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18 August 2007

Watching the source of first resort

There has recently been a tremendous amount of movement in the open source intelligence space. The sea change in the information environment, whose earliest glimmer became apparent over a decade ago, has now created tides which now batter the intelligence community in an undeniable fashion.

To our eyes, however, much of the current discussion surrounding open source intelligence is like a drowning man flailing for a life raft. Too many individuals are looking for magic – the idea that information will simply appear, for free, out of the technological changes which have shifted the nature of what it means to do intelligence as an activity. Worse yet, we see a number of organizations frantically scrambling to find a way to re-establish their role as a gatekeeper, and to ensure their centrality in the future intelligence environment.

We thus are uncertain of what to make of the new CSIS report discussing a “Trusted Information Network” for open source intelligence production. We are unabashed proponents of OSINT - having both cut our teeth in its earliest (modern) community iterations, and having long attempted to understand its evolution in the wider context of the privatization of intelligence.

We are also keenly cognizant of the growing importance of public/private partnerships which enable the intelligence community to tap into unique pockets of expertise, particularly for transnational issues and homeland security accounts. The government has for a long time now seen its monopoly on certain subject knowledge eroded to the point that it is barely even able to compete in certain fields. Others were never previously considered a domain in which the intelligence community should maintain competence – until the unanticipated emergence of higher order effects of critical national security import.

We think however the key to getting OSINT right is not the creation of another network of gatekeepers and filters, but rather the deliberate cultivation of catalysts whose interaction with the wider environment will produce strange attractors around which unique new collects and innovative analytic insights will naturally accrete. It is that organic development that we believe will be most critical to developing the kind of OSINT capabilities that can survive in the heavily engaged information environments of the information operations / strategic communications / public diplomacy battlespace. OSINT must contend daily with the problem that as a discipline, it is essentially drinking from a poisoned well.

Turning that tainted water – replete with the corpses of hostile ideologies, the detritus of senescent and irrelevant ideas long past their time, and the constant buzz of noise and falsehood – into a fountain from which analysts and decision-makers may drink will never be an easy task. It will require new forms of tradecraft, and new concepts of organization and activity that will greatly push the boundaries of the wheel and redefine ideas of what the intelligence community will itself be in this new environment.

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