The U.S. intelligence community should elevate open-source intelligence to a core “int,” alongside signal intelligence, human intelligence, and geospatial intelligence.

The U.S. intelligence community should elevate open-source intelligence to a core “int,” alongside signal intelligence, human intelligence, and geospatial intelligence. Getty Images

Promote Open Source to a Full Member of the Intelligence Community

The exploitation of publicly or commercially available information must be recognized alongside spies, signals intelligence, and other established branches of practice.

The U.S. intelligence community should elevate open-source intelligence to a core “int,” alongside signal intelligence, human intelligence, and geospatial intelligence, and its agencies should better “integrate OSINT into collection and analytic tradecraft.” That’s what the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) recently recommended, and based on our extensive experience in the intelligence community and DoD, including multiple combat tours to the Middle East and South Asia, we firmly concur.

The United States’ intelligence agencies and military intelligence functions were established during a time when national assets were needed to address information gaps. Secrets uncovered through classified means were often the only way to understand the world and the intentions of other countries. Today, such intelligence still offers invaluable insight, but the exponential growth of publicly and commercially available information allows unprecedented amounts of actionable intelligence to be generated from these open sources, all while freeing up expensive and resource-conscribed Ints to fill more challenging intel gaps. 

Some visionaries within government have taken important steps in this direction. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency was an early “tea leaf reader” and saw the value of integrating commercial imagery data into analyses. Similarly, the Defense Intelligence Agency was the first to establish an OSINT career field to grow and develop professionals with the unique skillsets required for this domain. But if we are to keep pace with the rapidly evolving and expanding world of open-source intelligence, the DoD and intelligence community must more fully embrace the CSIS recommendation to treat OSINT “as a cornerstone of U.S. intelligence, relevant across the IC enterprise and in all aspects of its current and future missions.” 

Sophisticated intelligence professionals understand that operational and strategic intelligence depends on open sources—and increasingly, so does tactical intelligence. This mindset shift is critical as we move from a counterterrorism focus to a multi-domain environment within the great power competition of the digital age. To best use OSINT capabilities, intelligence personnel must be fully trained and educated in technologies that enable them to apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to big data; persistently search broad (global) data sets and sources unimpeded by language; use entity resolution and social network analysis to understand complex relationships; glean unique insights from commercially available text-based and geo-spatial data; and harness these capabilities in both open and closed systems. Our adversaries already have these technologies. We have no time to dither.

Like other intelligence disciplines, developing a corps of OSINT professionals demands that leaders and analysts have multiple developmental experiences to hone their skills. Knowing how to blend publicly and commercially available information into the overall intelligence cycle and common operational picture is key. Today, the services are wrestling with how to best integrate open-source intelligence. Do they add OSINT tasks and training onto another already task-saturated intelligence career field? Do they create a new specialty? Do they simply contract it all out? Should it be a combination of options? 

We recommend that the intelligence community create a separate OSINT specialty, akin to what DIA did when they established the OSINT career field in October of 2019. Without a formal OSINT structure and a recognized OSINT career path, many OSINT-focused analysts will never be seen as integral components within the IC and DoD. To date, many professionals who have focused on OSINT have not been taken seriously, have struggled to be promoted, were provided insufficient funding and training, and saw no developmental progression. Given the dynamism and complexity of the genre, OSINT personnel deserve better, and the intelligence enterprise and the nation demand better. 

Establishing OSINT as a full member of the IC and establishing career paths offer several benefits: 

● Provides credibility and durability to the discipline. It demonstrates that OSINT is here to stay. Our adversaries certainly take OSINT seriously – so must we.

● Enables professional development. It helps mature the discipline, facilitates specialization, empowers the development of true expertise and establishes career paths that will attract the next generation of young talent. Moreover, the advanced technologies of OSINT demand advanced education to meet ever-changing tradecraft challenges.

● Establishes dedicated OSINT funding for people, training, and equipment. 

● Improves the connection between publicly and commercially available information and artificial intelligence and machine learning. Such information is one of the primary sources of data for AI/ML, which are among DoD’s top priorities. 

● Formalizes OSINT jobs. Authorized positions can be filled by OSINT professionals, not ad hoc assignments by non-OSINT intelligence analysts. Credibility as a discipline comes with expertly trained and educated professionals. 

In addition to establishing an OSINT career path, we must also ensure these professionals are empowered with technologies to help them contribute from “Space to Mud.” For example, the Army created six-soldier OSINT cells to support division-level collection and analysis within on-going its Military Intelligence Restructure initiative. To maximize the value, these cells must be enabled with the right technologies and the OSINT architecture must be fully integrated across echelons, the joint community, and coalition forces.

The maturation of game-changing technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning, combined with advances in real-time collaboration with allies and partners, has created an environment where the value of OSINT has never been higher. We must fully elevate, embrace, and integrate OSINT into the overall Intelligence enterprise to stay one step ahead of adversaries in today’s digital age.

Mark Quantock is a retired Army intelligence officer who served as the Director of Intelligence (J2) for U.S. Central Command from 2016-17. In his 37-year career, he served four combat tours in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan – most recently as the Director of Intelligence for U.S. and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan from 2015-16. A retired major general, Quantock is an Executive VP for Babel Street.

David Dillow is the Director, PAI Programs in Sales and Marketing for Babel Street. A career PAI and open-source intelligence expert, he served in the U.S. Air Force with more than 10 years in the special operations community.

McDaniel Wicker is the Vice President of Strategy for Babel Street. A career intelligence professional and foreign policy expert, he has served as a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer and the Asian Security Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.