President Biden underscored the importance of the role of the Director of National Intelligence by nominating Avril Haines to that position as his first appointment to intelligence community leadership. From what we have seen through a review of senior positions under the DNI, Haines has acted quickly in restoring the role of intelligence as a valued input to national security policymaking by putting seasoned intelligence professionals into key jobs.
Now, Haines has an opportunity to advance intelligence community mission activities on several key issues shaped by the digital information age. One of these issues is the role of publicly available information in the performance of their missions.
The quantity, quality, and accessibility of publicly available information has exploded over the past decades. Private sector groups have made notable intelligence discoveries simply through exploiting this type of information. Examples include the forensic work done by Bellingcat to identify entities involved in the shoot down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine; insights into North Korean nuclear and missile programs by 38North and the crowdsourcing of images used to substantiate claims of chemical attacks by the Assad regime against civilian neighborhoods.
A more recent illustration is the way law enforcement entities have used publicly available information to identify participants in the attacks on the U.S. Capitol building. Forthcoming investigations into the attack will determine whether readily available information wasn't taken seriously, shared, acted upon, or some combination thereof in the days leading up to the attack.
Private sector groups have made notable intelligence discoveries simply through exploiting [publicly available] information.Share on Twitter
On January 22, President Biden tasked the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to work with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI to prepare “a comprehensive threat assessment” of domestic terrorism. The use of openly available information posted by participants in the attack on the Capitol will likely figure importantly in this assessment.
While there have been successful uses of openly available information in intelligence reporting, our research shows the community's investments in open source intelligence have been inconsistent, episodic, and imperfectly distributed.
A recent report issued by a panel of former senior intelligence officials—which Haines cochaired before her appointment—noted the difficulty the intelligence community has had in effectively using publicly available information and stressed the importance of this data in the digital age. The panel called for “the reconceptualizing of open source intelligence as a cornerstone of U.S. intelligence,” with the elevation of open source intelligence to a core intelligence mission. The panel considered three organizational options to improve the intelligence community's use of publicly available information and recommended that the ODNI, in consultation with Congress, “commission a study on the intelligence community's open source intelligence mission.”
Congress has called for just such a study with the 2021 Intelligence Authorization Act, which became law as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act (PDF) and assigned it to the ODNI. While the organizational construct for open source intelligence in the intelligence community is an important element in this requested study, the congressional request calls for complete assessment of the intelligence community's open source intelligence activities and their value to American intelligence.
The digital age places enormous volumes of information at the fingertips of any analyst. The challenge is how to make sense of it all and effectively communicate it to policymakers, law enforcement personnel, and warfighters to give them decision-advantage to seize an opportunity or prevent a threat. Further complicating the use of publicly available information are policy and procedures that have not kept pace with changes in technology and availability of data. For example, some members of Congress are legitimately concerned about privacy issues associated with exploiting this information, such as intelligence community elements purchasing data from commercial entities that may contain American citizen phone locational data.
Turning the potential volume of relevant data into meaningful insights requires a workforce trained in new collection and analytic methods.Share on Twitter
The challenge of improving the intelligence community's use of open source information involves more than just organizational restructuring. To really make the production of open source intelligence a priority, Haines will likely have to reallocate funding from existing programs. How much funding to allocate to open source intelligence and whether to manage it centrally or through individual elements is another issue Haines will face.
Furthermore, turning the potential volume of relevant data into meaningful insights requires a workforce trained in new collection and analytic methods. Harnessing the power of artificial intelligence and other digital analytic means will help, but ultimately a person needs to render a judgment on the integrity of the information collected and validity of any insights it may offer.
Given Congress' interest in and support for the intelligence community to more effectively leverage publicly available information, Haines has a unique opportunity to boost the role of open source intelligence across the intelligence community.
She may find that it needs to be integrated into every element in the intelligence community; an intellectual and cultural change that will require strong central leadership, consistent investment and sustained effort—exactly the type of challenge that the Director of National Intelligence was established to address.
John Parachini is a senior international defense researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and the former director of RAND's Intelligence Policy Center. J.D. Williams is a senior international defense researcher at RAND. He previously served as the national intelligence manager for military issues in the office of the director of national intelligence. Andrew Roberts is an adjunct international defense researcher at RAND. He previously served as the former chief of the OSINT Integration Center at the Defense Intelligence Agency.
This commentary originally appeared on The Hill on March 3, 2021. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.