A Push to Elevate Open Source Intelligence

10.04.21 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

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.