Robert Steele: Secret Torture versus Open Source Intelligence

Robert David Steele Vivas

Robert David Steele Vivas

Secret Torture versus Open Source Intelligence

OpEdNews, 23 December 2014

In 1989, as a former spy for the CIA who became the second-ranking civilian in Marine Corps Intelligence, I ghost-wrote an article for the Commandant of the Marine Corps, “Global Intelligence Challenges in the 1990’s.” This was the first article to distinguish between the conventional threat and emerging threats (such as ISIS today) and call for radical changes to how we do intelligence. I followed this up in 1990 with my own article, “Intelligence in the 1990’s: Recasting National Security in a Change World,” in which I discussed six specific challenges that have still not been addressed as of today, $1.25 trillion dollars later:

#1 Meet the Needs of ALL Public Programs

#2 Indications & Warnings of Revolutionary Change

#3 New Theory & Methods of Counterintelligence

#4 Developing an Information Technology Strategy

#5 Establish a Responsive Requirements System

#6 Realign Resources in an Era of Radical Change

It never occurred to me to throw ethics in there. I took that as a given. I was wrong to take ethics for granted. Today we are at the logical end of a quarter-century moral vacuum in which three individuals — James Clapper (Director of National Intelligence), Mike Vickers (Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence), and John Brennan (Director of the Central Intelligence Agency) represent the complete collapse of the profession of intelligence. We lack integrity in every possible sense of the word.

As I wrote recently in an Open Letter to President Barack Obama (also delivered to Dr. Susan Rice via Certified Mail),

Torture is not the only secret program that has failed to produce intelligence with integrity — this failure is true of every part of the secret world from the CIA, which relies on foreign liaison hand-outs for the bulk of its “clandestine” intelligence to the NSA, which processes less than 1% of what it collects, to the NRO and NGA that are inept at “Big Data” and incapable of providing all-source fused data to the end-user at a desk in Washington or in a foxhole abroad.

This is about far more than torture — this is about the complicity of military and civilian intelligence in assassinating thousands (with a documented 98% innocents along the way) while spending over a trillion dollars in a manner that is not helpful to Whole of Government strategy, policy, acquisition, and operations.

Torture, assassination by drone, the out-and-out prostitution of his office by George “Slam Dunk” Tenet that allowed Dick Cheney to get away with 935 known lies, the largest two of which were that Al Qaeda was responsible for 9/11 and that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and the general failure of a $100 billion a year intelligence community to do anything useful these past 25 years, all boil down to a culture of secrecy that morphed into a culture of sadistic nihilism focused on spending money for the sake of spending money, without regard to the public interest.

I was one of the first spies assigned the terrorist target full-time in the 1980’s. I have dealt with the results of torture. Apart from being a moral sink-hole that twists professionals, torture produces false confessions and wasted time. It does not produce actionable intelligence. Dick Cheney is either a liar, or has been lied to. One of my military colleagues, the single most successful counter-intelligence officer in modern military history, has a specific role every time we invade a new country. He sets up the equivalent of a Marriott Courtyard for high-value prisoners. The results, at very low cost, are as expected: immediate, professional, and useful.

The DNI, USDI, and CIA went over the cliff when they confused technology with thinking, secrets with intelligence, and spending money with progress. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the world of intelligence as decision-support, Big Data is noise. The best intelligence — precision intelligence — is from a human source with direct access, and that is not something we can do today despite millions of such sources being available. We have no penetrations of ISIS, the clandestine service refuses to deal with “overt” human experts, while the diplomats and attaches have no money for commercial sourcing and modest performance fees. In consequence we have no human assets of any import across the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, or the Americas at the same time that our analysts are children lacking in real-world experience — who in addition rarely speak the target language and have no grasp of the culture or history of the target population.

The alternative to the obsessions with technology, secrecy, and money has been called for from within CIA since 1969 when Herman L. Croom first dared to write in Studies in Intelligence of the need to get a grip on “open sources.” I took up this baton in 1988 after spending $20 million so that my analysts in the new Marine Corps Intelligence Activity could have access to all available secrets. Within weeks I was stunned to find them lining up for a single PC with access to the Internet (at the time, “The Source”). In their words: “there is nothing in the secret data bases about Burundi, Haiti, or Somalia.” That was the beginning of the modern open source revolution.

I went on to champion Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), writing the hand-books for DIA, NATO, and Special Operations Forces, also training 7,500 mid-career officers from across 66 countries over 20 years. We failed. The reason we failed can be traced directly to Jim Clapper’s obsession — embraced by Mike Vickers and John Brennan — with technology. The hidden agenda is financial. Technology costs lots of money and waste on technology is largely unaccountable — witness NSA, SAIC and Trailblazer. Humans, in contrast, are very specifically right or wrong in the moment, and also very inexpensive.

What Clapper, Vickers, and Brennan are unwilling to admit is that they are incompetent at the profession of intelligence — they are incapable of providing decision support to the President — and all Cabinet members and their subordinates across Whole of Government. Within the Department of Defense, our single most expensive and wasteful element of government, the USDI is dishonest and ineffective. Waste that runs from 45% in weapons acquisition to 75% in Afghanistan could easily be racked and stacked for cuts as demanded by the President. Furthermore a competent USDI could easily develop the decision support needed to create a 450-ship Navy, a long-haul Air Force, and an air-mobile Army, while radically reducing our overseas engagements that enrage the world and further diminish our moral standing. What the President is unwilling to admit is that his Administration is operating without intelligence and without integrity.

It has been clearly established over the past quarter-century that open sources — generally sources that are not online, not in English, and not expensive — are more than adequate for 80% or more of our decision-support needs, including national security strategy, national security policy, national security acquisition, and national security operations. Yet we persist with the secret scam. As General Tony Zinni, USMC (Ret), then Commanding General of the US Central Command (USCENTCOM) and engaged in two wars has said, he received, “at best,” 4% of what he needed to know from secret sources and methods.

In my view, the time has come for the President and Congress to dismiss the failed leaders of the US secret world, and act upon the core recommendations of over 300 of us writing books, articles, and chapters these past 25 years calling for reform.

Our capital demand is for the establishment of an Open Source Agency (OSA). This has been twice approved by OMB, contingent on a Cabinet or Presidential request. CIA has blocked all correspondence to the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the President, and the Vice President. The OSA is the DNI’s worst nightmare, as it is the worst nightmare of the USDI and D/CIA. An OSA, funded at $3 billion a year, will within 180 days begin to demonstrate that the secret world is a naked impotent Emperor unworthy of public regard or the $100 billion a year (the real number) wasted now.

Open Source Everything (OSE) goes beyond OSINT to embrace open cloud, open data, open government, open hardware, open software, open standards, and open spectrum. OSE is the opposite of secret technical waste. It is inherently ethical because it is transparent. From transparency comes shared truth and from shared truth comes trust. It is also vastly more effective because it can be shared — as Alvin Toffler first observed in PowerShift, shared information increases value at every turn.

Clapper, Vickers, and Brennan represent the nadir of the intelligence profession. They are arch-types from the past, incompetent in the present, and should be fired immediately and together. The OSA will establish a new baseline for US intelligence, one replete with inherent integrity. No secret program should be allowed to exist unless a requirement for actionable intelligence is validated by the White House and the OSA goes on the record as stating the requirements cannot be met with open sources and methods. If these two rules are honored, at least half of the secret world — the technical half that is largely worthless– can be dismantled over the next two to four years. The morally unfit underbelly we excise immediately.

I believe in America the Beautiful. I believe in uplifting humanity. I am ashamed of what Clapper, Vickers, and Brennan have come to represent, and it is my hope that the President will finally hear all of us who have been sounding the alarm — and identifying the solution — for a quarter century.


Robert Steele is a former spy — one of the first to chase terrorists in the 1980’s — who has become known for his global proponency of Open Source Everything (OSE). Raised abroad by a father born in New York and a mother born in Colombia, he spent four years on active duty as a Marine Corps infantry officer and S-1/Adjutant (personnel and security management), followed by sixteen years in the Reserve (as a Service-level military intelligence officer) after he joined the CIA’s clandestine service (9 years including three back to back overseas tours and 3 headquarters tours in counterintelligence, advanced information technology, and satellite plans & programs). In 1988 he left CIA to accept a Marine Corps invitation to be the senior civilian creator of the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity (MCIA). In 1993 he resigned from the Marine Corps to create Open Source Solutions, Inc., going on to train over 7,500 mid-career officers across US defense intelligence, special operations, and the member nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Partnership for Peace (PfP). He has testified to multiple Presidential and Congressional Commissions including the Moynihan Commission and the Aspin-Brown Commission, published nine books and many articles and chapters on intelligence reform, and generally been the single individual persisting in the view that the US Government should be devising strategy, policy, acquisition, and operations on the basis of ethical evidence-based decision-support. In 2012 he was a candidate for the Reform Party presidential nomination; his platform can still be viewed at We the People Reform Coalition.

He is a member of Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE) and of the Silicon Valley Hackers Conference founded by Stewart Brand. In passing he has become the #1 Amazon reviewer for non-fiction, reading in 98 categories. He curates Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog with over 800 contributors going back to 1992. His motto is “the truth at any cost lowers all other costs.”

Dec 23

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