Michael Tanji of Haft of The Spear and Wired's The Danger Room, has posted a good explanation (and a little history) of the value of open source intelligence.
My own thoughts run close to his but I have a few additional ideas that I think are worth considering. First, when most people think of open sources, they think of the internet and all of the information that is now available. This thought, particularly among some of those of a certain generation, it typically followed by the thought that you can't believe any of it; that little or none of it is credible.
That, of course, is just plain false.
The truth is that there is a vast and growing body of highly credible open source information available through the internet and countless other open sources. To get it you need to be trained in how to use the tools of the trade and be well equipped with critical thinking and critical reading skills. Several good academic libraries -- such as the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Cal Berkeley -- have taken up the challenge and posted a good set of guidelines for assessing source reliability on the internet.
Second, open source information is just a small part of what open source intelligence can do. Adding a complete analytic capability to the wealth of open source information creates a powerful tool for assisting decisionmaking. Here are a couple of examples:
- Alternative Analysis. The recent CRS report highlighted the potential value of conducting an open source review in addition to a classified review of important intelligence questions. First, such a document would be a worthy test of the classified intelligence. Second, if the analysis was consistent with the classified view, then the open source version could be used to ensure that the estimate received the widest possible dissemination (highly classified documents often come with so many bureaucratic obstacles to using the intelligence that they may not be read at all). If the open source analysis was not consistent with the classified view (i.e. the classified view not only passed the test but was clearly better), then it would help justify the 43.5 billion dollar US intelligence budget.
- Stretching Limited Resources. Even with a 43.5 billion dollar budget, it is still a big world. That money can run out very quickly and many parts of the world get little if any coverage. For a fraction of the cost of most classified operations, the intelligence community could contract with academia (yeah!) and other commercial vendors to track important but unresourced intelligence requirements. Such a program would also go a long way toward supporting the intelligence studies programs starting up across the country.
- Some would say that the community already does this through its own, very capable OpenSource Center and by contracting with such vendors as Janes, Stratfor, Oxford Analytica, the Economist Intelligence Unit and the amazing Australian telecoms research firm, Budde.com. While these services are very, very good, what I have in mind is different. I am talking about a fully loaded intelligence system that is capable of both watching and producing routine analytic products in its assigned requirements but also of surging to meet short term demands. Such a system, consisting of a series of centers around the country would not cost much but would add perspective and diversity to the intelligence analysis equation and could respond to a much wider variety of decisionmakers including law enforcement, businesses, non-governmental organizations and even private citizens.
- Providing A Starting Place. Classified systems, by their nature, have to keep intelligence collection operations focused and intelligence products in restricted channels. Open source can cast a wider net. Particularly useful in a crisis, analysts using just open source information can rapidly build a useful conceptual model upon which, at a minimum, other analysts can layer classified intelligence to add nuance.
- Take Maximum Advantage of Technology. There was a day when the intelligence community had the latest technology. That advantage is all but gone. In fact, because of security requirements, today's technology often comes to analysts very late and is often very expensive. Open source, in this environment, is very nimble. It can test and adopt new technologies quickly and can evolve to meet new challenges with the latest tools.