The Institutionalization of Open Source Intelligence

08.24.11 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The battle for public access to open source intelligence may have been lost before most people even knew it began, judging from the new book, “No More Secrets: Open Source Information and the Reshaping of U.S. Intelligence” by Hamilton Bean (Praeger, 2011).

“No More Secrets” is an academic work, not an expose.  But it is an exceptionally stimulating one that brings the theoretical principles of organization management and communications theory to bear on intelligence policy in original and insightful ways.

As Bean shows in depth, the meaning of “open source” has been fiercely contested, beginning with the very definition of the term (which generally refers to policy-relevant information that can be acquired legally).  Other disputed questions include, Whom does open source serve?  Is it only for policy makers, or also the public?  Who should perform the open source mission?  Should it be housed within the intelligence community or outside of it?  Which aspect of “open source intelligence” dominates?  Is it the logic of openness or the logic of secrecy?

For the most part, these questions have now been answered, at least provisionally.  Open source intelligence is for policymakers, not the public.  It is part of the intelligence community, not separate from it.  The logic of secrecy, not openness, is primary.  “Intelligence officials have successfully marginalized” those who would argue differently, Bean says.

Among several fateful turning points in the current institutionalization of open source intelligence, Bean highlights a conflict between Robert Steele, a former CIA officer and Marine Corps open source advocate, and Eliot Jardines, who served as the senior ODNI official on open source.

While Steele favored an open, expansive and inclusive vision of open source intelligence, “Jardines sought to institutionalize the collection and analysis of open source within the U.S. intelligence community in ways that did not overtly challenge the dominant institutional logic of secrecy.”  In 2005 or thereabouts, Jardines won that battle, and “those who share Steele’s vision of an independent open source agency find their ability to affect change similarly constrained,” the author says.  (Steele’s own review of the book is here.)

Of course, there is no reason why the status quo must be perpetuated indefinitely.  In fact, Prof. Bean notes, “many stakeholders… are still, to this day, actively struggling to institutionalize their preferred meanings of open source….”

Secrecy News is cited a couple of times in the book and the Federation of American Scientists makes an appearance in this peculiar sentence:  “A principal reason that WikiLeaks, Public Intelligence, Cryptome, and FAS are controversial is because they threaten to rupture distinctions between open and secret information and destabilize conventional notions of authority, expertise and control.”