US intelligence is only as good as it is

OPINION – Officers of the Operations Directorate (DO) of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) are prone to action and ready to serve in any circumstances. DO officers enjoy challenges, find solutions to seemingly impossible tasks, and protect America in the process. Retired DO officers still feel that sense of mission and patriotic duty.

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of sovereign Ukraine makes us wonder what we can do to serve our country and support democracy in Ukraine. We compared Vladimir Putin to a modern-day Adolf Hitler: he annexes parts of a neighboring country on a whim, and when the reaction of the rest of the world is muted or absent, the aggressor dares to act even more aggressively. There are a lot of options for countering this aggression; everyone must be informed with accurate information in order to be effective.

Before retiring, we often discussed how “business” is changing due to the huge impact of technology on espionage, “the second oldest profession.” The basic trades we were taught in the 80s and 90s have been around for as long as the profession of espionage and were used by George Washington’s Culper Ring during the Revolutionary War and the OSS during World War II. It is a craft that focuses on the physical world. The evolution of craftsmanship in the later stages of our careers has been driven by the exponential growth of technology and ubiquitous technical oversight with 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.

Since we are a retired business and some distance away from an intelligence mission, we have come to the consensus that data is actually the most important element of the digital equation, because the quality of the output (data plus processing and analytics) is directly proportional to the quality of the data used. data. In simple terms, “garbage in, garbage out”.

This means that data, a huge and growing subset of which is business data, is the cornerstone of the digital world. Commercial data or information from commercial sources, CSINT, is already shaping business in the digital world. Some people ask why create a new INT? And to which we answer, we do not need to create it. It’s already here and is being used by governments and businesses to beat the competition.

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

Returning to Ukraine, CSINT plays a significant role in everything. Ukrainian military defense operations could have been informed using CSINT to track the mobile devices of Russian soldiers who have been stationed in Russia and Belarus on the Ukrainian border for the past few weeks. The analyzed CSINT can continue to provide Ukraine and its allies with information for the strategic planning of the deployment of troops and equipment. From a humanitarian perspective, CSINT can help aid organizations understand areas of crisis and where to place medical, humanitarian and food items for maximum impact. More broadly, for Ukraine’s neighbors (Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Moldova, Romania and Hungary), CSINT can contribute to the analysis and evaluation of Russia’s plans and intentions, filling in the gaps in the information puzzle.

CSINT also has great potential to shape the specialization of intelligence, improving or challenging it in all forms of intelligence gathering (INT): human intelligence (HUMINT), signal intelligence (SIGINT), image intelligence (IMINT), measurement and signal intelligence (MASINT) . ) and open source intelligence (OSINT).

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


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From the point of view of the formation of intelligence skills, CSINT is an essential component, since it allows you to make the database for analysis and decision making more accurate and complete. At HUMINT, CSINT can provide missing operational target information, including location and movement information, business and bank details. Link and pattern parsing with CSINT can lead to new data collection streams SIGINT, IMINT, and MASINT. CSINT can provide information to military planners as they ponder the plans and intentions of nations diametrically opposed to the ideals of freedom and liberty. More broadly, CSINT can provide previously unknown, essential pieces of the puzzle to solve complex supply chain investigations, disinformation and counterintelligence, thereby protecting confidential information, critical national infrastructure, US secrets, and the very fabric of our precious democracy.

When AI and machine learning are used to extract information from commercial data, the result tells a story at an algorithmic level that human analysis could not achieve. And this is the strength of CSINT.

In addition to conducting reconnaissance missions, CSINT can help protect critical US national infrastructure, improve the US cybersecurity posture, and assist the Department of Defense in planning and executing each of their missions. The US and our allies must be proactive in using CSINT to carry out these missions. CSINT exists whether we use it to our advantage or not – the failure to understand and accept CSINT means that it will exist not as a means of implementation, but as a challenge to professional excellence and a challenge to the mission, since key ideas will be missing from the decision-making process . The enemies of the United States – the enemies of democracy and democratic values ​​- use commercial intelligence as a means of implementation in any way that can strengthen their strategic advantage.

Remember what we said about trash? Do we want less than successful missions, also known as “garbage dumping”, to be the result of a failure to understand and accept CSINT? We think not. It’s time to take CSINT.

The exchange of informed opinions is essential. Opinions reflect the differing views of The Cipher Brief’s audience and do not represent the views of The Cipher Brief.

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