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link to published version: IEEE Computer, July, 2014

accesses since May 23, 2014

Robert David Steele on OSINT

Hal Berghel

I’m a big fan of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) and Robert David Steele. Originally intending to dedicate a column to OSINT, I decided it would be far more interesting and accurate for Out-of-Band readers to hear from an expert on the modern OSINT movement. Below is an email exchange between myself and Robert David Steele that took place in May, 2014.

BIO: ROBERT DAVID STEELE, a recovering spy and senior civilian founder of the Marine Corps Intelligence Center, is a veteran across intelligence and information technology functionalities. His complete biography is at .

HB: Please provide our readers who are unfamiliar with the world of intelligence a segue into Open Source Intelligence and explain how you got involved in it.

RDS: It is vital to remember that the whole point of CONNECTIVITY is to move and make sense of CONTENT, SECURELY, in service to HUMANS. For this readership, let's jump right to the Open Source Ecology I have devised, and make the point that open source is the only form of engineering that is affordable, inter-operable, scalable, and therefore sustainable.

Figure 1: The Open Source Ecology (Source:

At a higher level of thinking, our task is to re-invent intelligence (decision-support) so as to re-engineer Earth. My briefing to engineers at the University of British Columbia became a book chapter ( ) after a second delivery of the briefing in Denmark.

Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) is the art and science of creating ethical evidence-based decision-support using only open sources and methods – legal and ethical in every respect. From an engineering point of view it requires access to digital sources (surface web 5%, deep web 15%), analog sources (no more than 30%) and human sources (most of whom must be face to face, 50%). OSINT requires processing, (both big data back office and individual/distributed small group desktop toolkit). Beyond that OSINT is all about humans – analysts that can think, and deciders that can listen.

I started the modern OSINT fight in 1988, after five years as a Marine Corps infantry officer and nine years as a spy for the Central Intelligence Agency. Asked to return to the Marine Corps as a civilian, I resigned from the CIA and spent our first $20 million on a Top Secret / Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) computer system with our own top secret communications system. In one corner I put a PC with access to the Internet, at the time consisting largely of “The Source.” Within two weeks the analysts started lining up for the PC. When I asked why, they said “there's nothing in the secret databases about Burundi, Haiti, Somalia, or other places where the Marine Corps is likely to go.”

HB: You have said that 80% of the mission-critical information that the intelligence community needs is publicly available. Explain.

RDS: I am not the first to say this. Two former Directors of Central Intelligence (DCI), Allen Dulles and William Colby, have said the same thing. This has two engineering implications: first, that 80% of the information is OUTSIDE the secret world and needs EXTERNAL connectivity; and second, that the 80%, if ever accessed, cannot be controlled and does not need to be “protected” by very expensive secret hardware and software.

The reality is that the secret world produces, “at best” in the words of General Tony Zinni, USMC, 4% of what the top national security leaders need to know, and – I have written about this in CounterPunch ( Agriculture, energy, health & human services, veteran's affairs – EVERYONE needs decision-support for strategy, policy, procurement, and day to day operations, but this is not what the secret world does.

What we have today is a very secret intelligence community that spends 70% of its money on contractors and technical collection that is not processed, and less than 1% on accessing and exploiting the 80% of the information that is publicly available in 183 languages we do not speak. The flip side of this pathology is that the secret world does not provide decision-support to most of the Cabinet Departments, any of the Assistant Secretaries or Office Directors, or any of the front-line action officers across all the mission areas far removed from “national security.”

HB: You speak of the intelligence that inheres in the “Seven Intelligence Tribes.” Explain how the collective tribal information can be used in modern intelligence gathering.

RDS: Bill Gates once told a US President that the US Government is 3% of his client base and therefore only gets 3% of his time. I mention this to emphasize that the government is the least intelligent, least informed “tribe” that processes information. The other tribes – I split one in two to now total eight, are academic, civil society, commerce, law enforcement, media, military, and non-government/non-profit. On any given issue, at least 80% of the information the government needs to access if it wants to be serious, is known by or controlled by someone who in general is not responsive to the government and more often than not does not speak or write in English. Crowd sourcing and wealth of networks are terms that are in vogue. What the government generally, and the secret world particularly, refuse to acknowledge is that information is a team sport and nature bats last. The government is only as good as its ability to do outreach, and if it is relies on lies, nature – reality – will always reveal the truth at some future date. In the 21st Century national intelligence is about public intelligence not secret intelligence. We need engineers that can build open source collection and processing tools that anyone can use. We need to close down the mass not-so-secret surveillance capability that produces no tangible benefits for the public at large and instead invest in open cloud, open data, open spectrum – open source everything. We still need a few spies and secrets, but only a tiny fraction of what we have now.

Crowd sourcing and wealth of networks are terms that are in vogue. What the government generally, and the secret world particularly, refuse to acknowledge is that information is a team sport and nature bats last. The government is only as good as its ability to do outreach, and if it is relies on lies, nature – reality – will always reveal the truth at some future date.

In the 21 st Century national intelligence is about public intelligence not secret intelligence. We need engineers that can build open source collection and processing tools that anyone can use. We need to close down the mass not-so-secret surveillance capability that produces no tangible benefits for the public at large and instead invest in open cloud, open data, open spectrum – open source everything. We still need a few spies and secrets, but only a tiny fraction of what we have now.

HB: Former CIA and National Intelligence Council officer Paul Pillar remarks in his latest book that “Policy has shaped intelligence more than vice versa,” and that has led to significant corruption of intelligence.

RDS: I gave Paul's book a rave review. What he is really saying is that policy does not care what intelligence thinks, for two reasons. First, the secret intelligence world generally does not have much to offer any serious decision. Second, between the lack of integrity of political appointees (e.g. CIA directors) who mis-represent what CIA does know (e.g. no WMD in Iraq), and elected politicians (935 now-documented lies to justify an elective war on Iraq) the intelligence community is more a patsy than a player.

The title of my next book is Intelligence with Integrity: Enabling Hybrid Governance with Open-Source Decision-Support ( ). As I briefed an energetic young group at Yale University in February, we do not lack of information or (public) intelligence – we lack for integrity across the board.

HB: You have argued for your own brand of Pareto Optimality for the intelligence community: 80% of the most important information is free but ignored, and 95% of the budget is spent on the 20% that is of less value.

RDS: Major General Bob Scales, USA (Ret) is on record as saying that the infantry is 4% of the US military force, takes 80% of the casualties, and receives 1% of the budget. The same is true in the intelligence world, with suicide, alcoholism, divorce and adultery being the casualties, and the spies and analysts being the force. Secret technical collection takes most of the money because it is the most expensive part of the process. We do not process what we collect – really – NSA processes no more than 5% against its top targets and more typically 1% -- because we are not held accountable for eating what we kill.

I cannot overstate what William Binney, the NSA engineer and whistleblower has said. NSA and the secret world are in the business of keeping the problem alive and keeping the money moving. To this I would add, they are NOT in the business of informing every mission area across the government. Even the President receives mediocre intelligence, and on the counterintelligence side, we have no bench. We have religious, idn ieological, and financial traitors across the board, and no one challenges them. The only optimality in the secret world is fraud, waste, and abuse.

HB: You believe that intelligence should start with what we can learn from open sources, and then move to the hidden, rather the other way around. What accounts for the intelligence community's zealous commitment to stealth?

RDS: Secrecy is a cult. When badly managed – and it is VERY badly managed today and has been for a quarter century – secrecy is a means of avoiding accountability. I testified to Senator Daniel Moynihan’s Secrecy Commission, and among the points I made was that secrecy is used to enable lies to Congress and the White House – 80% of what the CIA claims is clandestine intelligence is actually provided by foreign intelligence services as a hand-out, or collected in legal traveler debriefings here in the USA. 99% of what NSA collects is not processed. The NRO is incapable of delivering the bandwidth and the NGA has no clue why that matters.

Here is an operational example. I did the first Somali piracy analysis for the US Central Command in 2005. We had commercial imagery, identified the specific boats, docks, families, and villages. We provided this information to the US Special Operations Command and to the US Navy (Irregular Warfare). In 2008 I had a chance to ask them both why they did nothing and the similarity of their answers stunned me. Almost to the word: “It wasn’t an expensive enough problem.”

I cannot help but remember the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where the engineer used a piece of a beer can as a shim. For me that is a brilliant piece of engineering. For the secret world, only a million dollar custom-made shim will do, and they will not notice if the beltway bandit sells them a piece of a beer can claiming it is the custom shim. I cannot overstate the ignorance and inattentiveness of today’s Contracting Officers and Contracting Officer Technical Representatives in the secret world.

HB: Where did the government go wrong with the Open Source Center?

RDS: I tried very hard, along with several others, to create a separate Open Source Program that would not be controlled by one of the secret agencies. The fact is that the secret world lacks both the intelligence and the integrity to make the most of open sources.

In the case of the Open Source Center, let me start with specific areas where its longest serving Director, Doug Naquin, and I agree – this quote is from my recent letter to the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence , responding to a published interview with Naquin by Hamilton Bean:

Most startling to me were the areas of agreement between Naquin and myself. We agree on the IC not altering its thinking. We agree that the IC leadership (both strategic and operational) is incapable of making serious trade-offs from unprocessed secret collection to fully-developed OSINT. We agree that the secret disciplines are stove-piped and out of touch with holistic decision-support needs for Whole of Government PPBES. We agree that OSINT tradecraft exists and matters very much. We agree that a more distributed business model for OSINT is essential for supporting national security, to which I would add national competitiveness. (

Now here are the three specific areas where the OSC has failed badly for lack of integrity at the highest levels of the US secret world – which is to say, despite their good intentions, they have been designed to fail.

  1. The OSC is not allowed to talk to subject matter experts on anything. They can only do translations of published information. This is by dictat of the clandestine service, which claims to be in charge of human intelligence but is incompetent at all fifteen slices of human intelligence as I have defined them in a seminal monograph for the US Army ( ).
  2. The OSC has failed – as I also failed during my time as for-profit CEO – to capitalize on the urgent need for unclassified decision-support across every mission area in the US Government and within all of the oversight committees of Congress.
  3. The OSC has been blocked from substantive collaboration with other governments, to create regional information-sharing and sense-making partnerships, and also with other tribes, to create collaborative consortiums where the participants do not need to have security clearances in order to contribute, so that the OSC could “harness the distributed intelligence of the Whole Nation,” a phrase of mine used by Al Gore in 1994. All three of these would have been excellent engineering challenges if properly managed within a commitment to go all in on open source.

I recently communicated all this to Vice President Joe Biden (but the IC may have intercepted and destroyed the communication); as a service to your readers I am making that package available online at .

HB: A neoconservative mantra for the past forty years has been that the CIA has a lousy track record on assessing global threats to U.S. interests. Examples frequently include the failure to anticipate the fall of the Shah of Iran and the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, it appears to me as an outsider that the CIA has been pretty accurate overall. The 2002 CIA report Principle Challenges in Post-Saddam Iraq, for example, predicted that (a) achieving a stable government would be “long, difficult and probably turbulent,” (b) indigenous factions would engage in violent conflict, (c) reconstruction would require enormous outside assistance, and (d) that a de-stabilized Iraq would provide a fertile home for al-Qa’ida and other terrorist groups. From an outsider’s point of view it looks as if they pretty much nailed it. Your thoughts.

RDS: One report is not very impressive. In fact it is vital to distinguish between what selected individuals with high integrity within CIA know from what selected individuals with low integrity mis-represent CIA as knowing, with what CIA actually publishes. CIA also had it right, at the individual level on Viet-Nam – the clandestine service knew that Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist, not a communist, and Sam Adams nailed the corrupt US military process with the immortal statement, “Here we are in a guerilla war and we are not allowed to count the guerillas.” The most recent disappointment from CIA is the Global Trends 2030 report in which they endorse fracking as a solution to our energy shortfalls. Not only is fracking causing earthquakes and contaminating aquifers, there is no energy shortfall in the USA – the sought-after excess is for export, to keep legacy refineries alive.

My last two books are particularly relevant to this question. The first, INTELLIGENCE FOR EARTH: Clarity, Diversity, Integrity, & Sustainability (EIN, 2010), emphasized the need for a holistic analytic model that integrates true cost economics. The secret world does not do either. The second book goes far beyond OSINT. THE OPEN SOURCE EVERYTHING MANIFESTO: Transparency, Truth, & Trust (North Atlantic Books, 2012) explores why we need an ecology of open source everything – open cloud, open data, open hardware, open software, open spectrum, open standards, and more – or each individual open will fail alone. This book was actually written for the IT world, but being published by a New Age publisher, it was not made known to the engineers. I consider it an ethical and technical manifesto.

HB: How are we to extricate ourselves from this orgy of delusion? Everything the intelligence agencies do seem to be miscalculated for effect.

RDS: I was reading the internal New York Times study on innovation this morning, recommended to me by my virtual CTO Stephen E. Arnold of ArnoldIT. On page 16 they list the Hallmarks of Disruptive Innovators:

For a quarter century I have focused on trying to help governments reform intelligence, and I now realize that Buckminster Fuller (don't reform, displace) and Russell Ackoff (stop doing the wrong things righter, do the right thing instead) got it right. It's time we bury the secret world. GoogleEarth and the Keyhole Markup Language (KLM) are a great start, now that needs to be extended to allow tiling to handle non-geospatial information provided by a mix of world content vendors and crowd-sourcing. The secret world lost sight of its Constitutional duties and betrayed the public – it's time for the public to do public intelligence in the public interest.

HB: I have a keen interest in OSI is from the point of what I have called survivable journalism who are besieged these days from National Security Letters to prosecution under the espionage act. How might we create an OSINT infrastructure that the few remaining investigative journalists might draw on to add timeliness and accuracy to their reporting without fearing prosecution.

RDS: I share your concern about the prosecution of journalists who get close to doing damage to the deep state and the financial powers behind the deep state. However of greater concern to me is the absence of responsible holistic analytics with true cost economics. From agriculture to education and energy to family, health, the military, the prison complex, and water, I see gag laws, I see self-censorship, and I see a dumbed-down readership. For me the engineering challenge of the 21st Century is to reboot education, intelligence (decision-support) and research simultaneously. How can we create a global World Brain and Autonomous Internet that cannot be censored or shut down, that puts into any hand held device anywhere the truth about any topic? My 1996 article on Creating a Smart Nation ( is still the standard-setter on this topic.

HB: One final question. What might the technical computing community do to support the OSINT movement?

RDS: Embrace the Open Source Everything manifesto. Even if you are working on a proprietary system, code against the day when it will be made open source. THINK about the open source ecology. All the stovepipes and proprietary fiefdoms are dying. I wrote an Open Letter to Microsoft that I am happy to share here, it has most of my technical points and a number of graphics. Here is one graphic not in that letter, my technical vision for creating a Smart Nation.

Figure 2: RDS' Vision for a Smart Nation

Learn more at .