In this blog, Fivecast Tradecraft Advisor, Evan Smith, draws on his military intelligence background to delve into the challenges of sharing intelligence between nations and explores solutions leveraging open-source intelligence.
It may sound paradoxical, but one of the longstanding challenges within the intelligence community has been sharing intelligence with partner nations. Whether this is a result of over-classification or the partner nation simply not having the proper protection measures in place to ensure the security of classified materials, time-sensitive intelligence is all too often unable to be shared with the countries that would most benefit from the exchange. Apart from sharing within the Five Eyes community—the intelligence community comprised of the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom—attempts to share intelligence with partner nations can often be hamstrung by foreign disclosure process which, all too often, delays the release of intelligence past the point of practicality or utility. However, intelligence is most often security classified because of the method that was used to collect the underlying data.
Timely and relevant information is increasingly available online, where it can be easily accessed and quickly disseminated at a much, much lower level of classification. To circumvent the challenges and risks associated with sharing classified intelligence with partner nations, the intelligence community should seek to leverage open-source intelligence (OSINT) as a lowest-classification common ground to communicate the threats we face in the 21st Century.
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Why is intelligence sharing so difficult?
It may come as a surprise to some that the stringent measures restricting intelligence sharing are not intended to protect the actual intelligence itself, but rather the sources and methods that were leveraged to obtain the classified information. Intelligence agencies have invested innumerable resources to create a repository of curated sources that provides much of the critical intelligence that keeps our nations safe. These sources range from cutting-edge satellites, signals collection radars, to a global network of human intelligence sources. The National Reconnaissance Office Classification Guide specifically states that “classified intelligence information relating to intelligence sources and methods is often NOFORN.” For anyone unfamiliar with the term, NOFORN is the common military label for intelligence that is “not releasable to foreign nations.”
When highly classified intelligence is shared, it is often within the Five Eyes community which was initially formed in the 1940s as a means for the United States and the United Kingdom to share signals intelligence with each other. The intelligence sharing agreement would later be formalized in the 1960s amidst increasing cooperation to counter the Soviet Union. Despite recent calls to expand the Five Eyes community, many of the countries we seek to cooperate with around the world on critical security issues, remain excluded from this type of intelligence sharing agreement. Whether it is counter-terrorism operations with the Iraqi military or monitoring transnational drug trafficking with Columbian intelligence agencies, our inability to share actionable intelligence severely limits the effectiveness of our global partnerships. The use of publicly available information (PAI) to combat these limitations is increasingly valuable.
Finding a way forward with publicly available information
The first step in overcoming a variety of challenges associated with sharing classified material is to incorporate the collection of PAI into the intelligence cycle. As we progress further into the digital age, information relevant to national security will become increasingly available online for anyone to view. For example, monitoring ship movements—which historically relied on classified imagery or signals intelligence — can now be accomplished in part by ship spotters with smartphones and commercially available imagery.
As seen in Figure 1, a Russian Federation Navy Bykov-class corvette was imaged in Sevastopol Harbor by a ship spotter in mid-February. This information could now be included in an intelligence summary for nations that would benefit from knowing the ship’s location. However, the utility of the information doesn’t just end there. If an analyst were to look closely at the back deck of the ship, they would likely notice that there is a surface-to-air missile system present. This provides a commander with a wealth of information moving forward. While it is uncertain if placing mobile air defence launchers on ships is a new tactic of the Russian Federation Navy, its presence almost certainly enables the Bykov-class corvette to conduct air defence along the Crimean Peninsula or hold allied aircraft operating over the Black Sea at risk. The presence of, and reference to, this sort of information online can provide a low (or no) classified environment for nations to at least begin an intelligence sharing discussion if the data is of mutual interest to both sides.
OSINT-Enabled Intelligence Sharing
The second step would be to disseminate the intelligence derived from open-source data to provide partner nations, with intelligence that is timely and accurate without risking sources and methods of classified collection. For example, since its debut in 2013, Telegram has increasingly become a hotbed for extremist content. Many extremist groups now communicate with their members and engage with the local populace via this online platform. It is not uncommon for an intelligence analyst monitoring an ISIS channel to see weapons systems, location mentions and discussion of recruitment tactics. Systematic mining of this readily available content offers an effective and efficient “tip and cue” strategy with our partner nations. Not only would this mitigate the risk to our national collection assets, but also contribute greatly to our understanding of the threat landscape.
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OSINT AS A COMPLEMENT TO CLASSIFIED DATA
Open-source intelligence is not the sole solution to the challenges our national security network face. Often, the value of open-source intelligence lies in the nuanced insights it provides, which complement our understanding of classified information. For example, if an adversary’s over-the-horizon radar stops emitting a signal, there are multiple things a military commander must consider. Is it down for maintenance? Is it being repositioned to a new location? Or is it being transferred elsewhere entirely, and it is no longer a threat in that theatre? These questions are not only valid but also difficult to answer. However, as seen in Figure 2, military equipment is frequently imaged and posted on social media by everyday citizens for the public to see. Being able to quickly identify these activities online both enables an analyst to quickly answer a commander’s priority intelligence requirement and saves hours of research into the radar’s previous activities to determine whether there was a precedent for its inoperability. Another added benefit is that this intelligence could now be shared freely with any partner nations without the risk of exposing any of our methods of collection.
This is just one of countless examples where OSINT has complemented our classified means of intelligence collection. As information continues to become publicly available in the digital age, OSINT offers the intelligence community an opportunity to both further its understanding of adversarial operations as well as share insights into those operations with partner nations without risking our national security. It would be prudent for our intelligence communities to take a more proactive approach to OSINT collection and dissemination. Becoming proficient in OSINT now will almost certainly pay dividends in the future, thanks to the wealth of information that has been, and will continue to be, derived from unclassified sources.