First Look

State’s OSINT strategy aims to serve diplomats’ demand for unclassified assessments

The Bureau of Intelligence and Research also sees the potential for generative artificial intelligence to better leverage open-source intelligence (OSINT).

The State Department’s intelligence arm is vowing to take better advantage of publicly accessible information and commercial data under a new strategy that calls for meeting diplomats’ demand for more unclassified assessments.

State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) today released an “Open Source Intelligence Strategy” to guide its OSINT efforts over the next two years.

Brett Holmgren, assistant secretary of State for intelligence and research, said the strategy is driven by the need to “harness” a growing body of commercially and publicly available information about world events. And it’s also intended to meet the demand inside the State Department for more unclassified assessments that can be accessed securely by diplomats anywhere in the world, Holmgren added.

In addition to delivering more timely information to U.S. diplomats,  Holmgren said the use of OSINT could also help INR and the State Department expand its partnerships with foreign countries, especially those outside of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance.

“So for us, when it comes to the future of OSINT, the stakes could not be higher,” Holmgren said in an interview.

The new strategy also comes on the heels of an intelligence community-wide OSINT strategy released earlier this spring.

Holmgren said the bureau’s strategy complements the IC-wide effort, but also reflects INR’s “unique role in the intelligence community as the only element that’s focused exclusively on providing intelligence to support American diplomacy,” Holmgren said.

He described how State’s analysts have relied on OSINT dating back to World War II, when INR’s forerunner, the research and analysis section in the Office of Strategic Services,  used news reports, government statistics and economic outlooks to create long-range assessment of the Axis powers.

“INR’s long standing embrace of OSINT continues to this day where many of our analysts turn to OSINT as their first source of information in the morning, and then they turn to classified cables and intelligence reports to determine what’s significant, what warrants an assessment, what needs to be flagged for policymakers,” Holmgren said.

The INR unit, a smaller component within the intelligence community, has been feted for its efforts to use OSINT rather than relying on highly classified sources. But Holmgren acknowledged that even INR’s analysts can struggle to produce unclassified assessments based entirely on open-source data.

“The challenge is balancing our desire to produce more products at the unclassified level with the need to ensure that these classified insights that our analysts have acquired, due to their access to classified information, is appropriately protected,” Holmgren said.

The Bureau of INR is working with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on policy guidance on the use of OSINT in intelligence reports.

“I’m confident we’ll find a reasonable solution that allows us to better serve our diplomats while still safeguarding that classified information,” Holmgren said.

The bureau last year also established an Open Source Coordination Unit to better organize its OSINT efforts. After delays due to an initial lack of funding, Holmgren said the new office is now “staffed and resourced for the long term.”

The bureau’s new strategy highlights the importance of training and education on OSINT. “We are in the process of developing our own internal training that our folks will be able to access later this year,” Holmgren said.

He also said ODNI’s forthcoming guidance will be crucial as INR and other intelligence agencies navigate the challenges of ensuring open-source data isn’t tainted by disinformation.

“There will be unique differences between some of the OSINT tradecraft, in terms of how people are reviewing information to assess its reliability and credibility, to make sure that we are able to identify and detect and remove disinformation and other things that foreign adversaries may try to inject in the open source space,” Holmgren said. “But especially when it comes to conducting analysis, there will be many similarities with the existing analytic tradecraft processes and standards.”

Role for generative AI

The bureau’s new strategy also calls for investing in OSINT data and tools.

Like many intelligence agencies, Holmgren said INR has taken advantage of a recent increase in commercially available satellite imagery. The intelligence community famously used such imagery to issue public warnings about Russia’s impending invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

But INR’s analysts also rely on foreign leader speeches, panel discussions at conferences, government reports and other data that’s increasingly available over the internet. And in many cases, the relatively small bureau does not have enough analysts to sift through and analyze all that information.

Holmgren said that’s an area where tools like generative artificial intelligence could help.

“We think there’s real potential for things like generative AI to really help summarize and synthesize the key takeaways from this growing body of open source information, government information that’s out there,” Holmgren said.

Meanwhile, the intelligence community’s OSINT strategy calls for coordinating open-source data acquisition and expanding the sharing of such data across the IC. Holmgren called that a “game changer” for smaller components like INR.

“Frankly, our ability to acquire tools or licenses, in many cases is cost prohibitive for us because we just don’t have the resources,” Holmgren said. “And so what the DNI is doing on both cataloging the different tools and capabilities that are out there in the first instance, and then figuring out cost efficient ways for the taxpayer to make those available to the rest of the intelligence community is going to allow smaller agencies like us to take advantage of things that right now, for the most part, only bigger agencies can afford to acquire and deploy at scale.”

Mobile capabilities in development

One of INR’s major priorities during Holmgren’s tenure has been IT modernization. In addition to moving into top-secret cloud environments, INR has also sought to expand access to its unclassified work through new digital platforms.

Last year, the bureau released “Tempo,” an internal website on the State Department’s unclassified network. Holmgren said ambassadors and diplomats around the world can use Tempo to access a variety of unclassified INR products, including foreign public opinion polling data, humanitarian graphics and maps and analytical summaries.

Holmgren said INR is now developing a mobile application so State Department employees can access Tempo from their phones, wherever they might be in the world.

“In the future, what I believe will be essential to INR’s relevance and our ability to engage more with our customers, but also do enable intelligence diplomacy in a more consistent way, will be sharing unclassified level assessments based entirely on open source data, but still enriched with the expert analysis and expert insights that our analysts possess.”

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