Steven Howard Johnson: Reflections on OSINT

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Steven Howard Johnson

Phi Beta Iota:  Mr. Johnson is the author of Integrity at Scale, free online, whose many ideas are being integrated into the vision for a Smart Nation Act and the hub of the Smart Nation, an Open Source Agency and global Multinational, Multiagency, Multidisciplinary, Multidomain Information-Sharing and Sense-Making (M4IS2) network of networks.  He is a party to the on-going push to establish the Open Source Agency and create a more competent and ethical America.

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As I look at the Open Source idea, I find myself experiencing a fair amount of dissonance between a methodological vision of open source intelligence, at one level, and at a very different level, an aspirational vision that sees it as a way of disinfecting a misguided and corrupt set of bureaucracies.

One mission is potentially endorsable by the powers-that-be.  The second mission is not.  Ask people to endorse both and it isn’t likely that either will move forward. If corruption prevention is to be the mission, the open source agency will have to find a home outside of government.  If transparency of intelligence is the mission, then perhaps it can find a home inside government.

My second source of dissonance has to do with design and scale.  Open source intelligence is potentially as vast as all the server farms Google will ever own.  How does a relatively modest site, squeezed in between State and Watergate, ever acquire the heft to handle the challenge?  The scope of the mission and the scope of the agency seem out of sync with the scope of the real estate footprint.

And my third source of dissonance comes from the concept of “intelligence” as information that provides decision support.  Whose decision?  National security director?  Senate Foreign Relations committee?  Citizens Cabinet?  Decision about what?  Whether to fire a drone missile at a human target?  Decision about staying with fossil fuel energy or shifting to post-fossil fuel energy?  Decision about cradle to cradle resource strategies?

To me, the central decision of our time is roughly this:  Do we want America to be corrupt and incompetent because this allows us to be lazy?  Or do we want America to be a nation of integrity and competence, even if moving in this direction might cause us some personal discomfort?  That’s a decision for the citizenry.  The corrupt and incompetent America needs one kind of decision support; the honest and competent America needs another kind of decision support.

Intelligence is easy to define when its purposes are defensive and reactive.  “We fear the Soviet Union and we want intelligence that helps us undermine its power.”  Not too hard.

But intelligence is harder to define when its purposes are proactive and vision-driven. Everyone agrees we should defend ourselves against threats.  Not everyone would agree on a shared vision of  a truly competent America.

Proactive thinking requires something more along the lines of scenario planning.  Or gaming.  What possible futures lie ahead?  What are we to make of those futures?  Does “intelligence” continue to serve as the central organizing concept, once the purpose shifts from reactive to proactive?

Proactive thinking also requires benchmarking.  US capabilities vs capabilities of rivals.  What capabilities does US want?  Why?

Is there anything that doesn’t fall under the purview of Open Source Intelligence?  The likely charter seems limitless in a world where the aim is to understand America’s proactive possibilities and the terrain as seen from the point of view of every possible “tribe.” This could be the project that ate Chicago.

I suggest scaling back to an idea that is finite enough to be manageable.  Think about an Open Source Intelligence Lab.  With a narrow initial focus.

Here’s a lab example I can visualize:  resource availability, say, for a world that’s meant to serve seven or eight or nine billion people who aspire to middle class living standards.  Then one can ask a finite question.  What resources does the world live on now?  How much continuity will current resource trends have?  Where will shortages occur first?  Who gains from those shortages and who loses?  How much urgency should be given to the development of substitutes?  Etc etc.

Then you learn how to manage inputs, processing, and outputs, all within a finite domain.  What inputs are required and how are they to be obtained?  What processing is required and how is it to be carried out?  What outputs are required and what audiences require them?  Score successes on those three fronts before expanding by adding a second area.

Trim the scope enough that the dissonance goes away.

  • It’s about proof of concept; it’s not about the creation of a citizens cabinet.  It’s about testing a new approach, one that may eventually need a substantial footprint.
  • Start small, don’t overcommit to one piece of real estate when the ultimate project might require much more.  (Frankly, putting a small piece of an open source intelligence project in every state in the nation might be a way of educating the American public, so who knows what the ultimate real estate footprint looks like?)
  • Test different terms to see which one has the greatest promise.  “Intelligence”?  “Scenarios”?  “Competence”?  “Decision support”?  It’s not clear (to me)  that the shift from defensive/reactive to proactive/generative will allow retention of “intelligence” as the heart of the mission.   Some other term might fit the proactive purpose better.
  • Test different ideas about who’s the client.  Is it ‘The Government”?  And if so, does that mean the Executive Branch?  Or the Senate and the House?  Or key Hill committees?  Or is the client America’s corporate elite?  Or is it the American people, broadly understood?  Is it Wall Street?  Is it Main Street?  The notion of who the client is remains murky for me.
  • Why “Open Source”?  Suppose half of what flows in is garbage.  Is Open Source garbage better or worse than secret garbage?  How do we know?  On what basis?  What does Open Source really imply – about all the questions raised above.  It implies something – nonsecret rather than secret – but beyond that, what else does it imply?
  • Staff.  How would those who staff an Open Source project differ from those who staff the puzzle palace?  How would they be similar?  What strengths would need to be carried over from the secret world to the open source world?  What weaknesses in the secret world should be left behind by the open source world?

I think an Open Source Intelligence Lab is an appealing idea.  Figure out the cheapest possible way to create a appealing win and build the opening proposal around that. Those are my thoughts, anyway.  I’m looking for a way to conceptualize this that doesn’t have so much dissonance.