Review: Open Source Intelligence in a Networked World

6 Star Special, Complexity & Resilience, Decision-Making & Decision-Support, Democracy, Diplomacy, Economics, Education (General), Environment (Solutions), Information Operations, Information Society, Intelligence (Commercial), Intelligence (Government/Secret), Intelligence (Public), Priorities, Public Administration
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Anthony Olcott

5.0 out of 5 stars 6 Star Insider-Outsider Unique Offering, March 24, 2012

This is my final review. If you are interested in what the US Intelligence Community does NOT know about open source intelligence and the global network of sources in 183 languages, this is without question the only book available in English, and a six star rating is earned by virtue of its uniqueness. This is NOT a book that will teach you anything about Open Source Intelligence (OSINT).

The author, an academic rather than a CIA body, has done a phenomenal job of integrating multiple literatures in studying the history and culture of the CIA’s open source endeavors as well as its overall culture, and in his conclusion, offers up sound ideas that need to be implemented if we ever get a national leadership that is interested in intelligence with integrity.

I certainly recommend that this book be read along with Hamilton Bean’s No More Secrets: Open Source Information and the Reshaping of U.S. Intelligence (Praeger Security International).

Dr. Olcott has done a tremendous service to all who care about the future of the craft of intelligence (decision-support), and I have been so impressed with this book that I reworked my chapter for Routledge at the last minute to ensure this book’s inclusion in the bibliography and credit to the author on two points within the chapter. A “must read” for anyone interested in bureaucracy, public administration, intelligence, information pathologies, obstacles to innovation, and so on.

I made ten pages of notes. Below I offer a distilled summary.

+ Citing David Kahn, noted that the tipping point from relying on physical intelligence (observation) toward verbal intelligence (communications) occurred during WWII.

QUOTE (5): Describing the chaos and lack of coherent information and intelligence within the US Government as WWII began, he writes “This degree of disarray was not the product of incompetence or inattention, but rather was the consequence of a series of deliberate choices made by the government, politicians, and the American public.” One is reminded of Amy Zegart’s Flawed by Design: The Evolution of the CIA, JCS, and NSC.

What I like most about this book, and one reason I leave it at six stars (top 10% of the books I review), is that it goes in directions I did not anticipate and appreciate all the more. The author opens with an absolutely riveting discussion of the different “tribes” that emerged out of WWII and into CIA. On one side — their shining hour — are those with an understanding of history and deep language skills, divided into the broadcast monitoring and the document exploitation divisions. Arrayed against them were policymakers who were anti-Marxist ideologues dismissive of national idiosyncracies, and within CIA and the larger academic communities, political scientists smug in their methods, the provincial bubba-believers, later on the economic determinists, and outside, remote from all of them, the clandestine collectors for whom nothing matters–including the facts–as long as the game went on. I have a note: “most useful.”

I am moved with admiration by the author’s treatment of the *early* open source personalities, including Alexander George who insisted that good analysis requires that ALL relevant information be studied in order to have a baseline. Had CIA matured along those lines, today it would be the World Brain/Global Game.

I learn that during WWII the Inter-Department Committee for the Acquisition of Foreign Publications (IDC) produced an astounding 2000 reports. I also learn that post WWII open sources became “virtually non-existent,” while propaganda analysis (of the Soviet Union) began its years of glory, the CIA having nothing else to offer. I have a note, “some really great research, priceless context.”

The author reviews how the obsessive focus on the Soviet Union poisoned CIA analytic views with respect to open sources — they were *assumed* to be propaganda and information (still today, CIA call what I and other respect, “Open Sores.”). At the same time the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) sharply limited itself to broadcast monitoring (I personally knew Shriner, Riddle, and Naquin, and remain disappointed (not bitter as the author describes in one of two inaccurate references) that Riddle did not rise to the opportunity as Pedtke and I anticipated he would, and Naquin became a con artist making promises he could not keep). Whatever remains of FBIS today is NOT suitable as a foundation for Open Source Anything.

The author returns to this theme of intellectual factionalism among the various intelligence “tribes,” all of whom missed historic shifts, with a lack of historical, cultural, and linguistic understanding being one of the major factors perpetuating their ignorance to this day.

Apart from his riveting historical review of the now shrunken deformed roots of CIA in the open source arena, the author also provides some eye-opening understanding of how CIA failed to develop any substantive form of processing for open source information until well into the 1990’s, and I feel quite safe in suggesting that today CIA is probably still about 20 years behind “best in class” capabilities where huge profits depend on “seeing” all possible information in context. The author observes that the information explosion defeated CIA for decades, and he does not provide any evidence that CIA is any better off today–certainly we know that the US Intelligence Community as a whole is still using over 80 databases, each of which requires different access approvals, different passwords, and so on.

The author makes it clear that there were two information explosions that CIA did not master. The first was internal — secret collection exploded, growing so fast that the author cites James Schlesinger’s report suggesting that collection has become a proxy for analysis but without improving our understanding of anything. The other information explosion, the external one, CIA simply ignored. I believe the same is true of DIA–they have out-sourced the open source challenge to the private sector–between CIA and DIA I am quite sure we are wasting a half billion dollars if not more on contractual endeavors that should be closed as quickly as possible.

QUOTE (41): “Unspoken here, and probably even unrecognized by the analysts themselves, were also important assumptions about the nature of reality, and the relation that bore to information.”

When one recognizes that most CIA analysts are very young, very inexperienced, and most without the deep historical, cultural, and linguistic skills needed to be a master of analytic tradecraft; and one adds to that the combination of the cult of secrecy and the dearth of analytic access to broad and deep open sources in 183 languages no one at CIA or NSA actually speak well, it is easy to see why the US Intelligence Community is so easily ignored by policy makers, articulated well by Paul Pillar in his latest book Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform.

Across the middle of the book the author cites many of the same studies that I cover in my second book, and comes to the same conclusion: there was a pattern of collection tail wagging the dog, and citing the Cunningham Report, “failing to get important information, collectors were flooding the system with secondary material which was degrading production, making the recognition of significant material more difficult in the mass of the trivial.” There you have it.

Using Iran as a case study, the author brings together the various failings of CIA (including no one in analysis OR collection being able to speak Farsi), and in passing points out two sucking chest wounds: first that the CIA analytic mind-set was such as to exclude the possibility that others might be anything other than “rational” actors; and second, that FBIS was mired in official (controlled” broadcasts, and completely oblivious to the cassette tapes coming out of Paris.

I learn that Daniel Patrick Moynihan tried to close down the CIA in 1991 and 1995. I don’t want to close it down–the building is still useful, I would like to put Charlie Allen in there as Director of the Classified Information Agency (CIA) at the same time that we drop kick NSA management into retirement and merge NSA and NGA into a National Processing Agency, close down the NRO, and open the Open Source Agency on the South-Central Campus. But I digress–the author’s book helps explain the irrelevance and dysfunctionality of the CIA in an open world (a point I made in my first book), and I am quite certain that all the other agencies are just as ineffective and in need of make-overs.

The middle of the book also includes a survey of what changed in the 1990’s to today, and I realize for the first time that the Internet is not just about open source information, but about showing publics in Arabia, China, and elsewhere how EASY it is to do crowd-sourcing and online voting that is fair, transparent, and fun.

The author cites the Burundi exercise, his second of just two mentions of me, but gets it wrong twice. First, I did not purchase all the information I got with six calls to counterpart executives at LEXIS-NEXIS, Jane’s, Institute of Scientific Information, East View Cartographic, Oxford Analytica, and SPOT Image–I got it for free, overnight). Second, the author quotes the false statement in the Aspin-Brown Report about open sources taking longer to get etc, that is utter fiction. It was an overnight exercise. My open sources were delivered at the same time if not earlier on the same day the IC delivered its banal little map and economic survey of Africa.

The author knows little of the real world of open source intelligence, and even less of the emergent world of M4IS2 (Multinational, Multiagency, Multidisciplinary, Multidomain Information-Sharing and Sense-Making) but I leave his book at six stars because he drives a necessary stake into the heart of the myths and misrepresentation that Doug Naquin managed to purvey all these years, without contributing anything of real substance that could not have been done by a handful of well funded multinational experts without clearances–and then shared with all publics. CIA today allows the “Open Source Center” to classify what I believe to be a spectrum of mediocre products, most produced by contractors, absent an analytic model, customer, or public value.

The author does an excellent job of showing how secret information is one side of information obscurity, while information overload is another. The author does a SUPERB job of reviewing Enron and other disasters in what I have learned is called “control fraud” — this is when the government commits criminal acts of negligence with deliberation aforehand, and cites several excellent sources on how all the information that regulators force companies to disclose is absolutely worthless–even an impediment to understanding — in the absence of having a capability for ingesting, processing, exploiting, visualizing, analyzing, and making sense of that same information. I have been saying that since at least my first book.

Discussing ICD 203 the author points out that the IC still focuses on getting secret sources to the analyst, and this is precisely why I and the handful of others that get it–including the most senior OMB civilian for Programs 50 and 150–continue to champion an Open Source Agency under diplomatic auspices that feeds a COPY of all open sources to the high side as they are received, but retains M4IS2 “ownership” for the greater good.

the author teaches me that the IC is not valued (when it is so rarely valued) for predicting the future, but rather for identifying intervention points and methods for determining the preferred future. That is a huge distinction I have never seen before.

As the book draws to a close the author continues to teach me (I have been outside the secret world since 2006) that nothing has changed. Despite ICD 205 mandating outreach, the reality is that the IC is a closed environment that confuses outreach with collection and contact with security risk. I also learn that the IC thinks that such open sources as it acquires must be acquired without the human source knowing the context for which they are being acquired — those of us that actually understand collective (human intelligence) know that two thirds of the value is the human wrapping, the context, the unwritten nuances.

The author ends the book with a series of valuable overviews I will not summarize here — this is already a bit long — but certainly all valuable and all contributing to my very strong recommendation that this book be in every university library and the personal library of anyone who considers themselves an intelligence professional.

QUOTE (171): “The IC has become like a panda, an animal over-specialized in one particular kind of (secret) food.”

The book ends very very well. The author sums up our failure by design by focusing on how the prevailing elite paradigm of Communism versus the Free World, corrupted everything it touched including intelligence and policy. That allowed the twin bureaucracies of a huge military complex and a huge industrial complex to get away with murder in every sense of the word (my paraphrasing).

The author offers much to reflect on in juxtaposing the explosion of information and tools for sharing information with the rapid downward spiral of the “legitimacy” of the US and other governments. Epoch A top-down “because I say so” no longer cuts it. We now know that governments and corporations have been lying to all of us these past 50 years, and we are at the very beginning of a renaissance that I pray will be characterized by public intelligence in the public interest.

The author concludes with six reflections or “heuristics” for any analyst, and that section is certainly worth including in any class for analysts.

There is so much more in this book, I cannot do it all justice. Buy the book.

See also my consolidated list of Amazon book reviews on intelligence, search for

Worth a Look: Book Reviews on Intelligence (Most)

Robert Steele
ON INTELLIGENCE: Spies and Secrecy in an Open World (2000)
THE OPEN SOURCE EVERYTHING MANIFESTO: Transparency, Truth & Trust (2012)

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