US Intelligence is only as Good as what goes into it

OPINION — Officers in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)’s Directorate of Operations (DO) have a penchant for action and readiness to serve in any circumstance. DO officers relish challenges, finding solutions to seemingly impossible tasks, and protecting America in the process. Retired DO officers still feel this tug to mission and patriotic duty.

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of the sovereign nation of Ukraine has asked us what we can do to serve our nation and to support democracy in Ukraine. We have likened Vladimir Putin to a modern-day Adolph Hitler: annexing portions of a neighboring nation on a whim, and when the reaction of the rest of the world is muted or absent, the aggressor is emboldened to be even more aggressive. Options to counter this aggression range hugely; all must be informed by accurate information to be effective.

Before we retired, we would often discuss how “the business” was changing with the outsized impact that technology was having on the conduct of espionage, the “second oldest profession.” The fundamentals of tradecraft that we were trained to use in the 80s and 90s, have been in existence as long as the profession of spying and were used by George Washington’s Culper Ring during the Revolutionary War and by the OSS during World War II. It is tradecraft focused on the physical world. The evolution of tradecraft in the later stages of our careers factored in the exponential growth of technology and ubiquitous technical surveillance, incorporating a focus on the digital world. The digital world included data, data processing, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), Natural Language Processing (NLP), and analysis.

As we engage in business in retirement and have some distance from the intelligence mission, we have come to the consensus that data actually is the most critical element of the digital equation, because the quality of output (data plus processing and analytics) is directly proportional to the quality of data used. To put it in the vernacular, “garbage in, garbage out.”

This means that data, of which commercial data is a huge and growing subset, is at the very cornerstone of the digital world. Commercial data or commercially sourced intelligence, CSINT, is already shaping business in the digital world. Some ask why create a new INT? And to that we respond, we don’t need to create it. It is already here and is being used by governments and businesses to edge out the competition.

Why should we care? We should care because right now, we are in the equivalent of a modern arms race to derive meaning and value from CSINT, and those who win that race will achieve strategic advantage. Those who don’t will fail.

Back to Ukraine, CSINT has significant play in everything. Ukrainian military defense operations could have been informed by using CSINT to track the Russian soldiers’ mobile devices that for the last few weeks, were located in Russia and Belarus on the border of Ukraine. Analyzed CSINT could continue to provide insight to Ukraine and its allies to strategically plan deployment of troops and materiel. On the humanitarian side, CSINT can assist relief organizations in understanding areas of crisis and where to position medical, humanitarian and food supplies for maximum impact. More broadly, for Ukraine’s neighbors (Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Moldova, Romania and Hungary), CSINT could bolster analysis and assessments of Russian plans and intentions by filling gaps in the information puzzle.

CSINT has tremendous potential to shape intelligence tradecraft as well, either enhancing or challenging it in every form of intelligence (INT) collection: Human Intelligence (HUMINT), Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), Imagery Intelligence (IMINT), Measurement and Signals Intelligence (MASINT ), and Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT).

It is important to differentiate between OSINT and CSINT because some tend to confuse the terms. OSINT refers to a broad array of information in the public domain that can be accessed by the general public. OSINT consists of information obtained from media, professional and academic records and conferences, government reports, demographics, etc. It is free and available. CSINT is only available to the originator, describes or represents internal commercial activities, and is only acquired through a commercial transaction. It is not free (it is bought and sold), and this data is a valuable commodity to the data owner.


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In terms of shaping intelligence tradecraft, CSINT is a critical component because it allows the data foundation of analysis and decision-making to be more accurate and more complete. In HUMINT, CSINT could provide missing details about an operational target, including location and movement information to business and banking details. Link and pattern analysis fueled by CSINT could provide leads to new streams of SIGINT, IMINT and MASINT collection. CSINT could provide insights to military planners as they ponder the plans and intentions of nations diametrically opposed to the ideals of liberty and freedom. More broadly, CSINT could provide previously unknown, needed, pieces of to solve complex investigations in the supply chain, disinformation, and counter-espionage realms, thereby protecting proprietary information, critical national infrastructure, US secrets and the very puzzle fabric of our precious democracy.

When AI and ML are leveraged to glean insights from commercial data, the output tells the story at an algorithmic level human analysis alone would not have had the capacity to achieve. And that is the power of CSINT.

In addition to enabling intelligence missions, CSINT can help protect US critical national infrastructure, improve US cyber security posture, and aid the Department of Defense in planning and executing every one of their missions. The US and our allies must be proactive in the use of CSINT to enable these missions. CSINT exists whether or not we take advantage of it – failure to understand and ingest CSINT means that it will exist not as an enabler but as a challenge to tradecraft and a challenge to mission in that key insights will be missing from decision-making. The enemies of the US – the enemies of democracy and democratic values ​​– are using commercial intelligence as an enabler in any way that can bolster their strategic advantage.

Remember what we said about garbage? Do we want less than successful missions, aka “garbage out,” to be the result of a failure to understand and adopt CSINT? We think not. It is time to embrace CSINT.

Sharing informed opinions is important. Opinion pieces represent the diverse views of The Cipher Brief audience and do not represent views of The Cipher Brief.

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