Richard Wright: Proposal for an Open Source Agency

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Richard Wright

Document (5 Pages): Richard Wright Proposal for an Open Source Agency

Proposal for an Open Source Agency

Executive Summary

This proposal argues that the strategic intelligence needs of U.S. Policy Makers, including the President and National Security Council, can best be met by establishing an independent Open Source Intelligence Agency (OSA) as recommended by the 9/11 Commission (Figure 1) but external to the secret world, under diplomatic auspices as agreed by senior staff in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Such an agency is needed for two reasons:

First, as President Harry Truman has confirmed, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has not evolved to be what he wanted it to be – an all-source analytical service of common concern.

Second, as has been argued for decades (since the late 1960’s) by US intelligence community pioneers, and most recently in a white paper from the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA), the fact is that unless a means is found to acquire and integrate into the secret world’s intelligence process, the 80% or more information that is not secret, not in English, and not now accessed, the secret world will be even less relevant than it is now – to the point of calling into question its extraordinary budget, over $70 billion a year, that produces almost nothing for the President and nothing at all for everyone else.

An Open Source Intelligence Agency would not impact the missions and functions of existing secret intelligence agencies (CIA, DIA, NGA, NSA), but would provide a unique type of intelligence specifically tailored to the needs the senior U.S. policy making establishment.

Why Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)?

The existing principal agencies of the U.S. Intelligence Community are a product of the Cold War.  The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was created by the National Security Act of 1947 which in turn reflected both the U.S. experiences in WWII (especially the devastating surprise of Pearl Harbor) and the growing realization that the Soviet Union and its allies were a significant threat to the U.S. and its allies. The primary mission of CIA was to obtain, evaluate, and organize information from all sources with goal of producing comprehensive intelligence reports in support of the U.S. policymakers at the national level.

Specifically CIA was to produce strategic warning intelligence and decision support intelligence on issues relevant to U.S. security. This mission statement summary would suggest that CIA would use both classified and unclassified sources of information. In practice this did not happen because of the very real concern that the Soviets were experts at deception and generating false information. As a result any intelligence not generated from classified sources was viewed with suspicion. Although during the Cold War, the CIA as able to produce intelligence on the Soviet Bloc, they did so inconsistently. In point of fact during the Cold War, with the exception of President Eisenhower, CIA intelligence was distrusted and ignored by most U.S. Presidents.[1]

In the post-Cold War Period of the last twenty odd years, CIA has virtually ceased to provide either strategic warning or decision support intelligence. Indeed in the 21st Century it appears to be transforming into a para-military type of organization with a secondary role of support to military operations, especially those of Special Operations Forces.[2]

At the same time the global threats to U.S National Security have changed dramatically. The Department of Defense (DOD) is ever ready to identify nation states such as China and Iran as threats at least as dangerous as the Soviet Threat and the trans-national menace of Islamic Extremism as comparable to threat to U.S. international interests once posed by the international Communist Movement. This is nonsense.

The real threats to U.S. Security in the 21st Century are much more complex and ambiguous. This new threat environment incorporates many non-state actors and many threats that cannot be mitigated by either overt or covert military action (violence).[3]

Here is one such list that I have developed:

1)      Insurrections against ineffective, corrupt or authoritarian governments;

2)      Failed states that cannot control their borders, ensure internal security, and meet financial obligations;

3)      National or regional ethnic, religious, or sectional strife;

4)      Trans-national religious or ideological movements against Western values and norms employing terror tactics;

5)      Pandemics affecting humans, domestic animals, or crops;

6)      Unequal distributions of potable water, food, and natural resources;

7)      Trans-national Criminal Organizations

8)       Threats to free use of international waters and air spaces;

9)       Massive cross international border emigration/immigration or massive population dislocations due war, disease or famine.

The threats itemized in this list, and others like it, present situations and events where unclassified sources may provide more accurate and timely information than classified sources. At the same time CIA is reluctant to use unclassified sources because its analysts distrust such sources and more importantly do not usually know how to research and analyze open sources to transform raw unclassified information into intelligence. Also CIA and the other principal intelligence agencies (especially NGA and NSA) must justify their expensive collection and processing systems and are further bound by archaic classification schemes that are ingrained into their institutional cultures.[4]

An independent Open Sources Agency would not labor under such handicaps nor would it be bound by either an institutional culture of secrecy or an inherent mistrust of information available to the public at large. Such an agency could bring new approaches to acquiring unclassified information and transforming it into accurate intelligence.[5]

Producing Open Source Intelligence

The collection of information from publicly available (open) sources requires as much skill and technique as collection from classified sources. It is not a matter of opening a newspaper or surfing the Internet. Efficient collection of information from open sources requires a careful selection and construction of search parameters and constant guidance from subject matter specialists. Such information is available from the Global Network,[6] from foreign and domestic media, academic and technical publications, individual subject matter experts, and informed observers. Efficient collection from the Global Network in turn would require a powerful search engine using Boolean Logic with an algorithm that can change the query parameters based on search results (much a E-Discovery does now). The most important ingredient in open source collection is the human factor. Crowd sourcing using human networks of trusted experts and observers is a key factor to effective collection.

The processing of open source information once collected again requires as much skill and technique as that needed for information from classified sources. Open source information in its unprocessed state is nearly worthless: the amount of such information on any given subject is immense and much of it is inaccurate or downright wrong; there are no standards for presentation, spelling, or indeed accuracy in many forms of open source information; and the shear volume of information available may obscure really important information. Therefore information from open sources must be subjected to a rigorous process of research and analysis.

Research of open source information is conducted to identify, validate, and extract relevant data from it. Research can also build background information that will put a given event or situation into a meaningful context.[7]


Analysis is the cognitive processes by which vetted information is transformed into intelligence. This requires exactly the same analytic skills and techniques used to do the same for raw information from classified sources.[8]

If it is to have impact, intelligence must be presented in an easy to understand, but accurate format. To the extent possible an Open Source Agency would package its products in GIS Map formats or as one or two page reports with graphics of one sort or another.[9]

Organizing for Production

The best management structure of an Open Source Agency would be flat, without multiple layers of managers and staffs. It would be headed by a director and deputy director with a small staff (20-25 persons). Under them would be a deputy director for operations, a collection manager, and a chief analyst. Under them would be the collection and analytic teams each under a technical leader.

The analytic teams would consist of a maximum of 10 analysts and would be organized by geographic regions (i.e.  Africa, China, Russia, EU, etc) and subjects (i.e. transnational Islamic Extremism, international finance, etc.). Their principal analytic resources outside the team would be extensive crowd sourcing using trusted academic and non-academic informants.

The collection teams would consist of not more than ten collectors and would be organized by region, subject matter, and source (i.e. the Global Network, foreign media. human).

A small compartmented section to review agency products against classified information to ensure all relevant information is included in each report.

Finally an editorial and presentation staff to convert analyst reports in to standard and attractive formats.

Small Administrative Staffs (i.e. Human Resources, Finance, Physical Plant etc.) would support the operational elements.


U.S. Policy Makers including the U.S. President, are working under the handicap (often self imposed) trying to make decisions that directly affect U.S. National Security with inadequate information. No matter how intelligent or dedicated a policy maker at any level cannot make the right decisions affecting the security of the U.S. without accurate information. The existing secret intelligence apparatus appears unable to provide this information in a timely or consistent manner. It is the contention of this proposal that the creation of an independent Open Sources Agency would be a relatively cheap and effective solution to this problem.[10]


[1] For the President’s Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush by Christopher Andrew (Harper Perennial 1996);  Flawed by Design by Amy B. Zegart (Stanford University Press, 1999); Why Secret Intelligence Fails by Michael A. Turner (Potomac Books, 2005).

[2] Intelligence Power in Peace and War by Michael Herman (Cambridge University Press, 2007);  Sharpening Strategic Intelligence by Richard L. Russell (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[3] On Intelligence: Spies and Secrecy in an Open World by Robert David Steele (AFCEA, 2000); Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy by Mark M. Lowenthal (CQ Press, 2005).

[4] Informing Statecraft: Intelligence for a New Century by Angelo Codevilla (The Free Press 1992).

[5] Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information by Gregory F. Treverton (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[6] A simple explanation of the so-called “Global Network:” the Global Network is a rubric for an aggregate of independently owned and operated, but inter-connected and inter-operative telecommunication (carrier) networks. These networks incorporate both domestic and international carriers each of which consists of transmission lines (largely fiber optic or copper cable and satellite spot beams) coupled with relays, switching centers, earth stations, and various other sub-components. The content carried on        these networks is obtained from public and private content providers. The public content providers include Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Public Service Telephone Networks (PSTN).  The private content providers include such entities as SWIFT and SITA.

[7] Data Mining and Predictive Analysis by Colleen McCue (Elsevier Ltd. 2007).

[8] Intelligence Analysis: A Target Centric Approach by Robert M. Clark (CQ Press, 2004); Anticipating Surprise: Analysis for Strategic Warning by Cynthia M. Grabo (University Press of America, 2004);

[9] Critical Thinking and Intelligence Analysis by David T. Moore (National Defense Intelligence College, 2007).

[10] I am aware of the Open Source Agency archive maintained by Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog, but thought to offer a “clean sheet” personal perspective as part of what appears to be a useful new appreciation for the possibilities of OSINT.

ROBERT STEELE:  I was glad to have Richard offer this “clean sheet” essay.  The INSA white paper, its flaws not-with-standing, is an opening for a serious dialog among the eight tribes — not just the industry mafia that sees their Maker with a scythe approaching — about the practical value of open intelligence (decision-support) with integrity (whole systems / true cost).  The problem to date has been primarily one of dishonesty among all concerned, but as Richard pointed out to me in an email, the depth of the ignorance of both senior US intelligence community executives and senior US government policy makers about OSINT cannot be underestimated.  What strikes me as very sad at this particular moment is both the deep relevance of OSINT in the context of a fiscal cliff (information costs money, intelligence makes money), and the fact that there is no one able to inform the President that there are two solutions out here in reality land — the OSA and the Automated Payment Transaction Tax — because he lives in a bubble.  Must the public burn down the White House to get a hearing?  If it comes to that, then all of us have failed to be responsible.

See Also:

2011 Open Source Agency: Executive Access Point

2008 Open Source Intelligence (Strategic) 2.0

21st Century Intelligence Core References 2.1

Reference: Expectations of Intelligence in the Information Age with Review by Steele, Now Also Wright 2.8

Review: Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way between West and East

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