When Nothing Else Works: US Spies to Use Social Media as Intelligence Tool


Amid heavy criticism of the US intelligence agencies for apparently being caught off-guard by Russia’s sudden campaign in Syria, Foreign Policy magazine reasons that they should probably rely more on what an adversary has to offer – mostly social media sources; the outlet however neglects to mention how misleading this might be.

Senior US lawmakers have recently begun probing possible intelligence lapses over Moscow’s involvement in Syria, concerned that American spy agencies were slow to grasp the scope and intention of Russia’s dramatic military offensive there, Reuters reported earlier in October, quoting some US congressional sources and other officials.

However Foreign Policy magazine claims the run-up to Russia’s intervention “has been documented in a near real-time basis — an almost unprecedented demonstration of the power of open source intelligence”.

#Syria Nusra linked acc. posted pics of Russian made drone & jets flying over Western #Idlib. Huge if true. pic.twitter.com/1xPuUbD9an

— Green lemon (@green_lemonnn) 2 сентября 2015

The outlet does not elaborate however how verified this information was, just quoting some tweets and the LiveJournal posts of some Russian Conflict Intelligence Team, which supposedly “catalogues and analyzes the volumes of open source information”.

The US intelligence community, it says, is now moving to better integrate open source information into its work. CIA Director John Brennan has said improving his agency’s ability to harvest insights from such data is a central aspect of his attempt to overhaul America’s premier spy organization.

“Everywhere we go, everything we do, we leave some digital dust, and it really is difficult to operate clandestinely, much less covertly, when you’re leaving digital dust in your wake,” the magazine quotes Brennan as saying back in April. “Some things now are coming out in social media that our adversaries aren’t aware of, and it’s exposing them.”

In March, Brennan unveiled a major reform plan for the agency, the outlet says, which replaced regional divisions within the CIA in favor of so-called “mission centers” and created a directorate for digital innovation as a way to focus the agency’s work on large publicly available data sets.

That directorate, for example, has absorbed the CIA’s Open Source Center, which had been created to monitor things like Twitter for intelligence insights. The new directorate has broad responsibility not just for IT infrastructure but also for digital tradecraft, which would include making sure neither a Russian intelligence agent nor a Moscow blogger is able to discern the identity of a covert agent because of the mere ubiquity of social media.

“Now, such work must reckon with far more sources, forcing the intelligence community to consider how to validate reports posted on social media.,” the magazine quotes Matthew McInnis, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute as saying.

“How do you discern from soldiers being stupid and putting selfies of themselves on Facebook where troops may be moving?” McInnis asked.

Steve Slick, the director of the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin and a 28-year CIA veteran says that that OSINT (Open source intelligence) still needs to be evaluated and integrated with clandestinely acquired and other non-public information to reach sound analytic judgments.

He cautioned that open source intelligence “will rarely be able to answer the question of why a given decision was taken or reveal the future plans and intentions of a foreign leader.”

Transitioning toward a greater reliance on open source information represents a profound cultural challenge for US spies, the magazine states.

“I don’t know how the community is going to get over this because in some way you are implying a devaluation of the classic intelligence-gathering capabilities of American three-letter agencies,” it quotes McInnis as saying.




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