4 ways to look beyond classified data to combat terrorists

Agencies that fight terrorism have a lingering bias in favor of classified information that dates back at least to the Cold War, according to a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Washington, D.C., think tank has formed a 15-member trusted information network to demonstrate the value of open-source information — from the Internet, TV, newspapers and meetings with people worldwide.

The March report “Open Source Information: The Missing Dimension of Intelligence” argues that despite tactical successes in the war on terrorism, “the larger strategic battle is in serious jeopardy.” Over-reliance on secret information has created an incomplete understanding of the political and religious underpinnings of the struggle and its terrorist manifestations, the three authors state.

After publishing the report, CSIS put together its network and plans to meet in October to assess its progress. Although the government does not direct the project, CSIS hopes to include intelligence agencies in subsequent phases, said Thomas Sanderson, deputy director and a fellow at CSIS’ Transnational Threats Project.

1.Use the information correctly.
“The goal isn’t to find actionable intelligence,” Sanderson said. “It’s to provide context.” Although mining secret information may uncover plots before terrorists can carry them out, information freely available worldwide can help experts develop a better understanding of the enemy’s motives and goals.

Freely available information can offer invaluable context for framing the secret information that intelligence agencies tend to favor, the CSIS report argues. The bias toward putting more weight into secret information obtained through espionage is a holdover from the Cold War and relies on assumptions, Sanderson said.

Open-source information can help explain, for example, why moderate Muslims are not vocally standing against extremists, or it can assist in tracking the expansion of extremist Islam into Europe, according to the report.

2.Understand the role of technology.
Al Qaeda had been using the Internet quietly for years before the 2001 terrorist attacks. The terrorist organization used the Internet in planning its 1998 attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. Now there are more than 4,000 known Web sites, chat rooms and message boards promoting al Qaeda, recruiting new followers and offering a way to exchange information, according to the report.

“The ready availability of sizeable numbers of computer engineers and scientists at the service of transnational terrorism also enables the cyber caliphate to add to its toolkit the ability to send instructions to followers using seemingly innocuous coded messages or more advanced, state-of-the-art encryption techniques,” the CSIS team discovered.

3.Use software tools effectively.
CSIS’ network uses collaboration software — Microsoft Groove, in this case — for communication, including threaded discussions. CSIS takes information that members of the network report, filtering and structuring it to make it useful. Groove’s threaded discussion capability allows CSIS experts to pose questions and generate dialogue among people with varying perspectives to shed further light on issues.

4.Choose participants carefully.
Terrorism experts are not the only people suited to become part of a trusted information network, Sanderson noted. Journalists, academics and consultants — people who frequently travel to regions of the world where useful information is available — are all potentially good choices.

The federal government has been examining the issue, too. According to the CSIS report, intelligence agencies began to draw their own conclusions about open-source information during the same time frame that CSIS was conducting its research. As a result, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte has established a new position, assistant deputy director of national intelligence for open source.

Study finds disregard for open informationThe Center for Strategic and International Studies, in the first phase of a study of how intelligence agencies use information that is freely available, found:

  • Such open-source information is a critical ingredient of proper application of counterterrorism and intelligence collection methods.

  • Agencies fail to recognize that the unbounded forces of terrorism represent a new kind of threat environment.

  • Many people in the intelligence community understand the value of open-source information and experts outside the classified world, but there is no comprehensive program to use those resources.

  • Much of the useful information on global terrorism resides in foreign-language databases and non-American minds, neither of which the United States can reliably access.
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