Friday, July 20, 2007

Sources Open and Closed


Early this week I attended the DNI Open Source Conference, a two-day Washington affair keynoted by the Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, and attended by roughly 900 people from intelligence agencies, private companies that want to do business with them, and academics.

The conference’s topic was the gathering, care and handling of open-source (OS) information, such as from news media, commercial databases and libraries—basically, anything that’s not stolen or obtained surreptitiously. OS has recently become a priority thanks to the efforts of McConnell and others who contend that OS should be the “source of first resort” for the U.S. intelligence community (IC).

I attended panel after panel in which current and former IC members described the virtues and drawbacks of open-source collection: how to vet it, recombine it, and even how to get access to it at all, since many IC computers are purposely isolated from the Internet. (Internet connections risk giving away IC intentions since an adversary could monitor intelligence-agency searches and results.)

Although some of these breakout sessions were useful, most were inordinately heavy on panelist presentations and light on Q&A time, reducing opportunities for useful give-and-take between panelists and audience members.

The plenary sessions, held in an amphitheatre, were uncomfortably repetitive. Officials with long experience in the IC each welcomed us, heralded a new dawn for the IC’s embrace of OS, asked our help, and solicited suggestions. Not one of these plenary speakers—high government officials all—provided contact information for themselves, so the idea of people in the OS community making helpful suggestions remains a bit distant.

Unfortunately this trend of one-way communication reached up to Tom Fingar, deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, whose talk on Tuesday followed the release of a two-page, unclassified summary of the new National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism. Perhaps trying to motivate his audience, Fingar briefly discussed the NIE’s findings, which boil down to: Al-Qa’ida still threatens the U.S. from its Pakistan “safe havens.”

After the director’s remarks, Lawrence Wright of the New Yorker asked Fingar why the NIE took three years to conclude what anyone reading the newspapers would already know. Fingar testily replied that a) the media don’t have as many sources as the IC, which therefore b) has a higher confidence level in its conclusions.

Considering that the conference’s purpose was to promote OS sources and thinking, Fingar's reversion to the old-school IC line—We know more than you, so please don’t question our thinking—was remarkable. Particularly on the topic of al-Qa’ida, whose plans and intentions the IC has misread more than once.

Afterwards, I shared a chuckle with Wright, a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Looming Tower, when I accused him, personally, of lacking both good sources and confidence.

Fortunately, the real story of the DNI Open Source Conference wasn’t on the agenda. Someone once told me it’s the ‘walks in the woods’ that matter at conferences, and the myriad conversations between panelists, attendees and exhibitors between sessions generated real sparks. I was hard-pressed for a moment to talk with many of the panelists since so many others also sought them out.

I have no doubt that hundreds, maybe thousands, of useful connections were made between IC, private-sector and academic intelligence professionals, whose enthusiasm for talking and debating one-on-one was obvious and contagious.

This is where the DNI Open Source Conference’s real value to the U.S. lies; hopefully, next year’s conference will move beyond the introductory, isn’t-this-great phase and plan in more time for people to mix, mingle and create connections that will lead to better OS intelligence collection.


Anonymous said...

The exchange was b/n Lawrence Wright of the New Yorker and Tom Fingar--not McConnell.

Paul D. Kretkowski said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks very much for correcting my faulty memory and notes; Wright also confirms that it was Fingar, not McConnell, and I have corrected copy accordingly. My apologies to everyone for this mistake.

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