, force structure, targeting and operations. See Joint Nuclear Operations, JP 3-72, April 2020.

The document replaces a 2019 edition titled Nuclear Operations that was briefly disclosed and then withdrawn from a DoD website. (See “DoD Doctrine on Nuclear Operations Published, Taken Offline,” Secrecy News, June 19, 2019.)

The current document no longer includes some of the more unfiltered and enthusiastic language about achieving “decisive results” through nuclear strikes and “prevail[ing] in conflict” that appeared in the 2019 version. The statement that “The President authorizes the use of nuclear weapons” was changed to a more restrained declaration that “Only the President can authorize the use of nuclear weapons.”

Meanwhile, new material has been added, including an assessment that the threat from potential adversaries has grown even as the US nuclear posture is said to have been moderated:

“While the United States has continued to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons, others, including Russia and China, have moved in the opposite direction. They have added new types of nuclear capabilities to their arsenal, increased the salience of nuclear forces in their strategies and plans, and engaged in increasingly aggressive behavior.”

“Russia’s strategic nuclear modernization has increased, and will continue to increase, its warhead delivery capability, which provides Russia with the ability to rapidly expand its deployed warhead numbers.”

“China continues to increase the number, capabilities, and protection of its nuclear forces.”

“North Korea’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities poses the most immediate and dire proliferation threat to international security and stability.”

“Iran’s development of increasingly long-range ballistic missile capabilities, and its aggressive strategy and activities to destabilize neighboring governments, raises questions about its long-term commitment to forgoing nuclear weapons capability.”

Given the mounting threat, DoD said, “Flexible and limited US nuclear response options can play an important role in restoring deterrence following limited adversary nuclear escalation.”

The updated document gives expanded attention to the role of intelligence in potential nuclear conflict including “knowledge of an adversary decision maker’s perceptions of benefits, costs, and consequences of restraint” and “information about adversary assets, capabilities, and vulnerabilities.” Intelligence is also needed for post-strike damage assessments.

Strategic messaging is key to deterring conflict, DoD said, though this often seems to involve the threat of force. “The ability to communicate US intent, resolve, and associated military capabilities in ways that are understood by adversary decision makers is vital. Direct military means include: forward presence, force projection, active and passive defense, strategic communications/messaging, and nuclear forces.”

DoD asserts that its system of nuclear command and control is “ready, reliable, and effective at meeting today’s strategic deterrence requirements. There are no gaps or seams that adversaries could exploit.” Maybe so.

“Possibly the greatest challenge confronting the joint force in a nuclear conflict is how to operate in a post-NUDET [nuclear detonation] radiological environment,” DoD said. “By design, nuclear weapons are highly destructive and have harmful  effects that conventional weapons do not have. Commanders must plan for and implement protective measures to mitigate these effects and continue operations.”

Joint Nuclear Operations is not available in DoD’s online public library of Joint Publications. But a copy of the April 2020 document was released to the Federation of American Scientists last week under the Freedom of Information Act.

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The Biden Administration adopted a somewhat conciliatory tone concerning nuclear weapons policy in its March 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance:

“As we re-engage the international system, we will address the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons. We will head off costly arms races and re-establish our credibility as a leader in arms control. That is why we moved quickly to extend the New START Treaty with Russia. Where possible, we will also pursue new arms control arrangements. We will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, while ensuring our strategic deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective and that our extended deterrence commitments to our allies remain strong and credible.”

But even some simple changes from past practice remain to be accomplished. For now, at least, the Biden Administration is still adhering to the Trump policy of classifying the size of the US nuclear stockpile rather than following the Obama policy of disclosing it.

DoD Again Presses for New FOIA Exemption

The Department of Defense is once again asking Congress for an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act for certain unclassified military information including records on critical infrastructure and military tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs).

The latest proposal was included in the Pentagon’s draft of legislative language for the Fiscal Year 2022 defense authorization act (section 1002, Nondisclosure of certain sensitive military information).

Similar language has been proposed by DoD each year since 2015, and each year (so far) it has been rejected by Congress. (DoD Seeks New FOIA Exemption for Fourth Time,” Secrecy News, May 1, 2018).

The provision is still needed, according to DoD. “The effectiveness of U.S. military operations is dependent upon adversaries, or potential adversaries, not obtaining advance knowledge of sensitive TTPs, rules for the use of force; or rules of engagement that will be employed in such tactical operations,” DoD wrote in its June 7 justification of the proposal.

Furthermore, DoD assured Congress that if it were approved the exemption would not be used indiscriminately. It “will not be applied in an overly broad manner to withhold from public disclosure information related to the handling of disciplinary matters, investigations, acquisitions, intelligence oversight, oversight of contractors, allegations of sexual harassment or sexual assault, allegations of prisoner and detainee maltreatment, installation management activities, etc.”

Most DoD doctrinal publications are unclassified and are publicly available online. Some are classified. But some are unclassified and restricted. For example, last week the Army issued a publication on Special Forces Air Operations (ATP 3-18.10) that is unclassified but that is only available to government agencies and contractors. The withholding of such documents might be susceptible to a focused challenge under the Freedom of Information Act, and DoD apparently wishes to bolster its legal defense against any such challenge.

The Freedom of Information Act provides both for disclosure and for withholding of various government records, so exemptions are part of the package.

But Congress may again decide to reject DoD’s latest proposal because of the Department’s inconsistent and unreliable implementation of the FOIA.

There are FOIA requests dating back as far as 2005 that are still pending at the Defense Intelligence Agency, according to the latest DoD annual report on FOIA. If an agency is unable to act on a valid FOIA request for a decade or longer, a new exemption would be superfluous.

DoD has also taken a relaxed approach to other statutory requirements.

In December 2019, Congress enacted a provision requiring DoD to produce a plan for addressing the backlog of classified documents awaiting declassification. (“Pentagon Must Produce Plan for Declassification,” Secrecy News, December 11, 2019). This was not optional. But it was not done.

A Self-Correcting Classification System?

Those persons who have authorized access to classified information that they believe is improperly classified are “encouraged and expected” to challenge the classification of that information (Executive Order 13526, section 1.8).

Sometimes they do. And every once in a while, their challenges lead to declassification of the information.

A new report from the Government Accountability Office notes one recent example of a “classification challenge about military personnel overseas.” In that case, “as a result of the formal classification challenge, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy ultimately decided to declassify the information.” See National Security: DOD and State Have Processes for Formal and Informal Challenges to the Classification of Information, GAO-21-294, April 16, 2021.

The procedures for identifying and challenging over-classification have the potential to multiply existing oversight of the classification system many times over. Instead of just a bare handful of overseers at the Information Security Oversight Office and a few other places, all of the more than four million cleared personnel in government and industry could be mobilized to help evaluate the classified information that they handle, to recognize unnecessary classification, and to challenge it.

Ideally, such internal classification challenges would make the classification system at least partially self-correcting, as it was in the recent case cited by GAO.

But although the GAO reported that procedures for classification challenges are in place at the Department of Defense, that is only superficially accurate. The actual practice of formal classification challenges is highly localized in just a few corners of DoD and is totally absent from most others.

Of the 633 formal classification challenges that were reported by DOD in FY2016, there were a wildly disproportionate 496 challenges from US Pacific Command alone and another 126 from the Missile Defense Agency. (The reported numbers do not include challenges that are handled informally without leaving any record.)

Meanwhile, of the 677 DOD classification challenges that were reported in FY 2017, there were no more than 3 in all of the large DoD intelligence agencies.

The reason for this vast disparity among DoD agencies is not clear but it is probably not just a statistical fluke. Rather, it appears that a few DOD components are encouraging (or at least tolerating) classification challenges while most others are oblivious to or unaware of the procedure — if they are not actively discouraging it.

The good news here is that there is vast room for improvement.

If those DOD (and other) agencies and organizations that are not reporting classification challenges were directed to actively promote and encourage such challenges, it could go a long way toward improving classification policy generally.

Currently, however, things are moving in the other direction. DoD officials told GAO that they now “had few, if any, formal classification challenges.” They said “they relied more on informal classification challenges” with no identifiable impact.

But even if only 5-10% of the contested classifications are actually overturned (the number was 17.5% in 2016, according to ISOO), classification challenges could be an effective mechanism for enhancing the quality of classification decisions.

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The new GAO report was prompted by a request from Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) asking GAO to assess the procedures for challenging classification, including the options available to Congress.

GAO found that while Members of Congress can initiate challenges to classification at DOD and State, Members cannot appeal denials of their challenges (or failure to act) to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel. Senator Murphy’s own attempt to do so last year was rebuffed. (Senator’s Challenge to War Powers Secrecy BlockedSecrecy News, September 11, 2020).

To rectify this situation and to enhance congressional oversight of classification policy, Sen. Murphy and Sen. Ron Wyden introduced The Transparency in Classification Act (S. 932).

“Overclassification for political purposes undermines Congress’s ability to hold the executive branch accountable and unnecessarily keeps the American public in the dark,” said Sen. Murphy. “Regardless of the administration, protecting the integrity of the classification system is a matter of national security.”

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The activities of the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel — which considers appeals of classification challenges and of Mandatory Declassification Review requests that have been denied — have been severely curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic as well by longstanding logistical and administrative problems.

Between September 2020 and March 2021, the Panel decided on only four appeals. More than a thousand appeals are pending.

A Resurgence of Democracy in 2040?

The world will be “increasingly out of balance and contested at every level” over the next twenty years due to the pressures of demographic, environmental, economic and technological change, a new forecast from the National Intelligence Council called Global Trends 2040 said last week.

But among the mostly grim possible futures that can be plausibly anticipated — international chaos, political paralysis, resource depletion, mounting poverty — one optimistic scenario stands out: “In 2040, the world is in the midst of a resurgence of open democracies led by the United States and its allies.”

How could such a global renaissance of democracy possibly come about?

The report posits that between now and 2040 technological innovation in open societies will lead to economic growth, which will enable solutions to domestic problems, build public confidence, reduce vulnerabilities and establish an attractive model for emulation by others. Transparency is both a precondition and a consequence of this process.

“Open, democratic systems proved better able to foster scientific research and technological innovation, catalyzing an economic boom. Strong economic growth, in turn, enabled democracies to meet many domestic needs, address global challenges, and counter rivals,” the report assessed in this potential scenario.

“With greater resources and improving services, these democracies launched initiatives to crack down on corruption, increase transparency, and improve accountability worldwide, boosting public trust. These efforts helped to reverse years of social fragmentation and to restore a sense of civic nationalism.”

“The combination of rapid innovation, a stronger economy, and greater societal cohesion enabled steady progress on climate and other challenges. Democratic societies became more resilient to disinformation because of greater public awareness and education initiatives and new technologies that quickly identify and debunk erroneous information. This environment restored a culture of vigorous but civil debate over values, goals, and policies.”

“Strong differences in public preferences and beliefs remained but these were worked out democratically.”

In this hopeful future, openness provided practical advantages that left closed authoritarian societies lagging behind.

“In contrast to the culture of collaboration prevailing in open societies, Russia and China failed to cultivate the high-tech talent, investment, and environment necessary to sustain continuous innovation.”

“By the mid-2030s, the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia were the established global leaders in several technologies, including AI, robotics, the Internet of Things, biotech, energy storage, and additive manufacturing.”

The success of open societies in problem solving, along with their economic and social improvements, inspired other countries to adopt the democratic model.

“Technological success fostered a widely perceived view among emerging and developing countries that democracies were more adaptable and resilient and better able to cope with growing global challenges.”

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Many assumptions are built into this vision, and not all of them are defended or even made explicit. But taken at face value, the Global 2040 scenario in which democracy flourishes implies certain near-term policy choices that are at odds with current U.S. practice. Such discrepancies could actually make the report useful instead of merely interesting because they highlight areas for change.

For example, the resurgence scenario imagines that “leading scientists and entrepreneurs” from China and Russia will have “sought asylum in the United States and Europe” to escape repression in their home countries.

But US immigration policy today is not exactly consistent with this notion.

“The United States is still one of the top destinations for AI [artificial intelligence] students and professionals, but it may not stay that way for long,” wrote Doug Rand and Lindsay Milliken of the Federation of American Scientists in a new paper.

“The United States’ often rigid and confusing immigration policies make it difficult for AI professionals and students to stay in the country after they complete their education or try to change jobs. If this continues, countries like China, which is providing direct financial incentives to attract global AI talent, could gain an economic and national security edge over the United States.”

See Winning the Global Race for Artificial Intelligence Expertise: How the Executive Branch Can Streamline U.S. Immigration Options for AI TalentNYU Journal of Legislation and Public Policy, April 9, 2021.

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It would be highly convenient if the relative freedom that characterizes more open societies guaranteed the technological superiority of those societies, and if the tyrannical practices of more closed societies meant that they were also bound to be technologically primitive. Yet we know that is not always the case.

A recent report on Russian robotics (including autonomous weapons and UAVs) describes a wide range of innovative applications of robotics technology which are not at all limited by that country’s often cruel suppression of dissent.

“The interest in robotic systems and the creation of new models by scientific research institutes continues to expand in Russia’s military [and] will require the continued attention of the West.”

See Russian Robotics: A Look at Definitions, Principles, Uses, and Other Trends by Timothy Thomas, MITRE Corp, February 2021.

The robotics report itself is a fine example of the sort of unclassified open-source intelligence analysis that could be, but is not, routinely published to inform and enrich public deliberation.

The U.S. Intelligence Community, as currently configured, does not view the American public as a consumer for intelligence and so (with few exceptions) it is unwilling or unable to provide such open-source intelligence materials. The robotics study was produced for the U.S. Army, which approved it for public release.

Army Program Seeks to Heighten Soldiers’ Cognition

A properly trained soldier can distinguish a vegetarian from a meat-eater based on their smell, a new Army publication says, since “different diets produce different human odors.”

He or she can to determine the age, gender and even the mental state of a target by studying their footprints.

Not simply a warrior, the ideal soldier is also an intelligence analyst, a cultural anthropologist, and a student of human nature with the ability to confront and overcome adversity — Sherlock Holmes and Leatherstocking and a bit of Tarzan, all in one.

That, at any rate, seems to be the goal of the US Army’s Advanced Situational Awareness program, which trains soldiers to discern even subtle anomalies in the combat environment, to swiftly assess their implications, and to act decisively in response.

A refined sense of smell, including the ability to detect cigarette smoke from up to 150 meters away, would not seem to be of much use in cyber conflict or in most other contemporary forms of warfare. (Though there are those who say that the military role of the olfactory sense has been “overlooked and underutilized.”) But heightened awareness and critical thinking are certainly transferable across many domains.

Advanced Situational Awareness “optimizes human performance through building the skills necessary to develop agile, resilient, adaptive, and innovative Soldiers who thrive in conditions of uncertainty and chaos.”

The program was described in Advanced Situational Awareness, US Army Training Circular TC 3-22.69, 316 pages, April 2021.

A New Policy on Setting Intelligence Priorities

Shortly before the end of the Trump Administration in January 2021, then-Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe issued a directive that altered the process for preparing the National Intelligence Priorities Framework, or NIPF, stripping out limitations on signals intelligence collection from the previous policy.

The NIPF is perhaps the single most important administrative tool for managing the U.S. intelligence enterprise. It is used to determine priorities for intelligence collection and to allocate resources based on them.

The newly revised Intelligence Community Directive 204 on the National Intelligence Priorities Framework that was signed by DNI Ratcliffe on January 7, 2021 defines policy “for setting national intelligence priorities, translating them into action, and evaluating Intelligence Community (IC) responsiveness to them.”

It replaces the 2015 version of Intelligence Community Directive 204 that was issued in the Obama Administration by then-DNI James R. Clapper.

The new revision, which was published on the ODNI website last week, includes several noteworthy changes to the 2015 policy.

Most striking is the removal of all references to the Obama Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) 28 that was issued in the wake of the Snowden disclosures. PPD 28 included new limitations on signals intelligence collection and directed that whenever possible, “feasible alternatives to signals intelligence should be prioritized.”

The role of PPD-28 in preparing the National Intelligence Priorities Framework was duly cited by DNI Clapper in his 2015 directive. But those citations were removed by DNI Ratcliffe in his January 2021 revision.

The reason for the move is unclear. Is it possible that PPD-28 was quietly rescinded by the Trump Administration and is no longer in effect? That is not the case, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“PPD-28 is still in effect and adhered to by the IC [Intelligence Community],” said Lauren Frost, ODNI communications officer. (PPD-28 was also cited in the 2015 Intelligence Community Directive 203 on Analytic Standards, which apparently remains in effect.)

But if so, the removal of all references to PPD-28 and its requirements from the new NIPF directive is unexplained.

The prior NIPF directive, pursuant to PPD-28, required consideration of “the risks of potential exposure of those [signals intelligence] activities to U.S. foreign policy, defense, commercial, economic, and financial interests, international agreements, privacy concerns, and the protection of intelligence sources and methods.”

In contrast, the newly revised directive requires consideration only of “the risks entailed in the potential exposure of intelligence priorities,” and it makes no mention at all of the potential exposure of intelligence activities.

The Ratcliffe directive adds a new provision to allow for “a releasable version of the national priorities matrix” to be shared with “Second Party partner nations” (also known as the other Five Eyes countries), namely the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Another new provision assigns “Intelligence Topic Experts” to help lead interagency development of intelligence priorities. Otherwise, most of the new directive consists of minor rewording of the previous version.

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The question of how to set intelligence priorities, which would be important at any time, arises at a moment when the definition of national security is increasingly open to reconsideration, especially outside of government.

Is national security mainly concerned with Iran nuclear weapons research and North Korean missiles and other adversarial threats or actions? Or does it also extend to the pandemic that resulted in more than half a million American deaths in the past year? How about climate change — is that a threat to national security? (The Department of Defense thinks so.)

What about the epistemic instability that seems to afflict more and more Americans who are inclined to give credence to ridiculous or obviously false beliefs? Does intelligence have anything to say about that? What would the intelligence community look like if it were retooled to address such concerns?

Intelligence is the one function of government that attempts to systematically discover what is likely to be true and what is deception or baseless speculation. So it would not be unreasonable to ask U.S. intelligence agencies to publish a regular, even daily stream of open source intelligence products that could help inform (not indoctrinate) the public and enrich deliberation on national security and foreign policy. Today, that is a distant prospect.

But it is not a totally unrealistic one. The FY2021 intelligence authorization act (in section 612) required the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to perform and to publish unclassified intelligence analyses concerning China together with an academic or non-profit institution. See “Spy agency to cast China’s clandestine military buildup into daylight” by Bill Gertz, Washington Times, March 21, 2021.

The FY2021 intelligence authorization act (in section 326) also called for development of a new strategy to guide open source intelligence, and for consideration of establishing a new, independent open source center. It did not address public access to open source intelligence products.

Science in the Public Interest: Devising a New Strategy

What actions should the federal government take “to ensure that our nation can continue to harness the full power of science and technology on behalf of the American people”?

President Biden posed that question and five more specific ones to his Science Advisor Dr. Eric S. Lander.

“My hope is that you, working broadly and transparently with the diverse scientific leadership of American society and engaging the broader American public, will make recommendations to our administration” on how best to structure the American scientific enterprise, then-President-elect Biden wrote on January 15.

Taking that as an invitation, the Federation of American Scientists’ Day One Project responded last week with a detailed set of actionable proposals for applying science and technology to current social, economic, and environmental challenges.

So, for example, the President asked what policy lessons could be derived from the current pandemic. The Day One Project suggested that a new Health Advanced Research Projects Agency (HARPA) modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA). . . could leverage existing federal research programs, as well as the efforts of the private sector, to develop new capabilities for disease prevention, detection, and treatment.”

An Open Source Approach to Pharmaceutical R&D could “tap into the totality of knowledge and scientific expertise that our nation has to offer . . . and enable the nation to work quickly and cooperatively to generate low-cost advances in areas of great health need.”

And there’s much more.

Day One Project Director Daniel Correa is the Acting President of the Federation of American Scientists.

National Security and LGBTQI+ Rights

On February 4, President Biden issued a memorandum to agency heads on “advancing the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons around the world.”

He directed that “it shall be the policy of the United States to pursue an end to violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics.”

Somewhat surprisingly, the memorandum was designated National Security Memorandum/NSM-4 and was published as such in the Federal Register on February 26.

This was unexpected since the NSM designation was not included in the original White House release on February 4, and the memorandum itself does not make any explicit reference to national security. The Biden memo builds on a 2011 Obama Memorandum which also did not invoke national security.

In effect, the defense of LGBTQI+ rights has now been elevated by the Biden Administration to a national security policy of the United States.

*    *    *

A January 21 White House policy on International COVID-19 Response was originally issued as National Security Directive 1.

But perhaps because the “National Security Directive” designation was previously claimed by the first Bush Administration, Biden’s NSD-1 was renamed and reissued as National Security Memorandum 1.

An unnumbered National Security Memorandum dated February 4 on Revitalizing the National Security Workforce is apparently NSM-3.