An Argument for Open Source Intelligence Secrecy

09.17.08 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

“There is altogether too much discussion about the deliverables that OSINT [open source intelligence] can produce,” said Jennifer Sims, a former State Department intelligence official, at a DNI conference on open source intelligence last week.

Open source intelligence refers to intelligence that is derived from unclassified, legally accessible information sources.

But the fact that the underlying sources of OSINT are unclassified doesn’t mean the resulting intelligence can be disclosed, said Dr. Sims, who is now director of intelligence studies at Georgetown University.

“If it is providing decision advantage [to policymakers], then it is sensitive” and it should be withheld from disclosure, she said. “And decision advantage has nothing to do with the classification of the sources and methods. It has to do with the insights that the intelligence can deliver.”

Consequently, “OSINT needs to become a bit more closed-mouth about its deliverables,” she said.

By the same token, said Dr. Sims, if it’s not classified, then intelligence agencies should not be doing it.

“Democracies should sharply curtail classified intelligence organizations to the business that absolutely must be kept secret: gaining and keeping decision advantages in national security policy-making. Everything else should be unclassified and funded outside the intelligence establishment,” she wrote in an email message.

“Of course, if the processing of open sources gains you those insights, then ‘OSINT’ must be one of the jobs that intelligence institutions perform. But the measure of its success will always be the competitive edge it provides; and edges disappear if you give them away.”

The argument for greater open source intelligence secrecy suggests that U.S. intelligence agencies have been recklessly broadcasting OSINT products and thereby compromising the unique advantages that they provide. But most OSINT products are withheld from the public anyway.

And although some OSINT products have reportedly been included in the President’s Daily Brief, few of them seem to offer operationally significant insights that could be compromised by disclosure.

“Copyright, not classification, is the main barrier to disclosure of OSINT products,” said Kim A. Robson, deputy director of the DNI Open Source Center. But she added that “The better we get at OSINT, the more the need to classify it.”

Dr. Sims’ views were reported in “Analysis: Classifying open source intel?” by Shaun Waterman, United Press International, September 16.

A new recruitment video for the DNI Open Source Center presents the Center as it sees itself and would wish to be seen by potential recruits. A copy of the seven-minute video is posted here.

See also Open Source Intel Rocks — Sorry, It’s Classified by Noah Shachtman, WIRED Danger Room, September 17.