Improved Access to Open Source Intelligence Urged

12.02.19 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Congress should require the Director of National Intelligence to make open source intelligence more widely available, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission recommended in its latest annual report.

Open source intelligence refers to information of intelligence value that is openly published and can be freely gathered without resort to clandestine methods. Such material, and the analysis based on it, can usually be produced on an unclassified basis.

But in practice, it is often tightly held. The U.S.-China Commission, which was created by statute in 2000, noted that the U.S. intelligence community had recently curtailed access to open source intelligence reporting even within the government.

Last June, the former OpenSource.gov web portal was “decommissioned.” Its contents were transferred to classified or restricted networks that are mostly inaccessible to those outside the intelligence community.

Congress should therefore direct the DNI to “restore the unclassified Open Source Enterprise website to all of its original functions for U.S. government employees,” the China Commission report said.

Even before the recent decommissioning of OpenSource.gov, most open source intelligence products that were produced by the intelligence community’s Open Source Enterprise were denied to researchers, scholars, and other members of the public who were not government employees or contractors.

That too is a mistake that should be corrected, the Commission said.

“Access to the Open Source Enterprise should also be expanded by making appropriate materials available to U.S. academic and research institutions,” the Commission report said.

Larry M. Wortzel, a China specialist and Commission member, said the growing limitations on open source intelligence are impeding China-related research.

“To work on China using Chinese open source documents, if you are not on [the classified network] JWICS, you need to read Chinese,” Mr. Wortzel told Bill Gertz of the Washington Times, who first reported on the Commission recommendation. See “DNI restricts open source intel,” November 27 (second item).

Government officials say that wider sharing of open source intelligence is not quite as simple or straightforward as it might seem, even aside from legal issues of copyright that may limit publication of foreign materials.

Like other forms of intelligence, open source material is subject to error and can be used for deception. In some cases it may be highly sensitive, as when the underlying information is published unwittingly, or when it offers US policymakers some transient “decision advantage” that could be squandered by wider publication.

But those are exceptional cases, not ordinary ones. More typically, open source intelligence products serve a humble but enormously valuable contextual function. Sometimes, they may offer genuine insight into pressing issues of national security and foreign policy. But even in their most pedestrian form — like the highly popular CIA World Factbook — they can help to inform and enrich policy research and public discourse. So the Commission’s recommendation to Congress seems well-founded.

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A newly updated US Army glossary of military terminology defines open source intelligence as “Relevant information derived from the systematic collection, processing, and analysis of publicly available information in response to known or anticipated intelligence requirements.” See Field Manual (FM) 1-02.1, Operational Terms, November 21, 2019.