• Former government intelligence officer Maureen A. Baginski believes open-source material, supplemented with classified data, should be the primary information around which analysts build knowledge.
     Former government intelligence officer Maureen A. Baginski believes open-source material, supplemented with classified data, should be the primary information around which analysts build knowledge.

Open-Source Vies for Dominant Role

April 3, 2018
Robert K. Ackerman
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The more intelligence changes, the more it needs changing.


The intelligence community has gone from scarcity to surfeit in terms of information, and it must adopt a new paradigm or lose the advantages it has from improved collection, according to a retired intelligence official. The best approach for achieving this is to use open-source material as core information and then supplement it with classified material.

“It’s the business environment in which intelligence operates that has changed so much,” declares Maureen A. Baginski, currently chairman of the National Intelligence University Board of Visitors and a former government intelligence officer for nearly three decades, last with the FBI. She relates that when she joined the intelligence community in 1979, the challenge was having too little information that was very hard to get. So, the community structured itself around collection platforms, types of information and from where it was collected.

Now, the community has too much information, and it is hard to understand, she maintains. “That is a profound difference from when I started.”

The challenge stems from more information residing outside the community than inside it. And the younger generation of intelligence professionals have grown up with information available instantly in their pockets.

Accordingly, the community may need a different approach to dealing with open-source information, Baginski offers. She says open-source, viewed as another –INT, OSINT, loses effectiveness when it is brought behind the wall of classified material. It just becomes another collection source that an analyst adds to another pile of data instead of making it "a body of knowledge" that can drive other collection activities to fill gaps or test the veracity of information. “I would start with open-source and what we can know from it, identify what we don’t know that we need to know and then use classified sources for that,” she declares.

Baginski admits this is a major change, but the community must adopt a different approach to leveraging and embracing as a resource information that is available outside the classified realm. Part of the challenge is determining the nature of information available from different sources.

“Do we, as an intelligence community, actually know what information is truly classified and what isn’t?” she asks. In many cases, material that is classified is available in open sources, so it hardly can be called classified. “If something is available through another source, why would you use classified sources to get it?” These are questions that the intelligence community must grapple with, she says, adding this is the biggest change affecting the community.

Exploiting the “free resource” of open-source information would not be free, Baginski adds. Yet changing over to an open-source-first approach need not disrupt current activities, she emphasizes. This could—and should—be achieved incrementally without resorting to a major reorganization within the community.

The first step would entail a different way of providing open-source material: generating deep analysis pieces from open sources instead of providing information streams to analysts. Then it would become a resource that people exploit, and the standing of open-source material within the intelligence community would begin to change.

This approach would suit the new National Security Strategy, which Baginski describes as a change in emphasis. For more than 15 years, terrorism has been the intelligence community’s top priority. It will remain a high priority going forward, Baginski offers, but other high priorities have emerged—some of which the community historically has done well.

The community needs to examine its core competencies across the board, she continues. A critical assessment would focus on whether these longtime competencies hold up or if there are gaps. Some organizations may have moved too far afield from their original purpose and should refocus their efforts on their original core activities. Other agencies with diverse collection means and targets may be well-positioned to suit the new security strategy. This assessment would help the community focus more sharply on the strategy’s goals. In the end, the approach to open source material may be one of the gaps that needs to be addressed, she states.

The AFCEA Spring Intelligence Symposium, April 18-19 at the NGA campus in Springfield, Virginia, will explore the intelligence community and the New National Security Strategy. Maureen A. Baginski will speak and receive the Charlie Allen Award for Distinguished Intelligence Service, AFCEA’s top intelligence award, at the symposium.

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