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10 July 2007

Knowing indicators

It seems that commercial overhead imagery continues to change the manner in which key national security issues are examined in public debate. In the past several days, commercial imagery provided new evidence regarding the nuclear activities of two major hard targets – PRC and Iran.

This is not the first time such revelations come from open sources with capabilities previously reserved only for nation state level intelligence agencies. In many ways, this is a very good thing. We can remember a time when the discussion of, say, a new type of Soviet SSBN would have been cause for a decade’s worth of debate on whether such a platform existed or not; as many in the debate challenged the old Soviet Military Power publications and mocked its hand drawn art. (In reality, much of the old DIA art was deliberately used to depict systems which had only ever been imaged from classified sources, and therefore needed a layer of comfortable abstraction in order to be introduced into the public view.) Certain parties, no matter how little credibility their arguments might have had, still managed for years to cloud issues for which concrete evidence existed simply due to their refusal to accept its source.

A more informed discussion about the implications and consequences of these activities can now occur, given the public availability of such indicators from sources other than the intelligence community itself. But we would caution those who wish to pursue any current account through open sources alone that there is always more to the story, and that the gaps in one’s knowledge may significantly outweigh the conclusions which can be effectively drawn from limited public and gray literature information.

We also note that these types of publicly “found” indicators emphasize the traditional strengths of IMINT and overhead collection systems – military/industrial targets with larger activity and support infrastructure footprints. We would challenge those seeking to pursue commercial overhead imagery sources to search for the more elusive targets of non-state actors in the global disorder – and in so doing, hopefully to refine and present new methodology for finding and identifying such faintly visible prey that would benefit both the intelligence community and the academic side as well.

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