PERILS IN PLAIN SIGHT
A view to what’s been done and undone since 2005, and might be coming next in the saga of efforts to ensure OSINT is not underutilized in the management of U.S. national security
Strife Policy Papers – Volume 1, Issue 1 (June 2022)
By Michael S. Smith II
This material examines the fate of intelligence reforms following 9/11 that aimed to ensure open source intelligence (OSINT) would not be an underutilized resource in the management of U.S. national security. It is primarily concerned with the unwinding of these reforms by career officials at CIA who clearly opposed them, despite the increased potential utilities for OSINT in the field of counterterrorism in particular during this period. Its primary contributions to policy deliberations are made by illuminating relevant matters that were not among findings enumerated in legislation introduced in the U.S. Congress to justify the proposal to establish a new entity that is envisaged as a purveyor of official OSINT resources. Its primary contributions to intelligence studies literature are made by utilizing primary source research data to help fill gaps in unclassified publications. Sources for this research include current and former senior intelligence officials, policymakers, and policymaking professionals.[i]
Note: When the term policymaker(s) is used herein, it is in reference to presidents of the United States and members of the U.S. Congress. Policymaking professionals refers to members of policymakers’ staffs and other U.S. Government officials who were involved with policymaking initiatives, such as professional Congressional committee staff members and officials with the U.S. National Security Council. This latter term also refers to outside experts whose assistance with policymaking initiatives is commonly sought by policymakers and their staffs and whose contributions extend beyond sharing information acquired from independent research, such as, pursuant to requests for such inputs from policymakers and their staffs, by proposing improvements to existing and development of new policies and national security strategies as part of their participation in official policy-making deliberations. Some of the author’s past and recent work made him a member of this latter category of policymaking professionals.
[i]. All identifiable sources have provided consent for their contributions to the author’s research being referenced in the manners quoted or summarized herein.
About the Author
Michael S. Smith II is an open source intelligence (OSINT) specialist, internationally recognized expert on al-Qa’ida’s and ISIS’ influence operations, and an international consultant in the fields of preventing and countering violent extremism. Since 2009, his work has been at the nexus of strategic and tactical threat analysis, technical mitigation support and the formulation of U.S. national security policies. His counsel has been frequently sought by influential members of the U.S. Congress and officials working in the Executive Office of the President, and his work investigating the activities of al-Qa’ida and ISIS has been covered extensively by major media organizations. From 2019-2021, he served as a lecturer in the MA in Global Security Studies and MS in Intelligence Analysis programs at Johns Hopkins University, for which he developed and taught a course on OSINT. Since 2021, he has been a candidate for the degree of PhD in War Studies at King’s College London, where his research considers OSINT’s utilities in counterterrorism. Mr. Smith received his MA in Intelligence and Security Studies from The Citadel. Additional information about his professional background and a contact form that may be used to reach him is available at his bio website, www.terrorismanalyst.com.
King’s College London bio page: https://www.kcl.ac.uk/people/michael-s.-smith-ii
Ethical approval for the author to conduct primary source research that involves conducting interviews with current and former intelligence officials has been provided by the Research Ethics Office of King’s College London.
All relevant research has been funded by the author alone.
There are no competing interests to declare.
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In an article published in Studies in Intelligence in September 2004, Stephen C. Mercado, who was then one of few vocal open source intelligence (OSINT) advocates at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), expressed concerns about its underutilization, writing: “Our age’s increasingly voluminous [OSINT] sheds light on issues of the day for all-source analysts, covert collectors, and policymakers, but have we done enough to exploit its potential? My short answer is ‘No.’”  Mercado also drew attention to a perspective on OSINT’s utilities in counterterrorism that was not offered in the 9/11 Commission’s final report and has received little attention in security studies literature since: A former officer with CIA’s Directorate of Operations argued that OSINT could be a more effective tool used against a “revolutionary terrorist organization, particularly one structured and manned the way al-Qa’ida is” than covert campaigns focused on acquiring information used to kill and capture leadership figures, which information available in the 9/11 Commission’s final report indicated were among the chief priorities for the Bush administration.  The following year, Mercado drew further attention to persistent biases favoring more discreet intelligence disciplines (INTs) that had resulted in the U.S. Government’s premier espionage agency treating OSINT like an unwanted “stepchild.”
Roughly 16 years later, policymakers in the U.S. Government introduced two pieces of legislation which conveyed a similar sentiment that OSINT remained an underutilized resource in the management of U.S. national security. Although it was amended in the Senate prior to being signed into law by President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., the House’s draft of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022 (NDAA) contained language that reflected interests in addressing longstanding biases throughout America’s national security enterprise favoring various INTs over OSINT; namely: human intelligence (HUMINT), signals intelligence (SIGINT), and geospatial intelligence (GEOINT). The other legislation, which proposed establishing an Open Translation and Analysis Center (OTAC) within the U.S. State Department, reflected an interest in restoring services offered by CIA’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS). FBIS developed basic OSINT products that were tailored to help improve understandings of foreign actors and phenomena of interest to national security managers. Many—not all—of its products were developed to be shareable with more than just intelligence, policymaking, and other government officials; FBIS’ clients for its unclassified products included such nongovernmental entities as academic research institutions and news organizations. However, unless the legislation proposing OTAC’s establishment is revised in the Senate, if OTAC is established, unlike the case with FBIS—which provided coverage of terrorist groups like al-Qa’ida—the matter of whether OTAC will provide coverage of entities designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) by the U.S. State Department will be left at the sole discretion of political appointees; specifically, Secretaries of State. Indeed, this legislation, which was authored and introduced by Congressman Joaquin Castro, would make coverage of hostile state actors, particularly China and Russia, priority areas of OTAC’s work. Given that journalists will be among the envisaged consumers of OTAC’s official OSINT products, if OTAC is established and does not provide coverage of FTOs, this could lead to Americans developing unbalanced or otherwise incomplete perceptions of the threat environment.
As expressions of concerns that OSINT is an underutilized resource in the management of U.S. national security have been a recurrent theme in policymaking deliberations within the U.S. Government since 9/11, it is useful to examine what has occurred since intelligence reforms designed to elevate OSINT were initially implemented within the U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) following 9/11. Indeed, critical, chronological examinations of what occurred during the entire 16-year period following the implementations of those reforms—of which none of great substance had been published prior to the authorship of this paper—can yield important insights of why there have been recurrent efforts made by policymakers since 9/11 to try to ensure OSINT is not an underutilized resource in the management of U.S. national security. Such examinations can also help illuminate issues that are notably absent among legislative research findings enumerated to justify the proposal to establish OTAC.
This brief examination of that long and complex history draws attention to OSINT’s utilities in the field of counterterrorism during a period in which the U.S. Government oriented previously unimaginable resources to combat Salafi-Jihadist groups part of the Global Jihad movement, particularly al-Qa’ida and the al-Qa’ida offshoot that is commonly referred to as ISIS. Although there is a large body of academic literature focused on OSINT, the author was surprised to discover the following in 2019 when he was hired to develop and teach a course on OSINT for Johns Hopkins University’s MA in Global Security Studies and MS in Intelligence Analysis programs: Unclassified scholarly literature focused squarely on OSINT’s utilities in counterterrorism for the USIC was notable by its scarcity. Moreover, few works helped readers gain strong insights of how biases favoring more discreet INTs over OSINT throughout the U.S. national security enterprise may have constrained OSINT’s value in the U.S.-led Global War on Terror that was spearheaded by the Bush administration—much less, the ensuing phases of efforts to mitigate threats linked to Salafi-Jihadist groups during the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump. Also notable is that, apart from several works referenced above and below, there were very few scholarly articles and monographs which provided strong insights of OSINT’s utilities in the management of U.S. national security from the perspectives of either USIC officials or, in the case of this paper’s author, OSINT professionals who possessed professional working knowledge of such matters based on experiences assisting (a) counterterrorism officials involved with the management of threats linked to Salafi-Jihadist groups and (b) policymakers involved with efforts to improve existing and develop new national security policies and strategies. Indeed, in 2019, the challenge of bringing the perspectives of OSINT professionals from the USIC to light was perhaps best illustrated by the contents of a report on OSINT published in 2018 by the RAND Corporation, which tends to enjoy the benefit of deep views into the USIC’s operations. Its authors noted that the role of actual OSINT practitioners in their research was very limited.
By this point, many readers are probably wondering how the author plans to define OSINT. Indeed, like intelligence, a definition of OSINT has been a moving target. Authors of the aforementioned RAND report even asserted that OSINT is now in its “second generation.” The following definition, which the author developed for the aforementioned graduate course, takes into consideration how U.S. Government institutions have defined OSINT, particularly the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s (ODNI) Intelligence Community Directive 301. The following definition also considers notions of what OSINT is that have been shared with the author by USIC personnel who were employed by agencies like CIA on 9/11 and in the years that followed. The author contends that notions of what OSINT is based on (a) U.S. Government documents that provide guidance for the USIC’s operations and (b) interpretations of them by current and former USIC officials comprise the most salient information that may be used to construct a definition of OSINT for use in policy papers and more traditional academic works concerned with official U.S. Government programs and related policy.
As used herein, OSINT is a term that refers to both:
- An intelligence discipline—one emphasizing monitoring and collection (i.e., various activities and methodologies utilized to identify and acquire data of interest to a government, such as searching the Internet for key terms in textual materials, videos produced by FTOs, or images of individuals of interest to counterterrorism analysts) and processing, or exploitation (e.g., translation; analysis) of open source information (i.e., publicly available information that is lawfully acquired) to develop (i.e., production) such OSINT products as reports on an FTO’s propaganda, followed by dissemination of those products to consumers (e.g., briefing them to policymakers; posting them to such websites as OpenSource.gov, a restricted-access site originally used to host products developed by FBIS’ successor, the Director of National Intelligence Open Source Center (DNI OSC; commonly referred to as OSC), that was quietly decommissioned in 2019, or the World News Connection website, which, until December 2013, provided nongovernmental parties fee-based access to some—not all—OSINT products developed by OSC and its partners); and,
- Resultant products (e.g., Archives of reports produced by foreign news services; English-language translations of foreign news organizations’ reports on topics of interest to national security managers and policymakers; archives of FTO propaganda).
For the U.S. Government, raw OSINT, or collected open source information (See further discussion concerning interchangeability of terms below) is generally placed into several categories that help identify its basic characteristics, or attributes, some of which have increasingly overlapped since 9/11. The following feature prominently among them:
- News Media (i.e., materials published in a variety of formats by news organizations);
- Internet-specific Data, a broad category comprising data discoverable in public websites, blogs and social media platforms;
- Public Data, which consists of information made available by governments, ranging from official reports to footage and transcripts of public proceedings, to declassified and unclassified intelligence products;
- Academic and Professional Data (e.g., published manuscripts, journal articles, think tank reports); and,
- Gray Media, a mix of materials, commonly referred to as “gray literature,” that are not typically made available through formal publication channels, such as terrorist propaganda. (Note: The author contends “gray literature” is an archaic term due to the volume of media other than literature comprising this category.)
Here, it is useful to consider that, like more discreet INTs, OSINT is purposeful—it is utilized to help the U.S. Government achieve advantages. These include capabilities to identify, understand—in some cases anticipate—and disrupt or otherwise mitigate threats linked to FTOs. These also include capabilities to understand motives of individuals who may have successfully helped such threats materialize in the form of terrorist attacks (See, for example, the below discussion of evidence discovered by FBI following an attack that occurred in New York while the author was testifying before the U.S. Senate on 31 October 2017). It is also important to clarify that raw open source information identified pursuant to targeted collection activities can itself be considered intelligence once acquired by a government agency or policymaker; specifically, OSINT. This is because, when OSINT collection is targeted versus focused on aggregating massive sets of data, both the tasking for its collection and its acquisition has occurred pursuant to assumptions that the collected data will likely possess specific attributes that are of interest, thus potential utility to policymakers and other decisionmakers in the national security enterprise. Therefore, OSINT and open source information are sometimes used interchangeably by American officials, as, once identified and acquired, open source information that possesses attributes of value to such actors in the U.S. national security enterprise as counterterrorism analysts and policymakers, or decisionmakers in government agencies can be called OSINT.
Given that research outputs produced by nongovernmental entities may become OSINT, the author determined that it was helpful to explain the following while teaching the aforementioned course on OSINT: When independent, or outside terrorism researchers and subject matter experts (SMEs) collect, archive and report on the contents of such publicly available information as, for example, terrorist propaganda found online as part of their work on research projects that are not sponsored or otherwise requested by either U.S. Government agencies or such policymakers as members of Congress, this information is not technically considered OSINT by the U.S. Government until (a) it is acquired by an agency or policymakers and their staffs, and often (b) only after it is determined to contain information of value to government officials. Indeed, as Mercado noted, policymakers can concomitantly play the role of de facto OSINT collectors and consumers.
In cases where policymakers request that outside SMEs develop reports and other resources of interest in their official research activities, such as an unclassified report that the author produced in 2011 on relations between senior al-Qa’ida figures like Saif al-Adl and officials in the Iranian regime’s Qods Force at the request of then-House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) member Congressman Sue Myrick, the author contends that these materials should not be regarded as OSINT until policymakers determine information therein is of value to them and their colleagues. In the case of that report, that such a determination was made is reflected in the decision to distribute it to the approximately 100 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate who comprised the Congressional Anti-Terrorism Caucus, which was chaired by Myrick. Further, that report was later listed among the official source documents consulted by Congressman Jeff Duncan as he authored the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012, which was quietly signed into law by President Barack Obama in December 2012.
Conversely, when the National Security Council staffer tasked with drafting the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy requested the author’s counsel on such topics as countering ISIS’ online recruitment-cum-incitement campaign, his contributions that were not utilized—because imposing regulations on the social media industry was viewed as anathema to President Trump’s stated agenda of cutting regulations in the private sector—would not be considered OSINT. However, as details about those proposed threat mitigation solutions were subsequently sought by Senator Lindsey Graham in the form of prepared expert witness testimony that the author provided for a U.S. Senate hearing focused on opportunities to counter the Government of Russia’s and extremists’ exploitations of American companies’ social media platforms to damage U.S. national security, and as Graham and his staff reviewed them before allowing them to be disseminated to other policymakers and entered into the official record, the author’s proposed threat mitigation measures and accompanying information and analysis could be considered OSINT. In the very least, the author’s prepared testimony and his remarks made during the hearing, as well as his written responses to Questions For the Record (QFRs) sent to him by Senator Dianne Feinstein and other influential policymakers following this hearing, are all now public data, as this information has been published by the U.S. Senate.
Here, it is important to note that some government documents which could be used to teach about efforts in policymaking spheres to ensure that OSINT would not be an underutilized resource for the USIC in the post-9/11 era contain problematic information. An example of this is highlighted in a below discussion concerning the findings of one commission that received an official mandate to evaluate the USIC’s operations and propose intelligence reforms. Its comments concerning “analyst resistance” to OSINT that accompanied recommendations presented to the Bush administration and the public in 2005 certainly did not comport with the realities of CIA’s senior counterterrorism analysts. The following year, a notable example of an entirely defective characterization of official OSINT products that has fueled a prevalent misperception of them was seen in the following text found in the findings of Congress that were enumerated in January 2006 to justify mandating that the Department of Defense develop a strategy for utilizing OSINT: “Open-source intelligence products can be shared with the American public and foreign allies because of the unclassified nature of open-source intelligence.” Contrary to what this suggested, both prior to and in the two decades after 9/11, it was common for official OSINT products that are focused on FTOs like al-Qa’ida and ISIS to be either classified, or otherwise restricted for access to only government personnel and contractors with clearances that may be used to justify a need to review them. Hence one finds that translations of terrorist propaganda are notably scarce among the official U.S. Government-produced OSINT products that were made available to the public through World News Connection. Of course, it was also problematic that, as further discussed below, despite having proposed to establish an OSINT-focused agency, the 9/11 Commission did not even mention OSINT—nor did it provide a single case study to help improve understandings of OSINT’s utilities in counterterrorism within its final report.
It is also important to note that, when the author was developing a syllabus for the aforementioned graduate studies course on OSINT in 2019, there were cases where recent articles published in prominent intelligence studies journals demonstrated that seemingly knowledgeable authors were clearly anything but reliable sources of information or particularly incisive commentaries on work performed by OSINT professionals with the USIC’s premier OSINT enterprise during the two decades following 9/11. A notable example, titled “Open Source Intelligence (OSINT): An Oxymoron?,” was published in 2018 in the venerable International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence (IJIC). Its author, Bowman H. Miller, who was then a teacher at the National Intelligence University (NIU), wrote: “Today, the OSC employs ‘collectors’ of a type radically different from the case officers of the CIA’s clandestine service.” However, technically, OSC no longer existed by this point. As further discussed below, it had been rebranded the Open Source Enterprise (OSE) years prior. This was part of a years-long relegation of the USIC’s premier OSINT program, which began approximately seven years after intelligence reforms that were intended to ensure OSINT would not be underutilized in the management of national security had led to the rebranding of FBIS as the DNI OSC in 2005.
While the scope of more substantive problematic content within Miller’s article is too great to address in full herein, it is useful to consider the following flaws: Miller seems to have been unaware that OSINT collectors at OSE—much as the case with OSINT collectors employed by OSC, and FBIS before it—remained involved with the often-risky business of collecting materials overseas that were produced and distributed by hostile foreign nonstate actors who deliberately kept them offline. Much of that work, which entailed employing foreign nationals to collect sought data, was in many respects analogous to other covert collection programs that have received far greater interest among security studies scholars than OSINT programs. Contrary to what Miller suggested in that article about problems that could arise for USIC personnel who might need to interact with foreign nationals, much like FBIS personnel before them, for OSC/E personnel who ran those operations from OSC/E’s overseas bureaus, interacting with foreign nationals was not a threat to their capabilities to pass polygraph examinations and retain their clearances. Instead, this was part of their job descriptions. Setting aside the fact that it seems Miller may have been unaware those overseas bureaus existed, equally important to consider is that Miller was clearly unaware that OSC/E collectors were tasked with targeting information in the cyber domain that terrorist groups like al-Qa’ida attempted to conceal from intelligence agencies vis-à-vis password-protected websites and, by 2018, invitation-link-only-accessible chatrooms and propaganda broadcasting channels that were created using tools like Telegram Messenger. Contrary to what Miller claimed, OSINT collection in the deep and dark web was not exclusively in the purview of other covert collection programs. Although it was a “gray area” for OSC/E’s operations in the views of CIA’s attorneys who examined the question of whether, for example, propaganda that was not placed in open access, search engine-optimized spaces of the cyber domain should be targeted by CIA’s OSINT collectors, this and similar questions were never decisively answered—thus such collection work continued. Indeed, assuming that Miller, in his capacity as a professor at NIU, had access to OpenSource.gov—the website created by CIA to archive and disseminate, among a wide array of other OSINT products, such raw OSINT items as al-Qa’ida propaganda—it seems Miller had not reviewed many official OSINT products of interest to counterterrorism officials in the USIC and some attentive policymakers. This, or he simply had not paid much attention to notes about the provenances of much digital terrorist propaganda targeted for collection by OSC/E and their partner organizations like BBC Monitoring.
With respect to the availability of scholarly works focused on OSINT’s utilities in the management of U.S. national security that reflect perspectives of either authors or primary sources who possess substantive professional working knowledge of such matters, little has changed since 2019. The dearth of attention given to OSINT’s utilities in counterterrorism for the USIC within more recent academic publications is perhaps best highlighted by the contents of a voluminous Routledge handbook on U.S. counterterrorism and irregular warfare operations that was made openly accessible online in mid-2021. Therein, one finds that the term OSINT is notable by its absence. The single example of explicit attention given to OSINT’s potential utilities in counterterrorism is seen in a chapter that examines lessons learned from “high-casualty” attacks in the U.S. since 9/11. Expanding on findings presented in a report by the Inspectors General of the USIC, CIA, Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security (DHS), its author speculated that, had the preliminary probe of one of the two perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, been allowed to continue, a YouTube account used to promote jihadi videos that openly bore his name as the account’s display name “would likely have been found through open-source searches.” (Ironically, the following chapter is titled “Social Media Recruitment of Americans: a case study from the Islamic State.”)
Indeed, there are many opportunities for researchers to fill gaps and otherwise help to improve problematic impressions of history within unclassified scholarly works focused on both U.S. Government OSINT and counterterrorism programs. Just as much literature about OSINT tends to give students in the growing number of intelligence education programs in the U.S. a sense that OSINT practitioners are exclusively focused on digital data that is discoverable in the cyber domain, 20 years after 9/11, most literature focused on U.S. counterterrorism operations would lead many readers to believe that America’s overseas counterterrorism operations in the post-9/11 era began in Afghanistan. In fact, however, America’s first post-9/11 overseas counterterrorism operation was executed in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Unlike CIA’s first two casualties in America’s war with al-Qa’ida—whose deaths resulting from the attacks targeting U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 were not disclosed by CIA until after Usama bin Ladin’s death in 2011—that piece of history has not been a closely guarded secret. Still, at this writing, much as scholarly works focused squarely on OSINT’s utilities in counterterrorism for the USIC that reflect perspectives of intelligence professionals were notable by their scarcity, the author was unable to find any academic literature that delved into the story of America’s first post-9/11 overseas counterterrorism operation.
The existence of a myriad of opportunities to help improve understandings of OSINT’s utilities in counterterrorism for the USIC was among the reasons why, in 2021, one former CIA Director (DCIA), General David H. Petraeus, PhD, U.S. Army (Ret), encouraged this paper’s author to pursue PhD research that considers this very topic. This paper presents some findings from primary source research conducted through the author’s PhD research project, supervised by faculty in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, which pertains to both how and how effectively the USIC has utilized OSINT in counterterrorism initiatives. (Note: While the author’s PhD research considers the interrelated intelligence and political histories examined herein, it is more focused on such topics as how OSINT has been and could be utilized by counterterrorism professionals to develop such outputs as warning intelligence products.)
In addition to helping fill several important gaps in unclassified scholarly literature that are likely to be of interest to intelligence historians, this paper helps to refine the picture of the effects of persistent biases favoring more discreet INTs over OSINT within the USIC—despite the activities of such FTOs as al-Qa’ida and ISIS having served to increase OSINT’s potential utilities in counterterrorism initiatives during this period. These effects can most easily be seen in the gradual unwinding of post-9/11 intelligence reforms by career officials at CIA who evidently opposed them. Prior to the publication of this paper, that issue had not received significant attention from intelligence studies scholars. Further, by meanwhile drawing attention to tensions that existed between the picture of the threat environment that could be seen in OSINT products and the perceptions of foreign threats which the Obama and Trump administrations, severally, sought to engineer for Americans—or perhaps even encourage them to ignore, in the case of the Trump administration—this paper helps expose an issue that has not received consideration in either unclassified intelligence studies literature or open policymaking deliberations: Being tasked with producing publicly accessible OSINT products can present a conflict of interest for CIA. This is particularly the case when official OSINT products highlight that extraordinarily resource-exhaustive national security initiatives may have failed to produce desired results. While space constraints make it impossible to tell the full story of the rise and decline in the visibility of official OSINT products developed by the USIC since 9/11, information presented herein should make it easy for readers to understand that both (a) resistance to change within CIA—a prominent organizational cultural characteristic identified by Rob Johnston in his exhaustive study published in 2005 concerning issues affecting intelligence analysis within the USIC—and (b) the little-studied aforementioned conflict of interest for CIA can be used to justify the establishment of a robust OSINT program that is managed by an agency other than CIA. Intelligence studies scholars will also recognize that various aspects of interrelated intelligence and political histories examined herein may be used to develop more detailed case studies to support an argument that OTAC should—much like FBIS did—provide coverage of FTOs and other hostile foreign nonstate actors.
The short-lived effects of the WMD Commission’s recommendations concerning OSINT
In its report presented to President George W. Bush in March 2005, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD Commission) amplified the view that OSINT was an underutilized resource in the management of U.S. national security. It recommended establishing an “Open Source Directorate” within CIA. For OSINT professionals at CIA, this commission’s focus on OSINT was a welcomed change from the 9/11 Commission’s final research output that was published in 2004.
In its final report, the 9/11 Commission proposed establishing an “Open Source Agency” (OSA). However, as noted by the late former FBIS official Anthony Olcott in his indispensable book on OSINT, the 9/11 Commission provided Bush, other policymakers and the public no insights of what OSA would do. Indeed, as the term OSINT and any meaningful discussion about its utilities in counterterrorism—thus how OSA could contribute to the war with al-Qa’ida and belligerents among its allies like the Afghan Taliban—were notable by their absences within the 9/11 Commission’s final report, it was hardly a surprise that members of Congress did not express much interest in establishing an OSINT-focused agency. Meanwhile, the inattention to OSINT in the 9/11 Commission’s final report came as a surprise for some at CIA, particularly when considering the attention that the 9/11 Commission drew to a warning presented to President Bush weeks prior to 9/11 with a brief in The President’s Daily Brief (PDB), titled “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US.” The authors of this brief, which drew attention to “patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York,” had exploited a large body of OSINT resources, particularly recordings and transcripts of Usama bin Ladin’s public statements that were being tracked by FBIS, to develop their prescient warning that al-Qa’ida’s founding leader intended to orchestrate terrorist attacks within America’s homeland. That such warnings based largely on analysts’ exploitations of OSINT were not viewed as particularly valuable items among the senior intelligence officials who briefed them to presidents could be seen in the security postures at airports across the U.S. on 11 September 2001. Indeed, in her testimony before the 9/11 Commission, then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice noted that she believed intelligence agencies considered the aforementioned PDB brief “speculative.”
Years before 9/11, evidence there was a sense among some policymaking professionals that creating an OSINT-focused agency might help ensure OSINT was not an underutilized resource in the management of U.S. national security emerged during the hearing to consider President Bill Clinton’s nomination of George Tenet to serve as Director of Central Intelligence (DCI). Then-Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) Vice Chair Senator J. Robert Kerrey broached the topic by asking then-Deputy DCI Tenet if he was aware of conversations about “the possibility of establishing an agency external to CIA that would be organizing and disseminating open source information.” In reply, Tenet advised he was not. During this hearing, Tenet’s comments about where OSINT and FBIS’ operations fit into CIA’s mission—or, perhaps, more accurately, did not fit—also provided useful insights of how leadership figures at CIA were shaping notions that it was prudent to prioritize other INTs over OSINT. Notably, Tenet advised that he did not agree with the view that CIA “has the responsibility” to provide OSINT products to the entire U.S. Government because, as he explained (emphasis added): “I don’t want to be in the position where we lead people to believe that we are going to be the open source repository for the entire Government, or pay to develop that kind of a capability, because quite frankly I don’t—I don’t think we have the money to do it, and I don’t think it’s our mission.” As noted by Mercado, while serving as DCI, Tenet, who went on to play a central role in defining the U.S. Government’s response to 9/11, frequently emphasized his view of CIA’s mission with the following phrase: “We steal secrets.” A notable example is seen in an internally-published interview with editors of CIA’s flagship journal on the intelligence business that was conducted in June 1998, during which then-DCI Tenet remarked: “We steal secrets for a living. … That is at the core, along with the analytic arm of this agency, with why we were put in business.”
It is unclear whether the WMD Commission viewed the inattention that was given in policymaking spheres to the 9/11 Commission’s proposal to establish a standalone OSINT-focused agency, which would be situated in the USIC alongside CIA, as a sign that there was not political will sufficient to make this happen. Information about policymakers’ views concerning the concept of establishing an OSINT-focused agency around the time that the 9/11 Commission published its final report in 2004 is scarce. One rare example of such information emerged a few months after the WMD commission presented its recommendations to President Bush within opening remarks made by Congressman Zoe Lofgren during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing, titled “Using Open-Source Information Effectively”:
It would be … absurd to suggest in noting its historic underappreciation that open-source information is a panacea, that it should be segregated from information acquired from clandestine sources in a separate entity or agency dedicated solely to its collection [and] analysis, a sort of Federal Bureau of Found Objects. That is exactly the sort of intelligent-specific balkanization that the Homeland Security Act seeks to remedy by requiring the [Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate] to generate comprehensive analysis of terrorist threats and U.S. vulnerabilities in order to produce overall risk assessment.
The key is to bring all the available information, regardless of its origin or source, together for comprehensive and expert analysis and then of course get that information to people who need it in real times so that we can act upon it. That was the ultimate lesson of September 11.
In the opening section of text accompanying its recommendation to establish an “Open Source Directorate” within CIA, the WMD Commission advised its members were “convinced that analysts who use open source information can be more effective than those who don’t.” Continuing, the commission advised: “Regrettably, however, the Intelligence Community does not have an entity that collects, processes, and makes available to analysts the mass of open source information that is available in the world today.” Sentences later, the commission noted its belief that “part of the problem” with the underutilization of OSINT was “analyst resistance, not lack of collection.”
Views expressed in this continuing text presented an inaccurate picture. Aside from offering evidence that awareness of FBIS’ position within CIA remained low, this commission’s assertion that intelligence analysts within the USIC were disinclined to utilize OSINT was entirely problematic. That may have been the case with analysts tasked with such intelligence problems as assessing whether the Government of India would pursue the development of nuclear weapons during the late 1990s. However, this was not the case among many analysts tasked with identifying and anticipating threats posed by al-Qa’ida.
Discussing this assertion about “analyst resistance” with the author, Susan Hasler, a former senior CIA counterterrorism analyst who was involved with work focused on al-Qa’ida after 9/11, noted that the only bias she could see among al-Qa’ida analysts which might have affected preferences for information obtained from more discreet programs than OSINT was oriented around convenience of access to data—not notions of one INT generating more valuable data than another. Accordingly, when FBIS stopped producing hard copies of its reports, which had previously been delivered to analysts’ desks daily, this reduced the convenience of utilizing them. In addition, and perhaps counterintuitively, it also became more convenient for Hasler and her colleagues to access data from HUMINT and SIGINT programs targeting al-Qa’ida than to search the Internet for open source information that might contribute to their work. That was because the information technology security protocols in their offices meant they would have to go to other facilities to access the Internet. Despite this suboptimal environmental factor, Hasler insisted that OSINT remained a priority resource among counterterrorism analysts.
Indeed, despite what was being suggested with broad-brushstroke characterizations of intelligence analysts made by politicians and their appointees to these commissions following 9/11, for counterterrorism analysts focused on al-Qa’ida, OSINT’s value had exponentially increased in the years immediately following 9/11. Cynthia Storer, who was CIA’s original al-Qa’ida analyst and a senior counterterrorism analyst by this point, told the author that, after being displaced from their bases in Afghanistan, al-Qa’ida leaders had to produce propaganda and cast a wide net when trying to reach their target audiences, particularly prospective supporters. There were few other safe ways for them to reassure both acquired and prospective supporters that the group had not been entirely dismantled by the U.S. and its allies. This also allowed them to control narratives about the group more so than by conducting interviews with journalists and field researchers, who might either wittingly or unwittingly help intelligence agencies locate them.
Evidence of OSINT’s tactical value in counterterrorism operations during the years immediately following 9/11 can be seen in comments made by former CIA case officer Marty Martin in the documentary “MANHUNT,” which is based on Peter Bergen’s book Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad . In a scene that begins with clips of propaganda and images of leadership figures, including what al-Qa’ida SMEs will recognize as a clip of a video produced by al-Qa’ida’s as-Sahab Media Foundation featuring Abu Yahya al-Libi, Martin, who led the Sunni Extremist Group at CTC prior to 9/11 and then ran its Alec Station unit from 2002-2004, alludes to how al-Qa’ida propaganda was used to identify who would be targeted next after important members of the group were killed or captured:
Congratulations, Abu Butthead. You’re now number three in al-Qa’ida. That’s the good news. The bad news is: You’re now number three in al-Qa’ida. You’d better buckle your chinstrap. Because your career path is probably going to be short-lived.
In the case of al-Libi, who was captured in Afghanistan soon after 9/11, his position within the leadership fold of al-Qa’ida following his escape from a detention facility at Bagram Air Base in 2005 was made visible by his presence in videos attributed to as-Sahab, which produces videos featuring addresses by al-Qa’ida leadership figures. (Killed by a drone strike in June 2012, al-Libi’s death was confirmed by bin Ladin’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a video produced by as-Sahab that was released in September 2012 to commemorate the 11-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.)
With respect to its apparent interests in remedying longstanding biases favoring other INTs over OSINT within the wider USIC, it seems the WMD Commission’s members recognized that creating an OSINT directorate at CIA was unlikely to be a panacea. They called for another step, recommending that “some of the new analysts allocated to CIA be specially trained to use open sources and then to act as open source ‘evange-analysts’ who can jumpstart the open source initiative by showing its value in addressing particular analytic problems.”
On 1 November 2005, pursuant to the WMD Commission’s recommendations and the review of the USIC’s operations conducted by America’s first DNI, John Negroponte, FBIS was superficially bumped up in the USIC’s hierarchy when it was rebranded as the DNI Open Source Center. Here, it is important to note it was reported, months earlier, that “one of the champions” of OSINT was Negroponte’s chief of staff during this review, David R. Shedd. Shedd later served as Deputy DNI for Policy, Plans and Requirements (2007-2010) and then Deputy (2010-2014), followed by Acting (2014-2015) Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).
As noted by OSC’s original director, Douglas J. Naquin, although it nominally possessed a broader remit as a USIC “center,” OSC remained organizationally within CIA and had no more people or money on 1 November 2005 than it had the day prior as FBIS. That an infusion of financial resources had not accompanied the establishment of this “center” was somewhat surprising. Congress had conveyed interest in its establishment. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevent Act of 2004 notes that it was the “sense” of Congress that the DNI “should establish an intelligence center for the purpose of coordinating the collection, analysis, production, and dissemination of open-source intelligence to elements of the intelligence community.” In correspondence with the author, Naquin noted that it was not until January 2006 that OSC received an influx of funds that had been earmarked for FBIS by the Office of Management and Budget, but this had nothing to do with the creation of OSC. He added that, in 2006, OSC did receive “modest funds from the ODNI for Community/Defense/Law Enforcement training and a larger funding pot for data procurement for the same community.”
It was also not until General Michael Hayden, U.S. Air Force (Ret)—who had spearheaded the creation of OSC as Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence—became DCIA in 2006 that OSINT was truly elevated. This occurred when OSC was moved from the Directorate of Science and Technology at CIA to the DCIA’s Office. However, this structural adjustment proved temporary. Indeed, while it may have seemed to some that the public announcement of OSC’s establishment would have stimulated broad interest in OSINT across the U.S. Government, challenges remained for OSINT “evange-analysts” to contend with. (That it has taken more than two decades for information about OSINT’s utilities in the development of the prescient warning about bin Ladin’s intentions to orchestrate attacks in the U.S. that was briefed to President Bush weeks before 9/11 to emerge vis-à-vis the author’s PhD research project highlights another challenge for OSINT “evange-analysts” during this period: There was a dearth of literature focused squarely on OSINT’s utilities in counterterrorism that contained case studies which could be used to help inform policymakers’, their staffs’, active and aspirant national security professionals’, as well as the general public’s understandings of how OSINT has and could be used to manage threats linked to terrorist groups like al-Qa’ida.)
Initially, OSC was graded on how well it facilitated or enabled exploitation of open source information in agencies other than CIA, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and DHS. Lofgren, who would later serve on the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, was particularly concerned that DHS was not effectively utilizing OSINT. In a bill introduced in March 2006 that proposed amending the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to mandate OSINT’s “full and efficient use,” Lofgren and some of her colleagues presented the following among their findings (emphasis added): “With the ‘information revolution,’ the amount, significance, and accessibility of open-source information has expanded significantly, but the Department of Homeland Security has not expanded its exploitation efforts and systems to produce open-source intelligence.”
Naquin shared several examples with the author of this paper of what also happened pursuant to the WMD Commission’s recommendations. The following—most of which have received little coverage in security studies literature—were among them:
OSC set up and provided training in Open Source familiarization and “tradecraft” to the entire IC, Defense, and Law Enforcement communities. Thousands of people in the IC, Defense, and Law Enforcement were trained in OSC’s first five years;
OSC forward-deployed Open Source specialists to numerous IC and government agencies, including to all the combatant commands (in collaboration with DIA);
We upgraded the infrastructure supporting OpenSource.gov and expanded access so all USG employees and contractors had access to all unclassified OSC- and partner-produced open source products;
We brokered and executed millions of dollars in large data procurements (e.g., Lexis-Nexis) on behalf of IC agencies, including FBI and DHS;
We brokered and covered the overhead for contracts for specific Open Source capabilities and made these capabilities available to other agencies for tasking to meet their unique needs;
We partnered with DIA and FBI on re-purposing a DIA collection site in the Middle East;
In collaboration with the Office of the DNI, we established, chaired, and executed governance of an IC-wide National Open Source Committee that established common strategies, policies, and priorities, including decisions on DNI-funded data procurements; and,
CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence separately established its own “Open Source Works” in response to the WMD Commission’s recommendation on providing “Open Source evange-analysts.”
Despite all of this, what ensued did not fully align with the spirit of the WMD Commission’s recommendations. They conveyed the sense that increasing awareness both of the availability of OSINT products and their utilities in the management of national security could help mitigate the effects of longstanding biases favoring other INTs. Yet, in the war with al-Qa’ida that remained a centerpiece of U.S. national security concerns a decade after 9/11, biases favoring other INTs that were better suited to help collect information al-Qa’ida leaders wanted to conceal held sway. Ironically, the rise of the Internet and social media in particular increased OSINT’s potential utilities in counterterrorism, as al-Qa’ida members’ online activities demonstrated the group was keen to harness new tools in the cyber domain to expand its capabilities to both accrue support and orchestrate attacks in the West.
Discussing resource allocations for OSINT, in a 2013 interview published by IJIC, Naquin noted he “never observed a willingness during high-level budget discussions to trade even small pieces of more traditional intelligence capabilities for investment in more comprehensive collection and analysis of open sources.” He added: “It’s not that such a scenario is inconceivable; it would just represent a major paradigm shift for the [USIC]. Such a trade would be a bellwether in the evolution of Open Source as an intelligence discipline.”
There were also other problems for OSINT “evange-analysts.” Naquin said that it “seemed to us on more than one occasion that people who had never worked in Open Source were taken more seriously on matters of Open Source exploitation, even though they knew very little about what was being done or the resource and requirements environment in which we worked.” Part of the problem was that few senior officials had backgrounds in OSINT. Hence, they were receptive to guidance presented by parties with little professional working knowledge of OSINT’s utilities for the USIC.
Meanwhile, another challenge for OSINT “evange-analysts” was the low interest in OSINT among top intelligence officials. Naquin told the author that in the last 20 years of his career with CIA, aside from Hayden, Petraeus was the only other DCIA who seemed particularly interested in OSINT. Petraeus, who had guided military operations against al-Qa’ida and affiliated elements in the Middle East and Afghanistan, was attentive to both evolving threats linked to the Salafi-Jihadist movement and ways OSINT could be utilized to help manage them. “Petraeus wanted to raise OSC’s profile,” Naquin told the author, adding: “but I never sensed the institution underneath him shared the sentiment.” Indeed, subsequent events highlighted below demonstrated that it did not.
By the time Petraeus was nominated to lead CIA in 2011, a sea change in al-Qa’ida’s external operations had become clear. In 2010, al-Qa’ida’s branch in Yemen launched an English-language ezine, titled Inspire, which was tailored to help the group orchestrate attacks in the West. In the first issue, this ezine’s cocreators, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, published a how-to feature story titled “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom.” One matter that received little coverage by major news organizations covering the launch of Inspire was that, within this new online incitement tool, al-Awlaki and Khan provided more than just email addresses that could be used by al-Qa’ida enthusiasts to contact them; they published a four-page tutorial on how to use an encrypted communication program to more securely communicate with them. (Indeed, “going dark” was a problem that counterterrorism professionals were dealing with long before the rise of ISIS.)
It was also clear that domestic-focused components of the USIC, particularly FBI and DHS, were struggling with questions of how OSINT could be utilized to prevent and counter violent extremism. That al-Qa’ida was attentive to this is made evident by an article Khan published in the second issue of Inspire. Prior to his departure from the United States for Yemen in October 2009 to join forces with al-Awlaki, Khan ended up on a terrorism watchlist because of his blog posts. As he noted in Inspire, this did not stop him from joining al-Qa’ida:
Throughout my experience of traveling from America to Yemen, I was expecting to be stopped and detained. But the most trouble I went through—if it’s even considered trouble—was that it took thirty minutes extra to get my boarding pass in North Carolina since, as the receptionist told me, I was being watched. It still surprises me when I reflect on it; I mean, I was quiet [sic] open about my beliefs online and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that I was al Qaeda to the core.
Indeed, Khan’s support for al-Qa’ida was both so obvious and alarming that then-Congressman Sue Myrick, who represented the area of North Carolina in which Khan resided, had contacted FBI to express concerns about his online activities. Reflecting on this matter, Myrick told the author, “When he was in Charlotte, working out of his parents’ basement, he changed servers constantly, used foreign ones, so they could never charge him.” Myrick added: “It was a total screw up by the FBI.”
Soon after Petraeus became DCIA in 2011, al-Awlaki and Khan were killed in a drone strike in Yemen. Following their deaths, evidence that al-Qa’ida’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, assumed there was profit to be had from their model of engagement with prospective aspirant terrorists in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West over the Internet was seen both in the continued publication of Inspire and al-Qa’ida’s expanded use of social media. Notable results produced by this program came to include the aforementioned Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, whose perpetrators turned to the first issue of Inspire for instructions on how to produce their bombs, and the 2015 attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. A victim of the latter attack was featured in a hit list published in another issue of Inspire beforehand.
What had also changed greatly by September 2011 was the visibility of OSINT products developed by OSC in policymaking spheres. Rather than increasing, their visibility had decreased. OSC became more “extroverted,” as Naquin put it in the 2013 interview, with its engagements with federal entities outside of CIA. Yet it seems CIA officials who briefed policymakers were handicapping the capabilities of OSINT “evange-analysts” to grow awareness of their work within policymaking spheres.
OSC’s lack of visibility in policymaking spheres became clear to Petraeus when then-SSCI Chair Senator Dianne Feinstein expressed interest in learning more about what the USIC was doing with OSINT. Apparently, CIA was not proactively bringing OSC products to the attention of Senator Feinstein and other influential members of Congress. Petraeus shared with the author that he promptly arranged for Naquin to brief Senator Feinstein and other Congressional leaders on OSC’s status and capabilities. Naquin told the author that he also briefed another SSCI member, Mark Warner, and then-HPSCI Chair Mike Rodgers during this period.
For several reasons, Petraeus was surprised the visibility of OSC products for these influential policymakers was so low. OSC had been at the forefront of collection on both Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009 and, in 2011, the Arab Spring, actively monitoring and reporting on foreign social media sites. In 2007, OSC had created a new division that was dedicated to developing methodologies and policies around “emerging media,” which, according to Naquin, “positioned OSC for the explosion in social media.” Featured prominently among the data targeted by OSC collectors were local news reports from the Middle East and North Africa, as well as social media posts. Most—if not all—local news organizations were publishing their reports online and open source social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook were increasingly popular in these regions.
A former FBIS official who was mentoring OSC’s Middle East analysts at the time told the author that a majority of the revolutionary activism in Egypt was coordinated on popular social media platforms. The implications of young Islamists’ roles in the online and offline activism were evident to outside SMEs who were tracking Muslim Brotherhood youth members’ social media posts. In 2011, the author organized a private briefing in Charleston, S.C. for Congressmen Myrick and Duncan so that one of his colleagues could brief them on his research. The findings of which indicated Islamists were more likely to define near term political dynamics in Egypt than “moderates” or secularists who might advocate for a democratic system that was more similar to what was promoted by the West.
In 2011, OSC was also tracking the increased threats linked to al-Qa’ida that were emanating from the cyber domain, including on popular social media platforms managed by American companies. This issue received a great deal of interest in policymaking spheres following the terrorist attack at Fort Hood in November 2009, which was perpetrated by a fan of al-Awlaki’s blog and YouTube posts. This issue received yet more interest in policymaking spheres following the launch of Inspire in mid-2010, which was widely reported on by major news media.
Here, it is useful to consider that, weeks after bin Ladin was killed in May 2011, the Obama administration expressed the following outlook in a new National Strategy for Counterterrorism: “the transformational changes sweeping North Africa and the Middle East—along with the death of Usama bin Laden—has further diminished the nature of the terrorist threat, particularly as the relevance of al-Qa’ida and its ideology has been further diminished.” However, changes taking place during the Arab Spring soon reinforced arguments made years prior by CIA’s original al-Qa’ida analyst, Cynthia Storer, and other counterterrorism analysts that it was necessary to pursue a more robust approach to combating al-Qa’ida than one emphasizing the targeting of group members vis-à-vis lethal and other repressive measures. Storer and her colleagues had harnessed OSINT and other intelligence resources to develop “The Ziggurat of Zealotry.” This was a guidebook for identifying and countering how al-Qa’ida and other Salafi-Jihadist groups were radicalizing prospective new supporters. It contained the USIC’s original model for the study of radicalization.
Evidence that events during 2011 triggered a sense among some officials in the USIC that more needed to be done to try to disrupt al-Qa’ida’s capabilities to recruit new members—not just target the group’s leaders with drone strikes and kill/capture missions—can be seen in OSC products. For example, OSC coproduced, with the State Department’s newly established Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), a report released in September 2011 examining the master narratives used by al-Qa’ida in its propaganda to build and reinforce support, which was intended to be a tool for counter-influence operations aiming to disrupt al-Qa’ida’s capabilities to radicalize, recruit, and persuade sympathetic consumers of its propaganda to resort to violence in furtherance of its cause.  This report was developed with input from several outside SMEs working in academe.
Indeed, statements issued by bin Ladin’s successor, al-Zawahiri, and other propaganda indicated al-Qa’ida was undeterred in its resolve to wage a global jihad by bin Ladin’s death, which did not immediately diminish the growth potential of al-Qa’ida’s international network. For OSINT specialists who were focused on threats posed by al-Qa’ida, both al-Zawahiri’s addresses and foreign news media reports from North Africa indicated that al-Qa’ida was poised to capitalize on, perhaps even shape changes taking place in Libya and Egypt. This picture was presented to members of Congress in a lengthy report prepared by the author late in 2011 at Myrick’s request, titled “A View to Extremist Currents in Libya.”
In North Africa, al-Qa’ida-linked individuals were turning up in public, including prominent figures wanted by the U.S. who fled to Iran following 9/11. Notable among them was an al-Qa’ida member from Libya known as Anas al-Libi. For his involvement with the 1998 East Africa Embassies plot, the U.S. State Department’s Rewards for Justice program had issued multi-million-dollar rewards for information that could be used to locate al-Libi, advertisements for which were amplified by FBI on its website. In September 2011, small foreign news organizations reported that al-Qa’ida was preparing to announce its presence in Libya and al-Libi was the group’s chief liaison with local likeminded militias. This was later mentioned in the a report titled “Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile,” which was published by the Library of Congress several weeks before the attack targeting Americans at the special diplomatic compound in Benghazi on 11 September 2012. (Al-Libi was eventually captured in Tripoli and brought to the U.S. in 2013—more than a year after CNN reported he was living openly in the city.)
Early in 2012, al-Qa’ida also overtly welcomed its Somalia-headquartered East Africa ally, al-Shabaab, into the group’s fold. Also notable was that a video released to announce the establishment of a new jihadist group in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, indicated that al-Qa’ida was interested in attaining a leadership role in the civil war that had erupted there. Although its affiliation with al-Qa’ida was not explicitly conveyed in this video, for OSINT analysts who were investigating jihadists’ online activities, al-Nusra’s relationship with al-Qa’ida was made obvious by the fact that the video had been posted to a website managed by al-Qa’ida-linked individuals that was used to promote official propaganda produced by al-Qa’ida and its various branches.
Naquin left OSC in February 2012. Reflecting on his three decades of work as an OSINT professional at CIA, he told the author: “I never met a customer in the analytic realm, or even in the clandestine ranks, who wasn’t a fan. They might have wanted more, or something different, but they were almost all fans.”
As performing anticipatory analysis vis-à-vis production of intelligence estimates is among CIA’s and other intelligence agencies’ core functions, it is important to note that many OSINT “evange-analysts” like Naquin and Olcott have insisted OSINT can be a valuable tool in anticipatory analysis of threats linked to foreign actors. This is particularly the case when OSINT is utilized by SMEs to try to understand what an adversary is planning. “Context is everything,” Naquin said in the above referenced 2013 interview, noting: “I agree with [Olcott] that the odds to assess and anticipate events from publicly available information are better, but only in the hands of people who can navigate these data successfully with the appropriate discipline and context.”
All-source counterterrorism analysts like Storer agreed that OSINT could be a valuable resource for anticipatory analysis initiatives, particularly when utilized by SMEs. Yet it seems more senior officials believed that emphasizing data acquired utilizing other INTs was the best way to prove CIA’s value to policymakers. This certainly helped justify expenditures on expensive covert programs, high-tech surveillance systems and lethal remotely piloted aircraft platforms, commonly referred to as drones used to kill the likes of al-Awlaki.
Naquin told the author that archiving and translating “gray literature,” had become a growing business area for OSC by the time of his departure. However, terrorist propaganda was not normally of urgent interest to a director or policymaker. That was because, according to various former officials who have spoken with the author about this issue, most of them rarely viewed it as current and operational intelligence.
Indeed, OSINT products like translations of al-Zawahiri’s addresses and other al-Qa’ida propaganda presented a vastly different picture of threats posed by al-Qa’ida than the one offered in the introduction to the National Counterterrorism Strategy. Meanwhile, foreign news reports tracked by OSC demonstrated al-Qa’ida’s capacity to influence events part of the Arab Spring was growing. Yet, while campaigning for reelection, Obama issued the following remarks and then amplified them via tweet (emphasis added): “The war in Afghanistan is ending. Al Qaeda is on the run. And Osama bin Laden is dead.” It seems that either the president’s briefers had not acclimated the president with the picture that was readily available to OSINT professionals, or OSINT presented an inconvenient truth. One that perhaps the president was hoping covert operations and his widening use of drones to target terrorists might erase in the near term. A year earlier, in a discussion with senior aides about his administration’s expanded use of drones to target al-Qa’ida members, Obama quipped, “Turns out, I’m really good at killing people.”
As the terrorist threat grew, visibility of official OSINT products further declined
Following Naquin’s retirement, OSINT’s potential utilities for both policymaking initiatives that defined and provided guidance for counterterrorism missions and the agencies with mandates to execute those missions only became greater. Conflict in Syria evolved into a major jihad theater and became a key driver in a surge of support for the Salafi-Jihadist movement, which realized a doubling of membership in groups like al-Qa’ida and its various branches, including the one now known as ISIS. Groups active in the Syrian Jihad were utilizing open source social media platforms in ways that increased the volume of open source information which could be used to help identify and manage threats posed by them, as well as their supporters in the West. However, evidence of a concerted effort to roll back intelligence reforms intended to increase the visibility of official OSINT products soon emerged.
In December 2013, OSC closed its feed to World News Connection’s subscription services, cutting off access to many OSC products for journalists and academic researchers who lacked access to OpenSource.gov. Additionally, it seems that, following the removal of the prestigious DNI label from its name within a year of Naquin’s retirement, CIA curtailed much of OSC’s “extroverted” approach to engagements with other agencies.
In December 2014, sensing that outside experts could play an important role in combating ISIS, Senator Lindsey Graham arranged for the author and former DIA Director Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn, U.S. Army (Ret) to meet with President Obama’s special envoy to the newly established Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, General John R. Allen, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret), and discuss both threats posed by ISIS and opportunities to more effectively counter them.  ISIS’ capabilities to build and reinforce support online were among Allen’s chief concerns. Yet it soon became evident that CIA was not proactively presenting the Obama administration’s chief counter-ISIS official and his staff OSC products that could be used to improve their understandings of ISIS’ powers of persuasion. In the weeks that followed, an assistant to Allen expressed gratitude for the author’s spot reports on ISIS’ social media activities and propaganda, noting that their office, which was situated within the State Department, was not receiving as regularized analysis of those matters from within the U.S. Government.
By mid-2015, for OSINT professionals, there were growing indicators ISIS was using its propaganda to set expectations for its terrorism operations in the West that the group’s leaders were confident they could meet or exceed. Attacks were increasingly being perpetrated in the West by people who were in contact with ISIS members located in Syria. They appeared to be timed to correspond with the releases of propaganda containing calls for attacks in certain countries. There was, however, also evidence that senior figures in the USIC were inattentive to these indicators. Just after ISIS members trained in Syria mobilized a mass-casualty attack plot in Paris, France, in November 2015, an example of the deleterious effects of reduced visibility for OSINT products in senior echelons of the USIC was seen in comments about ISIS’ propaganda issued by then-FBI Director James Comey. As noted in a tweet on FBI Washington Field Office’s official Twitter feed, according to Comey, ISIS propaganda was “not a credible source of intelligence.”
For OSINT professionals examining ISIS’ online activities, this was a remarkable statement when considering that the Paris plot unfolded following a steady stream of threats issued against France within official ISIS digital propaganda. The group had even launched a French-language ezine, titled Dar al-Islam, to enhance its efforts grooming aspirant terrorists located in France online. Furthermore, early in 2015, ISIS had published a story in its higher profile ezine titled Dabiq that was focused on the important role one of the eventual Paris plot participants, a Belgian recruit named Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was playing in the organization of ISIS’ external operations program in Europe. When that article was published, Abaaoud had just returned to Syria from Europe, where he had been the target of an international manhunt due to his role orchestrating a disrupted plot in Belgium.
The USIC was involved with that failed manhunt in Europe. Therefore, by November 2015, Comey and others at FBI were certainly aware that ISIS’ leadership was using the group’s stable of recruits from Europe, who were being trained in Syria, to try to perpetrate attacks in the West while portraying some of them as exemplars of the global jihadist cause in propaganda. Perhaps Comey was more interested in ways that digital trails that the likes of Junaid Hussain and other ISIS cyber operatives were leaving for OSINT analysts on Twitter could be used to locate them in Syria (as further discussed below) than what could be gleaned from the group’s propaganda that might also be useful in countering threats linked to ISIS.
Late in 2015, another important signal that CIA did not intend to increase visibility for OSINT products emerged with the relegation of OSC. During a CIA-wide reorganization under DCIA John Brennan, OSC was renamed the Open Source Enterprise and resituated in the new Directorate for Digital Innovation. It seems some influential officials working in other intelligence programs may have felt threatened by the word center in its name. Ten years prior, rebranding an “Information Service” as a “Center” conveyed that OSINT would play a more important role in CIA’s operations—one that could enhance OSINT professionals’ capabilities to compete for budgetary resources.
Given the increased barriers to access placed on official OSINT products during the Obama presidency, including even basic translations of foreign news media reports, it seems important to consider that Ben Rhodes, a campaign speechwriter who later served as Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, noted during an interview with New York Times Magazine in 2016 that it had become easy for the administration to paint obfuscatory pictures of foreign threat sources when it suited the president’s agenda:
All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus. Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.
In this profile focused on how Rhodes “rewrote the rules of diplomacy for the digital age,” the Times highlighted President Obama’s Iran policy agenda was sold using a broad mix of spin about a long-sworn enemy of the U.S. Missing from that story was discussion of the fact that, according to the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Terrorism (strategic OSINT products), Iran remained a leading state sponsor of terrorism and unwilling to help bring to justice senior al-Qa’ida members located within its borders when Obama’s deal with the regime was inked. (Here, it seems useful to consider that, in 2009, Obama’s original DCIA, Leon Panetta, signaled that improving understandings of the relationship between senior al-Qa’ida figures who fled to Iran following 9/11 and powerful figures in the regime was not a priority for the administration when he ended a CIA program focused on monitoring al-Qa’ida leaders who found refuge in Iran, codenamed RIGOR. It seems this program was the fruit of the 9/11 Commission’s determination that the relationship between senior al-Qa’ida figures, officials in the Iranian regime and their proxies in Lebanese Hizballah “requires further investigation.”)
Based on the account of history presented with the Times’ profile of Rhodes, it is evident that the Obama administration’s strategy for building support for a shift in U.S.-Iran relations revolved around Rhodes and his deputy Ned Price, a CIA intelligence analyst and spokesperson assigned to Obama’s National Security Council, encouraging major news organizations to emphasize opinions and analyses offered by a select group of outside experts to help advance and defend the president’s agenda versus presenting an objective picture of the threat environment and hostile foreign actors. Rather than borrowing from the Bush administration’s playbook of using defective intelligence to sell a plan to go to war in the Middle East, the Obama administration seized upon low levels of subject matter expertise with hostile foreign actors in major news organizations to create “an echo chamber,” as Rhodes put it, that helped sell the top priority part of Obama’s foreign policy agenda: Implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
While Rhodes candidly acknowledged this was part of the Obama administration’s playbook, he also said the prospects of another administration running this “same kind of far-reaching spin campaign,” as the interviewer put it, scared him. Indeed, this was anathema to values reflected in longstanding traditions in the U.S. In theory, public debate emphasizing facts, particularly those assembled by the USIC—not just pundits’ opinions that are repeated so frequently as to be treated as facts—is supposed to inform important foreign policy decisions in the U.S. Government. In practice, however, the Obama administration was sailing the U.S. to a “post-truth” paradigm of national security policymaking.
Meanwhile, there was evidence members of Congress were concerned about the implications of low visibility for official OSINT products, particularly those that provided windows into ISIS members’ activities, which were being rigorously documented in its propaganda. During a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, titled “Countering the Virtual Caliphate: The State Department’s Performance,” while addressing then-Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard A. Stengel, Congressman Jeff Duncan contrasted the pace with which Kronos Advisory, a company (closed in 2017) cofounded by the author and Major General James E. Livingston, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret), was able to report information about ISIS’ activities online to members of Congress and various government agencies with the comparatively slower reporting from the State Department’s new Global Engagement Center (GEC), a rebranded CSCC:
What I am concerned with, Mr. Under Secretary, is that we are not being effective. And the reason I say that[:] there are groups like Kronos Advisory, which is a private enterprise looking at global terrorism and they are monitoring not only social media, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, you name it. They are also monitoring the dark web which I don’t know that that element of the dark web and encryption has been brought up today, but ISIS is becoming a lot smarter. Social media is an easy way to attract those recruits. The communication is happening beyond the normal person’s purview, not happening on Twitter.
So when I see a group like the one I just mentioned, a private group who can inform me as a Member of Congress and elements within the US Government’s intelligence service a lot faster about what they see on Twitter, what they pick up on social media than these alphabet agencies, I wonder how effective we are as a big government that is so seemingly disconnected.
Duncan’s comments highlighted two of OSINT’s theoretical attributes that can make it especially valuable for some counterterrorism practitioners and policymakers: Speed and, depending on the producer, shareability. (In an article published in Studies in Intelligence, Mercado identified speed as being among the most valuable features of OSINT.) More importantly, Duncan’s comments highlighted a larger problem: OSINT products developed by CIA were not being as widely utilized to improve awareness of threats linked to the Salafi-Jihadist movement as they could have been. This was anathema to the spirit of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations that aimed to curtail stove-piping tendencies in USIC-member agencies. Both low visibility and reduced shareability of OSE-managed products—due to many of them having been classified or categorized as Sensitive But Unclassified and marked For Official Use Only—resulted in other organizations like GEC trying to duplicate work performed by OSINT professionals at CIA so that resultant products could be more broadly shareable. The results, however, were not desirable in the eyes of some policymakers.
For attentive counterterrorism professionals and terrorism analysts, particularly ISIS SMEs, in 2016, there were other obvious problems that deserved attention from policymakers. As noted below, by this point, some FBI personnel had developed strong proficiencies with identifying who was helping amplify narratives on social media platforms that were tools part of ISIS’ remarkably persuasive efforts to orchestrate attacks in the West—and then using that information to collect more data that was converted into tools to help locate them. Yet there was evidence other FBI personnel were not making a maximal effort to harness OSINT to develop subject matter expertise with FTOs like ISIS.
This latter issue became apparent to some ISIS SMEs following the bombings in New Jersey and New York that were perpetrated by Ahmad Khan Rahami in September 2016. At the time of his arrest, Rahami was carrying a journal. Therein, he referred to several well-known Salafi-Jihadist figures while writing about his decision to perpetrate these attacks. Specifically mentioned as sources of inspiration and guidance were bin Ladin, al-Awlaki and Abu Mohamed al-Adnani. Photos of the journal’s contents were soon published by The New York Times.
For ISIS SMEs, that Rahami was an ISIS supporter was evident based on his reverential references to the group and its then-deceased spokesman, al-Adnani, which an al-Qa’ida enthusiast almost certainly would not have done, given the rivalry between the groups. However, from the criminal complaint prepared the day following Rahami’s arrest by an FBI special agent who was assigned to a Joint Terrorism Task Force, it is clear investigators misinterpreted Rahami’s references within his journal to bin Ladin and al-Awlaki as evidence he was an al-Qa’ida supporter. Therein, there is no reference to ISIS. Clearly, officials managing this case were not aware that, in its propaganda, ISIS had appropriated the mantles of prominent deceased al-Qa’ida figures like bin Ladin and al-Awlaki while claiming bin Ladin’s successor had deviated from his strategy for restoring a caliphate. Further, in the Department of Justice’s announcement that Rahami had been indicted in Manhattan weeks later, there was again no reference to ISIS. It eventually became clearer that Rahami was indeed an ISIS supporter following his incarceration, after investigators determined that he and another inmate were engaged in a scheme to “aggregate and distribute” ISIS propaganda in prison. (Note: Readers who may wish to characterize this analysis as “Monday morning quarterbacking” are encouraged to review the dates on the above referenced briefing that the author delivered at New America and the date of the final item referenced in this paragraph.)
As the Obama presidency ended, perhaps in an effort to reassure the public it had achieved results in its counter-ISIS operations of the kind many Americans seemed to find desirable—given that the candidate who vowed to “bomb the shit out of em” had just been elected to serve as president—FBI shared information with journalists about how its OSINT monitoring and collection activities enabled lethal operations targeting ISIS members. Published by The New York Times, one story described a “secretive campaign that has largely silenced a powerful voice that led to a surge of counterterrorism activity across the United States in 2015 as young men and women came under the influence of [ISIS] propaganda.” It highlighted that, by tracking the online activities of Junaid Hussain, a British national who was using popular social media platforms like Twitter to help ISIS incite violence in the West, FBI gathered data that was used to locate and kill him in Syria. (Note: The term OSINT was notable by its absence in this article.)
The Trump administration’s OSINT dilemma
For several reasons, it was surprising the Trump administration did not elevate the visibility of official OSINT products, particularly those focused on Salafi-Jihadist groups. At least initially.
President Donald J. Trump’s original National Security Advisor, General Flynn, was once an advocate for increasing OSINT’s utilities in counterterrorism. In the conclusion of a widely-read paper that was published while he was serving as Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence in Afghanistan, titled “Fixing Intel,” Flynn and his coauthors asserted:
The Cold War notion that open-source information is “second class” is a dangerous, outmoded cliché. Lieutenant General Samuel V. Wilson, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, captured it perfectly: “Ninety percent of intelligence comes from open sources. The other 10 percent, the clandestine work, is just the more dramatic. The real intelligence hero is Sherlock Holmes, not James Bond.”
Also important to consider is that OSINT products could have been used to justify a more aggressive and comprehensive campaign aiming to “knock the hell out of ISIS,” as Trump claimed he would do as a candidate. One that might have diminished the group’s capacity to persuade its supporters to perpetrate attacks in the West by denying ISIS capabilities to project an image of strength and durability through its operations far beyond Iraq and Syria that were documented in daily reports attributed to its Amaq Agency news service and media offices in ISIS’ so-called wilayat (provinces) located outside of the Levant. Indeed, since 2014, ISIS had used its propaganda to emphasize the group’s operational footprint was rapidly expanding beyond the Middle East.
As the author highlighted early in 2017 while serving as the keynote speaker for a counterterrorism practitioners conference hosted by the Global Coalition at the then-named United Kingdom Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s headquarters in London: Efforts to disrupt ISIS’ online incitement campaign had essentially failed. At that point, OSINT products could have been used to justify imposing regulations on the social media industry that might have helped to more effectively deter its uses of platforms like Twitter to build and reinforce support, particularly regulations proposed by SMEs like the author that did not conflict with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The author had proposed such regulations, with focus on the issue of ISIS pushing its supporters to use tools like VPNs to mask their physical locations when online, in a piece published by Foreign Affairs two months later. (Following a U.S. Senate hearing in which the author (re)presented these proposed solutions (discussion below), a tech columnist with The New York Times reported that a leading First Amendment scholar advised they did not appear to be at odds with the spirit of free speech rights afforded by the U.S. Constitution.  Note: The author had previously shared these recommendations with counterterrorism officials in the Obama administration’s National Security Council following the publication of a front-page story in the largest newspaper in the U.S., The Wall Street Journal, that highlighted some of the author’s work tracking the activities of ISIS members and supporters on Twitter.)
At the same time, for Trump, there could have been domestic political utility derived from increasing access to official OSINT products that were of interest to counterterrorism officials. Data available in the open source environment—ISIS propaganda in particular—highlighted that, contrary to what was claimed by former DNI Lieutenant General James R. Clapper, U.S. Air Force (Ret) and an array of former senior intelligence officials and retired CIA counterterrorism analysts, ISIS was not converting Trump’s policies like his so-called “Muslim ban” into recruitment tools.  A notable example of that problematic claim was seen in a commentary piece published by The Atlantic (later corrected pursuant to information shared with its editors by the author of this paper), in which a high-profile former CIA targeting officer, who was well known for her work tracking the founder of al-Qa’ida’s Iraq branch, erroneously claimed ISIS’ Amaq Agency news service had distributed materials focused on Trump’s “Muslim ban.” Indeed, references to this policy item in ISIS’ official propaganda, which was used to carefully control understandings of the group’s interests in such matters, were notable by their absence by the point at which that article was published.
Certainly, based on his rhetoric as a candidate, it seemed as though Trump wanted to pursue a more comprehensive approach to try to mitigate threats posed by ISIS than his predecessor. During the Republican primary, in an interview broadcast by Fox News Channel, Trump remarked, “I say ISIS is our number one threat, we have a president who doesn’t know what he is doing and all he’s worried about is climate change.” Weeks later, the Pew Research Center reported that, due to growing ISIS-linked attacks in the U.S., Americans’ views of the U.S. Government’s management of threats linked to terrorism had dropped to a post-9/11 low. Trump seized on these concerns to paint Democrats as incompetent stewards of U.S. national security and himself as the safer alternative.
However, during his first year in office, indicators began to emerge that the Trump administration did not perceive it as advantageous to increase the visibility or accessibility of official OSINT products that could be used to either build support for (a) a wider campaign against ISIS or (b) support for proposed regulations on the social media industry that might have helped to constrain ISIS’ and other terrorist groups’ and violent extremists’ online influence capabilities. In consideration of this, in answers to questions for the record posed by Senator Feinstein part of a high-profile Senate hearing focused on Russia’s and extremists’ uses of social media to damage U.S. national security that was held on 31 October 2017, the author recommended declassifying most materials archived by OSE that were focused on Salafi-Jihadist groups:
… it is imperative for all members of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and your staffs to establish accounts for access to the massive cache of materials archived by OSE in its online database that highlight the nearly decade-old problem of terrorists exploiting American companies’ social media and file-sharing platforms. … this material, and translations thereof, that is archived by OSE should be made available to academics and think tank employees working to improve understandings of groups like Islamic State and al-Qa’ida while also helping policymakers and counterterrorism practitioners identify opportunities to more effectively reduce these terrorist groups’ influence capacities. Indeed, all of these materials that have been collected and translated by OSE could be crucial tools for use in training more subject matter experts and terrorism analysts who can assist both government agencies and private sector entities with their efforts to degrade the influence capacities of terrorist groups like Islamic State.
In calling for more aggressive measures to disrupt ISIS’ online recruitment-cum-incitement campaign, with his prepared testimony for this hearing that was subsequently examined by a tech columnist with The New York Times, the author also cautioned against the assumption that denying ISIS control of territory in Iraq and Syria would significantly reduce its capabilities to incite violence in the West over the Internet.  Tragically proving the point, during this hearing, an ISIS supporter perpetrated a lethal attack in New York. As reported by CBS News’ live coverage of the hearing, the author modified his opening remarks to advise that he was tracking “an explosion in chatter” on Telegram during the hearing which indicated the attack might be linked to ISIS. That day, investigators discovered a large cache of ISIS propaganda on one of the perpetrator’s cell phones. The following day, a special agent with the FBI asserted in the complaint filed to charge the perpetrator with providing “material support or resources” to an FTO that approximately 90 videos discovered on the cell phone were the source of inspiration for this attack.
A day after that hearing, evidence the Trump administration sensed official intelligence products could be very persuasive tools in the court of public opinion could be seen in the move made by DCIA Mike Pompeo to declassify most documents discovered in bin Ladin’s compound in Pakistan that had remained classified since 2011. As noted by Ned Price in a commentary piece published by The Atlantic, this was ostensibly part of an effort to justify unwinding America’s commitments made with the JCPOA by making public more information that might help expose the nature of relations between the Iranian regime and senior al-Qa’ida figures. Indeed, an analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who regularly appeared on the Trump-friendly Fox News Channel, characterized these materials as tools that could be used to further expose the Iranian regime’s allegedly supportive relationship with al-Qa’ida. Curiously, however, the Trump administration declined to heed the author’s recommendation concerning the declassification of less sensitive materials, despite having sought his counsel as it developed the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) weeks earlier. One possible reason for this is that reducing the visibility for official OSINT products made it easier for the president to justify to his base that it was prudent to reduce America’s involvement in foreign conflicts. That was clearly part of Trump’s agenda following his election.
Certainly, major news media reports highlighted that ISIS was not “defeated,” as Trump eventually claimed. Yet they did not provide as clear—nor as contemporaneous—of a picture of either ISIS’ resiliency or the growing momentum of its operations in various regions of Africa that could be seen in the group’s official propaganda, and official OSINT reports concerning its contents. Meanwhile, due to the steady stream of Trump’s disparaging comments about the Fourth Estate, it was unlikely that unvarnished, objective reporting on ISIS provided by mainstream news organization would be either consumed or trusted by Trump’s base. Therefore, it was unlikely to put a dent in his national security agenda.
Here, it seems useful to consider there is evidence Trump preferred to suppress visibility of perspectives offered by the USIC when its reporting and analysis presented a picture of the threat environment that might trigger calls for policies which did not align with his agenda. After USIC leaders presented assessments during the 2019 Worldwide Threats hearings before Congress that did not comport with his rhetoric, Trump admonished them via tweet: “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school.” Rather than describing ISIS as “defeated,” DNI Daniel R. Coats reported:
ISIS still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and it maintains eight branches, more than a dozen networks, and thousands of dispersed supporters around the world, despite significant leadership and territorial losses. The group will exploit any reduction in CT pressure to strengthen its clandestine presence and accelerate rebuilding key capabilities, such as media production and external operations. ISIS very likely will continue to pursue external attacks from Iraq and Syria against regional and Western adversaries, including the United States.
The assessment that the regime in control of Iran had not resumed efforts to produce nuclear weapons also reportedly frustrated Trump. It seems these annual hearings were canceled in 2020 due to Trump’s dissatisfaction with what USIC leaders presented in 2019 and concerns about a similar outcome.
According to a staff member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee during the Trump presidency, the visibility of official OSINT products for members of Congress and their staffs was indeed further reduced during this period. This committee staffer, who helped develop the legislation that proposes the establishment of OTAC, noted that, as a result, fewer and fewer policymakers and their staffs possessed substantive current knowledge of hostile foreign actors. This staffer also noted that accessing official OSINT products was made even more difficult for many members of Congressional staffs after June 2019, when OpenSource.gov was decommissioned. By this point, CIA was also closing OSE’s overseas bureaus. This began in 2018 with the closure of the London bureau and concluded with the shuttering of its other bureaus in 2020.
Further evidence that the Trump administration understood raw official intelligence could be a very persuasive tool used to shape public opinions about a president’s policy agenda can be seen in Trump disclosing via tweet in August 2019 a classified photo from a GEOINT program that documented a failed attempt on the part of the Iranian regime to launch a satellite. Meanwhile, the Trump administration remained unwilling to release much less sensitive OSINT products archived by OSE.
In November 2019, another call for increasing access to those less sensitive intelligence products emerged before Congress when the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission drew attention to reduced visibility and accessibility of official OSINT products. Within the chapter of its annual report to Congress on “China’s Global Ambitions,” it recommended that Congress should “direct the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to restore the unclassified Open Source Enterprise website [OpenSource.gov] to all of its original functions” for U.S. Government employees, adding: “Access to [OSE] should also be expanded by making appropriate materials available to U.S. academic and research institutions.” (Based on conversations with the aforementioned Congressional staffer, it seems that an inability to rally support for this recommendation factored importantly in Congressman Joaquin Castro’s interest in pursuing a workaround vis-à-vis his proposal to establish OTAC.)
Given that the Trump administration did not encourage Congress to pursue this recommendation, it seems useful to consider that increased visibility for official OSINT products could have been problematic for Trump’s agenda in other ways than highlighting ISIS was not “defeated.” If the public had access to basic official OSINT products focused on al-Qa’ida leaders’ pledges of allegiance to Taliban leaders and the Taliban’s activities since 9/11, it would have been more difficult for Trump to justify negotiating with the Taliban. Although it was not designated an FTO, it is difficult to imagine that Trump’s allies in Congress or his voters would have tolerated his interest in negotiating with the Taliban if official OSINT products highlighting the sustained alliance between al-Qa’ida and the Taliban were publicly accessible. Early in 2017, the author recommended to one influential policymaker, Senator Lindsey Graham, that he nudge the Trump administration to insist the Taliban be designated an FTO. Ironically, it was not until after President Biden honored the deal that the Trump administration brokered with the Taliban and handed control of Afghanistan to al-Qa’ida’s chief ally that Republican members of Congress called for the Taliban to be designated an FTO, citing, among other reasons, its relationship with al-Qa’ida. Also ironic is that Graham was among the policymakers who beat the drum in support of this proposed measure.
As Trump’s presidency ended, additional evidence emerged of persistent and pervasive biases favoring intelligence products that emphasize information obtained with more discreet INTs than OSINT. Although it was not used to prevent what occurred at the U.S. Capitol on 6 January 2021, open source information tracked by FBI and DHS officials indicated that such an incident might unfold. Assuming officials with authorities to orient resources to help prevent such incidents did not deliberately enable what unfolded, the terroristic raid on the Capitol could be used as a case study to highlight that OSINT’s full potential utilities had yet to be harnessed by the U.S. Government. In this case, it seems the problem was not one of a failure to utilize open source information to anticipate and warn about a threat. Rather, the problem can be seen in perceptions of OSINT products among decisionmakers, as reflected in the security posture at the Capitol on 6 January 2021.
Although it is not among the findings enumerated to justify the proposal to establish OTAC, the unwinding of intelligence reforms that were intended to increase the visibility of official OSINT products highlights why an entity with a mandate to develop publicly accessible official OSINT products should be established outside CIA. Clearly, two decades after 9/11, influential career officials at CIA continued to treat OSINT like an unwanted “stepchild.” Like the cultures in many decades-old bureaucracies, its culture—which has both fostered and reinforced perceptions of the intelligence business as being chiefly focused on acquiring secrets—will likely continue to be difficult to change. Also important to consider is that, as any intelligence studies scholars who bother to interview OSINT professionals who were employed by CIA during this period will almost certainly discover, senior officials’ preferences for other INTs were so great that many OSINT personnel were left with impressions that, aside from all-source analysts, personnel in other programs did not consider them part of CIA. Certainly, providing a work environment where OSINT professionals are less likely to feel as though they are perceived as nonessential contributors to an organization’s mission—particularly in the management levels of OSINT programs—could help to ensure there is both strong quality of work and, crucially, interest in joining the field of OSINT among aspirant future U.S. Government personnel.
Meanwhile, there is a larger problem that has thus far been overlooked by many policymakers and security studies scholars alike: As the 9/11 Commission put it, “CIA’s number one customer is the president.” Being tasked with producing intelligence products that are intended to be shared with the public, and which, in turn, might frustrate a president presents a conflict of interest for CIA. This could damage CIA’s relationship with a president, when maintaining his or her trust and confidence is essential.
Indeed, since 9/11, official OSINT products focused on FTOs have been a double-edged sword, particularly when they present a picture of a group like al-Qa’ida or ISIS realizing increased momentum, or resiliency in the face of expensive counterterrorism campaigns. For a president who wishes to emphasize countering threats posed by them in a NSS, official OSINT products which present those pictures can be used to justify this agenda item to voters. For one who does not, official OSINT products might raise questions about their judgment—particularly if those products are accessible to the public. That official OSINT products can highlight when counterterrorism strategies implemented by presidents might have failed to achieve desired results may also be among the reasons why few prominent political appointees, such as DNIs and DCIAs, have advocated expanding access to official OSINT products for the public since 9/11. Instead, in the two decades following 9/11, barriers to access to official OSINT products gradually increased.
As of June 2022, it was unclear whether OTAC would be established. In 2021, the author facilitated contact between the aforementioned staffer who was involved with developing this legislation and staff from a senator’s office, which seemed intent upon helping Castro’s office with advancing the legislation proposing OTAC’s establishment in the Senate. However, the author’s attempts to gather status updates about progress in the Senate have gone largely ignored since. Yet, as it is still possible this legislation may be further scrutinized in the Senate, it is important to consider that, as noted above, the original legislation proposing OTAC’s establishment mandates that OTAC provide coverage of open source materials produced by hostile state actors while leaving the matter of whether OTAC will provide coverage of FTOs at the discretion of Secretaries of State (also political appointees). Certainly, this legislation reflects the sense that the public possessing evidence-based understandings of the threat environment is essential for an accountable and appropriately focused national security policymaking process in healthy democracies. Meanwhile, as it leaves the matter of whether OTAC will furnish reporting on open source materials produced by FTOs and foreign news media coverage of them at the discretion of political appointees, this could mean OTAC will present an incomplete picture of the threat environment.
As the policymakers who supported the proposal to establish OTAC are aware, voters’ perceptions of the threat environment factor importantly in decisions made by presidents when formulating their national security agendas. However, it seems these legislators may have forgotten one of the most important lessons learned since 9/11—as perhaps best highlighted by the U.S. invasion of Iraq—is that it is in the American public’s interest for Congress to limit a president’s and their appointees’ capabilities to define perceptions of the threat environment in ways that reinforce political agendas when evidence paints a different picture. Unless it is required to provide a more complete picture of foreign threats, OTAC could be used to do just that.
. Stephen C. Mercado, “Sailing the Sea of OSINT in the Information Age,” Studies in Intelligence, vol. 48, no. 3 (September 2004): 45, https://www.cia.gov/static/0d0665eca92d70a850752052c4e5c552/Sailing-the-Sea-OSINT.pdf
. See official definition of OSINT in Intelligence Community Directive Number 301: National Open Source Enterprise, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 11 July 2006, 8, https://irp.fas.org/dni/icd/icd-301.pdf
. Stephen C. Mercado, “Sailing the Sea of OSINT in the Information Age,” 54.
. See various discussions about spending priorities in National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (9/11 Commission), The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (Washington, D.C., 2004); in particular information on pages 93, 104, 204, and Chapter 6, subsection titled “Covert Action and the Predator,” 210-212.
. Stephen C. Mercado, “Reexamining the Distinction Between Open Information and Secrets,” Studies in Intelligence, vol. 49, no. 2 (2005): second (unnumbered) page, https://www.cia.gov/static/5d8a8df615f1bb014e49bb1452991991/Difference-Open-Info-Secrets.pdf
. The House’s draft proposed directing the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to develop and implement ‘a plan to elevate open-source intelligence to a foundational intelligence for strategic intelligence that is treated on par with information collected from classified means (for example, [HUMINT], [SIGINT], and [GEOINT])’; H.R.4350 – National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022, §1612. STRATEGY AND PLAN TO IMPLEMENT CERTAIN DEFENSE INTELLIGENCE REFORMS, https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/4350/text
. David Brunnstrom, “US Congressmen reach back into Cold War armory to respond to China,” Reuters, 28 July 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-congressmen-reach-back-into-cold-war-armory-respond-china-2021-07-28/
. For reliable examinations of FBIS’ history and operations, the author commends to readers works cited and referenced herein by Mercado and Olcott, as well as the following: Stephen C. Mercado, “FBIS Against the Axis, 1941-1945 (U),” Studies in Intelligence, vol. 45, no. 5 (2001), https://www.cia.gov/resources/csi/studies-in-intelligence/archives/vol-45-no-5/fbis-against-the-axis-1941-1945-u/; Joseph E. Roop, Foreign Broadcast Information Service History, Part I: 1941-1947, Central Intelligence Agency, 1969, https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/collection/foreign-broadcast-information-service-history-part-1-1941-1947; Kalev Leetaru, “The Scope of FBIS and BBC Open-Source Media Coverage, 1979-2008 (U),” Studies in Intelligence, vol. 54, no. 1 (March 2010), https://www.cia.gov/static/e4cd771e0aecd4492cd7e1be1e43fd76/The-Scope-of-FBIS.pdf
. Discussions with former senior OSINT officials from CIA who were employed by FBIS and its successor organizations; referenced here with their knowledge.
. The author of this paper, whose counsel on the development of this legislation was sought by its author, Congressman Joaquin Castro, both facilitated the involvement of a U.S. Senator’s office that has assumed responsibility for the movement of this legislation through the Senate and provided counsel to that office on opportunities to improve this legislation.
. For a primer on the topic of global jihadism and the Salafi-Jihadist movement see Daniel Byman, Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
. Heather J. Williams and Ilana Blum, “Defining Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) for the Defense Enterprise.” RAND Corporation (2018), https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1964.html
. Intelligence Community Directive Number 301: National Open Source Enterprise, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 11 July 2006, 8, https://irp.fas.org/dni/icd/icd-301.pdf
. Although terms vary from those used by the author, a useful breakdown is provided in Jeffrey T. Richelson, The US Intelligence Community, 6th ed. (New York: Westview Press, 2011), 322.
. This paragraph is a condensed iteration of discussion points concerning OSINT part of the author’s lecture materials for the graduate course on OSINT that he developed and taught at Johns Hopkins University.
. See discussion of policymakers playing the role of OSINT collectors in Stephen C. Mercado, “Reexamining the Distinction Between Open Information and Secrets,” fourth (unnumbered) page.
. Stephen C. Mercado, “Reexamining the Distinction Between Open Information and Secrets,” second (unnumbered) page.
. See coverage of this report in “Report highlights alleged Iran force’s al Qaeda links,” Agence France-Presse, 5 May 2011, Archived at https://archive.ph/20121206002108/http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5ghRPhpAicLLjQad84KP5hwCja97A?docId=CNG.c4e5aaec1a6b9ae498dbebf05c7cebdc.1121; See also Abeer Tayel, “Report from Congressional panel says Iran’s Revolutionary Guard helps Al-Qaeda,” Al Arabiya, 5 May 2011, https://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2011%2F05%2F05%2F147902
. Department of Defense Strategy for Open-Source Intelligence, In Title 50 – War and National Defense, U.S. Code, (a) Findings, (4), 6 January 2006, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/USCODE-2011-title50/html/USCODE-2011-title50-chap15-subchapI-sec403-5.htm
. Bowman H. Miller, “Open Source Intelligence (OSINT): An Oxymoron?” International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, vol. 31, no. 4 (2018), 702-719.
. Ibid, 705.
. Confidential sources.
. Confidential source.
. Michael A. Sheehan, Erich Marquardt, Liam Collins, eds, Routledge Handbook of U.S. Counterterrorism and Irregular Warfare Operations (1st ed.) (New York: Routledge, 2021).
. Paul Cruickshank, “Lessons Learned from Four High-Casualty Terrorist Attacks in the United States Since 9/11,” In Ibid, 397.
. Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens and Seamus Hughes, “Social media recruitment of Americans: a case study from the Islamic State,” In Ibid., 413-422.
. Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, “Osama raid avenged CIA deaths, a secret until now,” The Associated Press, 29 May 29 2011, https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna43207040
. Disclosure: Petraeus, who is a source for this paper, is serving as an additional reader on the author’s PhD research supervisory committee.
. Rob Johnston, Analytic Culture in the U.S. Intelligence Community: An Ethnographic Study (Washington, D.C.: Center for the Study of Intelligence (CIA), 2005), 103.
. Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD Commission), Report to the President of the United States, 31 March 2005, 22, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/GPO-WMD/pdf/GPO-WMD.pdf
. See proposed intelligence community (re)organization chart in 9/11 Commission, Final Report, 413.
. Anthony Olcott, Open Source Intelligence in a Networked World (New York: Continuum, 2012), 86.
. 9/11 Commission, Final Report, beginning on 260.
. Sources for this knowledge include various counterterrorism analysts, including that PDB brief’s principal author.
. Citing comment in “Transcript of Rice’s 9/11 commission statement,” CNN, 19 May 2004, https://www.cnn.com/2004/ALLPOLITICS/04/08/rice.transcript/
. Transcript of Hearing: “Nomination of George J. Tenet to be Director of Central Intelligence,” U.S. Senate, Select Committee on Intelligence, 6 May 1997, 106, https://www.intelligence.senate.gov/sites/default/files/hearings/105314.pdf
. Ibid., 92.
. Stephen C. Mercado, “Reexamining the Distinction Between Open Information and Secrets,” second (unnumbered) page.
. “An Interview with Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet (S),” Studies in Intelligence, (vol. and no. details not disclosed): 9, https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/docs/DOC_0006122146.pdf
. Citing comments in transcript of Hearing: “Using Open-Source Information Effectively,” U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment, 21 June 2005, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-109hhrg24962/html/CHRG-109hhrg24962.htm
. WMD Commission, Report to the President of the United States, 22-23.
. Ibid., 23.
. A former counterterrorism analyst told the author that, when she was an FBIS official, it was not uncommon for others at CIA who conferred with her about FBIS reports to be unaware that they shared the same employer.
. See discussion of the review of the failure to anticipate the Government of India’s nuclear weapons test in 1998 ordered by Tenet in Richard A. Best, Jr. and Alfred Cumming, “Open Source Intelligence (OSINT): Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, 5 December 2007, 23, https://sgp.fas.org/crs/intel/RL34270.pdf
. See Martin’s biographical details in Marc Ambinder, “Who was in the hunt for bin Laden,” The Week, 11 January 2015, https://theweek.com/articles/464955/who-who-hunt-bin-laden
. In Greg Barker (director), “MANHUNT,” HBO Documentary Films (presenter), Passion Pictures and Motto Pictures (production), 2013, beginning at 1:02:40. Documentary information available at https://www.hbo.com/documentaries/manhunt-the-search-for-bin-laden/synopsis
. See biographical information about al-Libi in Michael Moss and Souad Mekhennet, “Rising Leader for Next Phase of Al Qaeda’s War,” The New York Times, 4 April 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/04/world/asia/04qaeda.html
. “Al Qaeda confirms deputy’s death on 9/11 anniversary,” Agence France-Presse, 11 September 2012, https://www.france24.com/en/20120911-pakistan-qaeda-leader-confirms-deputy-leader-death-911-anniversary-al-libi-zawahiri-drone-strike
. WMD Commission, Report to the President of the United States, 23.
. Siobhan Gorman, “New intelligence director shakes up hierarchy,” Government Executive, 9 May 2005, https://www.govexec.com/defense/2005/05/new-intelligence-director-shakes-up-hierarchy/19180/
. Remarks by Doug Naquin, Director, Open Source Center, CIRA Luncheon, 3 October 2007, https://irp.fas.org/eprint/naquin.pdf
. §1052. OPEN-SOURCE INTELLIGENCE, (a) Sense of Congress, (1), In Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, 17 December 2004, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/PLAW-108publ458/html/PLAW-108publ458.htm
. Remarks by Doug Naquin, Director, Open Source Center, CIRA Luncheon.
. H.R.5003 – Homeland Security Open Source Intelligence Enhancement Act of 2006, 16 March 2006, §2. Findings, 2, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/BILLS-109hr5003ih/html/BILLS-109hr5003ih.htm
. Citing an email sent to the author, with Naquin’s permission.
. Citing comments in Hamilton Bean, “The Paradox of Open Source: An Interview with Douglas J. Naquin,” International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, vol. 27, no. 1 (20 November 2013): 46.
. Ibid., 48.
. See discussion of topics covered in this and subsequent paragraphs in Michael S. Smith II, “Could Terrorists Use Afghanistan to Conduct External Ops Sooner than the Biden Administration Wants the World to Believe?,” Strife (blog), 8 November 2021, https://www.strifeblog.org/2021/11/08/could-terrorists-use-afghanistan-to-conduct-external-ops-sooner-than-the-biden-administration-wants-the-world-to-believe/
. The AQ Chef, “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom,” Inspire 1 (Summer 2010), 32-40.
. “How to use Ansar al-Mujahideen: Sending & Receiving Encrypted Messages,” In Ibid., 41-44.
. Samir Khan, “I am Proud to Be a Traitor to America,” Inspire 2 (Fall 2010), 47.
. Citing comments in Michael S. Smith II, “Could Terrorists Use Afghanistan to Conduct External Ops Sooner than the Biden Administration Wants the World to Believe?”
. Alice Fordham, “A ‘proud traitor’: Samir Khan reported dead alongside Aulaqi,” The Washington Post, 30 September 2011, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/checkpoint-washington/post/a-proud-traitor-samir-khan-reported-dead-alongside-aulaqi/2011/09/30/gIQAYhcdAL_blog.html
. Hamilton Bean, “The Paradox of Open Source,” 45.
. Referencing comments made by Petraeus in correspondence with the author, with Petraeus’ permission.
. Hamilton Bean, “The Paradox of Open Source,” 52.
. National Strategy for Counterterrorism (2011), The White House, 28 June 2011, 1, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/counterterrorism_strategy.pdf
. Referencing details shared by Storer with the author; for additional information about this product, See Jonathan Shainin, “The Ziggurat of Zealotry,” The New York Times, 10 December 2006, https://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/10/magazine/10section4.t-11.html
. “Special Report: Al-Qaeda,” Master Narratives (Open Source Center, Monitor 360, and Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications), September 2011, https://info.publicintelligence.net/OSC-AlQaedaMasterNarratives.pdf
. For details about the establishment of CSCC, see Barack Obama, Executive Order 13584: “Developing an Integrated Strategic Counterterrorism Communications Initiative and Establishing a Temporary Organization to Support Certain Government-wide Communications Activities Directed Abroad,” Executive Office of the President, 9 September 2011, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2011/09/15/2011-23891/developing-an-integrated-strategic-counterterrorism-communications-initiative-and-establishing-a
. For coverage of a report prepared by the author for members of Congress that covered these matters, See Catherine Herridge, “The Islamist Winter: New Report Suggests Extremist Views Winning in Libya,” Fox News, 4 January 2012, https://www.foxnews.com/politics/the-islamist-winter-new-report-suggests-extremist-views-winning-in-libya
. “Al-Qaeda in Libya: A Profile,” Library of Congress, Federal Research Division (“under Interagency Agreement with the Combatting Terrorism Technical Support Office’s Irregular Warfare Support Office”), August 2012, 14-15, https://irp.fas.org/world/para/aq-libya-loc.pdf
. Tim Lister and Paul Cruickshank, “EXCLUSIVE: Senior al Qaeda figure ‘living in Libyan capital,” CNN (Security Blogs), 27 September 2012, https://security.blogs.cnn.com/2012/09/27/exclusive-senior-al-qaeda-figure-living-in-libyan-capital/
. Hamilton Bean, “The Paradox of Open Source,” 48.
. Barack Obama: ‘“The war in Afghanistan is ending. Al Qaeda is on the run. And Osama bin Laden is dead.”—President Obama,’ via @BarackObama (Verified Twitter account), 5 November 2012, https://twitter.com/BarackObama/status/265668204184084481?s=20
. See statistics in Micah Zenko, “Obama’s Final Drone Strike Data,” Council on Foreign Relations (U.S.), 20 January 2017, https://www.cfr.org/blog/obamas-final-drone-strike-data
. Ibid., citing comments attributed to Obama in Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, Double Down: Game Change 2012 (New York: Penguin Press, 2013), 55.
. Seth G. Jones, “A Persistent Threat: The Evolution of al Qa’ida and Other Salafi Jihadists,” RAND Corporation, 2014, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR637.html
. Noel Brinkerhoff, “CIA Plans to Shutter Public Access to Foreign News Service … after more than 50 years,” AllGov.com, 10 October 2013, http://www.allgov.com/news/controversies/cia-plans-to-shutter-public-access-to-foreign-news-serviceafter-more-than-50-years-131010?news=851356
. See discussion of meeting in Eli Lake, “U.S. Relies on Iraqis to Interrogate Jihadis,” Bloomberg, 13 February 2015, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2015-02-13/u-s-relies-on-iraq-to-question-captured-islamic-state-fighters; See also Alison Graham, “Charleston man on front line of intelligence monitoring by tracking ISIS social media,” The Post and Courier, July 19, 2016, https://www.postandcourier.com/archives/charleston-man-on-front-line-of-intelligence-monitoring-by-tracking-isis-social-media/article_cdee1fde-0e9a-5be8-b71a-1b6c1a52543c.html
. Given that this detail reveals Flynn has been among the author’s past associates and, as the author coauthored a commentary piece with Flynn concerning the Obama administration’s responses to rising threats posed by ISIS that was published by CNN in 2015, he wishes to clarify: References to Flynn’s past work and activities herein are not meant to convey an endorsement of his more recent views. The author discontinued contact with Flynn early in 2017, after it became evident that he deliberately avoided disclosing information about his relationships with a Russian government-controlled “news” organization.
. See discussion in Michael S. Smith II, “Islamic State: Aberration, or accelerant of system-wide changes to come?,” In Shahram Akbarzadeh, ed., Routledge Handbook of International Relations in the Middle East (New York: Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group), 2019), 304.
. See screenshot and discussion in Michael S. Smith, “Social Media Jihad 2.0: Inside ISIS’ Global Recruitment and Incitement Campaign,” Briefing at New America (Washington, D.C.), 18 January 2017, beginning at 29:18, https://www.newamerica.org/international-security/events/social-media-jihad-20/
. Details in “Paris Attacks: Who was Abdelhamid Abaaoud?,” BBC, 19 November 2005, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34835046
. CIA’s involvement was first reported in Timothée Bouty, Éric Pelletier and Thibault Raisse, “Traque d’Abaaoud : révélations sur un échec” (Tracking Abaaoud: revelations about a failure), Le Parisien, 13 May 2016, https://www.leparisien.fr/faits-divers/traque-d-abaaoud-revelations-sur-un-echec-13-05-2016-5791671.php
. Steven Aftergood, “Open Source Center (OSC) Becomes Open Source Enterprise (OSE),” Federation of American Scientists, 18 October 2015, https://fas.org/blogs/secrecy/2015/10/osc-ose/
. In David Samuels, “The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru: How Ben Rhodes rewrote the rules of diplomacy in a digital age,” New York Times Magazine, 5 May 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/magazine/the-aspiring-novelist-who-became-obamas-foreign-policy-guru.html
. Country Reports on Terrorism 2015, United States Department of State, 2015, Chapter 3: State Sponsors of Terrorism, https://2009-2017.state.gov/j/ct/rls/crt/2015/257520.htm
. Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, “AP Exclusive: CIA tracks Al-Qaida moving from Iran,” The Associated Press, 13 May 2010, https://archive.boston.com/news/nation/washington/articles/2010/05/13/ap_exclusive_iran_eases_grip_on_al_qaida/
. 9/11 Commission, Final Report, 241.
. Citing comment in David Samuels, “The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru.”
. In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries selected post-truth selected as the international word of the year (“‘Post-truth’ declared word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries,” BBC, November 16, 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-37995600). Oxford defines the term as “an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief.’” (“Word of the Year 2016,” Oxford Languages, November 8, 2016, https://languages.oup.com/word-of-the-year/2016/)
. For details about rebranding, See Barack Obama, Executive Order 13721: “Developing an Integrated Global Engagement Center To Support Government-wide Counterterrorism Communications Activities Directed Abroad and Revoking Executive Order 13584,” Executive Office of the President, 14 March 2016, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2016/03/17/2016-06250/developing-an-integrated-global-engagement-center-to-support-government-wide-counterterrorism
. Citing comments in Hearing: “Countering the Virtual Caliphate: The State Department’s Performance,” U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, 13 July 2016, 32, https://docs.house.gov/meetings/FA/FA00/20160713/105223/HHRG-114-FA00-Transcript-20160713.pdf
. Stephen C. Mercado, “Reexamining the Distinction Between Open Information and Secrets,” fourth (unnumbered) page.
. Marc Santora, Rukmini Callimachi, and Adam Goldman, “Flagged Two Times in 2014, Ahmad Rahami Passed Scrutiny,” The New York Times, 21 September 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/22/nyregion/new-york-new-jersey-bombing.html; See also photos of the journal tweeted by Callimachi, available at https://twitter.com/rcallimachi/status/778706112690302977/photo/4
. See discussion in Michael S. Smith, “Social Media Jihad 2.0: Inside ISIS’ Global Recruitment and Incitement Campaign,” Briefing at New America (Washington, D.C.), 18 January 2017, 6:20-12:40, https://www.newamerica.org/international-security/events/social-media-jihad-20/
. Peter Fredrick Licata, Complaint, United States of America v. Ahmad Khan Rahami (aka “Ahmad Rahimi”), 20 September 2016, https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/file/894396/download
. Press Release: “Ahmad Khan Rahimi [sic] Indicted in Manhattan Federal Court for Executing Bombing and Attempted Bombing in New York City,” U.S. Department of Justice, 16 November 2016, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/ahmad-khan-rahimi-indicted-manhattan-federal-court-executing-bombing-and-attempted-bombing
. Press Release: “Bronx Man Sentenced in Manhattan Federal Court to 22 Years in Prison for Attempting to Provide Material Support to ISIS,” U.S. Department of Justice, 6 December 2019, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/bronx-man-sentenced-manhattan-federal-court-22-years-prison-attempting-provide-material
. Comment quoted in Pamela Engel, “DONALD TRUMP: ‘I would bomb the s— out of’ ISIS,” Business Insider, 13 November 2015, https://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trump-bomb-isis-2015-11
. Adam Goldman and Eric Schmitt, “One by One, ISIS Social Media Experts Are Killed as Result of F.B.I. Program,” The New York Times, 24 November 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/24/world/middleeast/isis-recruiters-social-media.html
. Michael T. Flynn, Matt Pottinger, and Paul D. Batchelor, “Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan,” Center for a New American Security, 4 January 2010, 23; Citing comments by Wilson in David Reed, “Aspiring to Spying,” The Washington Times, 14 November 1997.
. Citing quotation of comment made during an interview with Fox News Channel in Ashley Ross, “Donald Trump Says He’d ‘Take Out’ Terrorists’ Families,” Time, 5 December 2015, https://time.com/4132368/donald-trump-isis-bombing/
. Closed address, 1 March 2017. These arguments were repeated in the author’s testimony before the U.S. Senate on 31 October 2017.
. Michael S. Smith II, “Containing ISIS’ Online Campaigns After Manchester,” Foreign Affairs, 27 May 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2017-05-27/containing-isis-online-campaigns-after-manchester
. Jim Rutenberg, “Terrorism Is Faster Than Twitter,” The New York Times, 5 November 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/05/business/media/terrorism-social-networks-freedom.html
. In Christopher S. Stewart and Mark Maremont, “Twitter and Islamic State Deadlock on Social Media Battlefield,” The Wall Street Journal, 13 April 2016, https://www.wsj.com/articles/twitter-and-islamic-state-deadlock-on-social-media-battlefield-1460557045
. Simon Cottee, “No, the Travel Ban Isn’t Being Used as ISIS Propaganda,” Politico Magazine, 26 March 2017, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/03/travel-ban-isis-propaganda-214953/; For example of Clapper’s remarks, see “James Clapper comments on Trump’s travel ban,” footage of interview embedded in Jamie Crawford, “Former spy chief calls Trump’s travel ban ‘recruiting toll for extremists’,” CNN, 9 February 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2017/02/09/politics/james-clapper-trump-travel-ban/index.html?Sr=twtsr0209clapper
. Given that the author was engaged in discussions with the Trump transition team on national security policy matters, he wishes to clarify that he was not an advocate of this policy. In an interview with Time, the author noted it was unlikely to prevent a terrorist group like ISIS from deploying trained terrorists into the U.S. See comments in Jared Malsin, “Experts Warn President Trump’s Refugee Ban Could Backfire: ISIS ‘Rubbing Their Hands With Glee,” Time, 28 January 2017, https://time.com/4651729/president-trump-refugee-suspension-backfire/
. Editors at The Atlantic later corrected this error after receiving complaints about it from terrorism studies scholar and journalist Simon Cottee and contacting the author at Cottee’s request to inquire about the veracity of Nada Bakos’ claim. For correction information, see editor’s note in Nada Bakos, Susan Hasler and Cindy Storer, “Radicalization and the Travel Ban,” The Atlantic, 10 February 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/02/travel-ban-isis/516288/
. “Views of Government’s Handling of Terrorism Fall to Pot-9/11 Low,” Pew Research Center, 15 December 2015, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2015/12/15/views-of-governments-handling-of-terrorism-fall-to-post-911-low/
. Michael S. Smith II, Answers to Questions for the Record by Senator Dianne Feinstein, 17 November 2017, fifth (unnumbered) page, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Smith%20Responses%20to%20QFRs.pdf; For details about this hearing, See hearing page: https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/meetings/extremist-content-and-russian-disinformation-online-working-with-tech-to-find-solutions
. Jim Rutenberg, “Terrorism Is Faster Than Twitter.”
. Michael S. Smith II, “Undeterred: Islamic State’s Global Online Recruitment and Incitement Campaign,” Prepared testimony for Hearing: “Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online: Working with Tech to Find Solutions,” U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, 31 October 2017, 7. https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/10-31-17%20Smith%20Testimony.pdf
. “Expert says there’s been an ‘explosion in chatter’ related to New York incident,” In Kathryn Watson, “Social media sites testify before lawmakers in Russia probe – live updates,” CBS News, 31 October 2017 (Updated 1 November 2017), https://www.cbsnews.com/live-news/facebook-russia-ads-investigation-twitter-google-testimony-senate-judiciary-committee-2017-10-31/
. See 10(a) and 11(a), In Complaint, United States of America v. Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, Southern District of New York, 1 November 2017, 8, 9, http://cdn.cnn.com/cnn/2017/images/11/01/u.s..v..sayfullo.saipov.complaint.pdf
. Eli Watkins, “CIA releases more files it says came from bin Laden raid, including his journal,” CNN, 2 November 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2017/11/01/politics/cia-osama-bin-laden-release/index.html
. Ned Price, “Why Mike Pompeo Released More bin Laden Files,” The Atlantic, 8 November 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/11/iran-mike-pompeo-bin-laden-documents-cia/545093/
. See link to report coauthored by Thomas Joscelyn, then a frequent guest on Fox News Channel programs, in Eli Watkins, “CIA releases more files it says came from bin Laden raid, including his journal,” CNN, 2 November 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2017/11/01/politics/cia-osama-bin-laden-release/index.html
. See reference to counsel provided in Note 46 in Michael S. Smith II, “Undeterred: Islamic State’s Global Online Recruitment and Incitement Campaign,” 12; See also information in Michael S. Smith II, Answers to Questions for the Record by Senator Dianne Feinstein, eighth (unnumbered) page.
. Examples in Ellen Mitchell, “16 times Trump said ISIS was defeated, or soon would be,” The Hill, 23 March 2019, https://thehill.com/policy/defense/435402-16-times-trump-declared-or-predicted-the-demise-of-isis
. Caitlin Oprysko, “Trump tells intel chiefs to ‘go back to school’ after they break with him,” Politico, 30 January 2019, https://www.politico.com/story/2019/01/30/trump-national-security-1136433
. Daniel R. Coats, Statement for the Record: Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, presented to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 29 January 2019, 11, https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/2019-ATA-SFR—SSCI.pdf
. Caitlin Oprysko, “Trump tells intel chiefs to ‘go back to school’ after they break with him.”
. Referencing comments, with permission, in discussions with the author when the author’s counsel was sought by Congressman Joaquin Castro on the development of legislation proposing the establishment of OTAC.
. Confidential source.
. Screenshot of tweet in Zach Dorfman, “More than two years after Trump tweeted a classified image of Iran, former officials are divided on fallout,” Yahoo News, 17 December 2021, https://news.yahoo.com/trump-tweeted-classified-satellite-image-of-iran-former-officials-fallout-100003879.html
. U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2019 Report to Congress, November 2019, p. 285; Referenced in Steven Aftergood, “Improved Access to Open Source Intelligence Urged,” Federation of American Scientists, 2 December 2019, https://fas.org/blogs/secrecy/2019/12/osint-access/
. Michael S. Smith II, “A View to the Threat Environment: Perspective from General David H. Petraeus,” Strife (blog), 30 November 2021, https://www.strifeblog.org/2021/11/30/a-view-to-the-threat-environment-perspective-from-general-david-h-petraeus/
. Press Release: “Sullivan, Rubio, Colleagues Introduce Bill to Designate Taliban as a Foreign Terrorist Organization,” Office of U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan, 17 September 2021, https://www.sullivan.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/sullivan-rubio-colleagues-introduce-bill-to-designate-taliban-as-a-foreign-terrorist-organization-
. Rebecca Falconer, “GOP lawmakers urge Blinken to designate Taliban a terrorist organization,” Axios, 14 September 2021, https://www.axios.com/gop-lawmakers-blinken-taliban-terrorist-organization-c2f57c56-98c4-41a6-95cb-c5a4a8833ea6.html
. Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky, “FBI report warned of ‘war’ at Capitol, contradicting claims there was no indication of looming violence,” The Washington Post, 12 January 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/capitol-riot-fbi-intelligence/2021/01/12/30d12748-546b-11eb-a817-e5e7f8a406d6_story.html
. 9/11 Commission, Final Report, 86.