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Old 10-29-2005, 11:15 AM
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Reexamining the Distinction Between Open Information and Secrets
Stephen C. Mercado

“Open sources often surpass classified information . . .”
We need to rethink the distinction between open sources and secrets. Too many policymakers and intelligence officers mistake secrecy for intelligence and assume that information covertly acquired is superior to that obtained openly. Yet, the distinction between overt and covert sources is less clear than such thinking suggests. Open sources often equal or surpass classified information in monitoring and analyzing such pressing problems as terrorism, proliferation, and counterintelligence. Slighting open source intelligence (OSINT) for secrets, obtained at far greater expense when available at all, is no way to run an intelligence community. Also, we must put to rest the notion that the private sector is the preferred OSINT agent.* In the end, I would contend, the Intelligence Community (IC) needs to assign greater resources to open sources.

Mistaking Secrecy for Intelligence
Judging from their words, too many policymakers and intelligence officers mistake secrecy for intelligence. President Nixon, for example, once belittled the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in words that capture the common mistake: “What use are they? They’ve got over 40,000 people over there reading newspapers.”[1] The president’s remarks, reflecting a persistent misperception, echo even now within the Intelligence Community. Recent CIA recruiting literature suggests to applicants: “You can be on the sidelines, reading about global events in the newspaper. Or you can be at the heart of world-shaping events . . . ” in the CIA. The brochure proposes a world divided between those who read newspapers “on the sidelines” and those with access to “intelligence” within the Agency. George Tenet, a recent director of central intelligence, was fond of defining the CIA to audiences both within and outside the Intelligence Community with a curt phrase: “We steal secrets.” Neither from reading the CIA’s recruiting brochure nor listening to its chief would one learn that the Agency includes an OSINT service that produces the lion’s share of its intelligence.[2]

Deeds also reflect the mistaken notion that secrets are all important. The Intelligence Community now includes large, well-funded agencies for overhead imagery intelligence (IMINT), signals intelligence (SIGINT), and human intelligence (HUMINT). By all accounts, most resources in the Intelligence Community go to such IMINT and SIGINT activities as developing reconnaissance satellites, collecting signals, and analyzing the take. OSINT, the stepchild of the Intelligence Community, lacks its own agency. The Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), the largest IC organization devoted to open sources, resides in the CIA. Other OSINT units are scattered within the Department of Defense and the State Department. Alone and in the aggregate, OSINT organizations have few people and little funding. Despite numerous surveys putting the contribution of open sources anywhere from 35 to 95 percent of the intelligence used in the government, OSINT’s share of the overall intelligence budget has been estimated at roughly 1 percent.[3]

Indistinct Categories of Intelligence
Those who swear that secrets are the only true intelligence, in contrast to mere “information” found through open means, would do well to consider the indistinct character of the categories of overt and covert in intelligence. Information hidden behind walls of classification and special access programs may prove no more than equal in value to material available to the public.

Overt and covert streams of intelligence are by no means completely parallel and distinct; they often mingle and meander over one another’s territory. Covert reports at times are amalgams of press clippings. And newspaper editors, for their part, frequently publish stories based on accurate leaks of classified material. Examples abound. Veteran CIA case officer James Lilley learned early in his career how Chinese agents had “swindled” his office with supposedly inside information on Chinese developments that later proved to be “embroidered versions of articles from provincial Chinese newspapers.”[4] Similarly, European con men reportedly passed off Soviet newspaper articles as intelligence from behind the Iron Curtain to operatives of the CIA and the West German Gehlen Organization in the 1950s.[5] More recently, journalist Bill Gertz of the Washington Times has leaked classified information in his stories. His published photocopies of actual intelligence documents underscore how the overt and covert streams mingle.[6]

The more one considers the problem, the less distinct appears the distinction between open information and secrets. Let us consider the case of the B-29 bomber aircraft, whose use in the Second World War was reportedly classified. Samuel Halpern, an officer of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), recalled how he once surprised an admiral by referring in his briefing to the B-29 Super Fortress bombers. When the admiral demanded to know how Halpern knew of the “highly classified” aircraft, the OSS officer replied that he had learned of the bomber through monitored Japanese radio broadcasts.[7] In short, what is classified to some is open information to others. This can lead to the absurd situation where foreigners learn details of US intelligence operations in their country through their national media, while the American public and Intelligence Community remain unaware of the overseas exposure. Perhaps “unilateral secret” would be the proper term for this phenomenon![8]

The Value of Open Sources
Not only are open sources at times indistinguishable from secrets, but OSINT often surpasses classified information in value for following and analyzing intelligence issues. By value, I am thinking in terms of speed, quantity, quality, clarity, ease of use, and cost.

Speed: When a crisis erupts in some distant part of the globe, in an area where established intelligence assets are thin, intelligence analysts and policymakers alike will often turn first to the television set and Internet.[9]

Quantity: There are far more bloggers, journalists, pundits, television reporters, and think-tankers in the world than there are case officers. While two or three of the latter may, with good agents, beat the legions of open reporters by their access to secrets, the odds are good that the composite bits of information assembled from the many can often approach, match, or even surpass the classified reporting of the few.

Quality: As noted above, duped intelligence officers at times produce reports based on newspaper clippings and agent fabrications. Such reports are inferior to open sources untainted by agent lies.

Clarity: An analyst or policymaker often finds even accurate HUMINT a problem. For example, when an officer of the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence (DI), reads a report on a foreign leader based on “a source of unproven reliability,” or words to that effect, the dilemma is clear. Yet, the problem remains with a report from a “reliable source.” Who is that? The leader’s defense minister? The defense minister’s brother? The mistress of the defense minister’s brother’s cousin? The DI analyst will likely never know, for officers of the Directorate of Operations (DO) closely guard their sources and methods. This lack of clarity reportedly contributed, for example, to the Iraqi WMD debacle in 2002-03. The DO reportedly described a single source in various ways, which may have misled DI analysts into believing that they had a strong case built on multiple sources for the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.[10] With open information, sources are often unclear. With secrets, they almost always are.

'Government is like a baby:
An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and
no sense of responsibility at the other'
- Ronald Reagan