As I read Julian Assange and crew’s latest (they’ve managed to get some videos of Tibetan protest marches up), I had an interesting thought. Anyone familiar with Robert D. Steele’s work on intelligence reform may be aware of his arguments for open-source intelligence (OSINT). Most people who follow security affairs who have heard of Steele reduce his thought down to OSINT, much in the same way people unfamiliar with John Boyd’s full "Discourse" reduce his ideas down to the OODA loop. However, Steele also argues for a collective, people-powered intelligence system that can provide early warning for humanitarian, law enforcement, and environmental problems.
I’m not suggesting that Wikileaks represents the fulfillment of Steele’s vision. But it does suggest that we are getting closer to it.
For those unfamiliar with Wikileaks, it is a site that advertises itself as a repository for leaked information exposing corruption, human rights violations, and other crimes. Using a secure server, Wikileaks receives many documents from all over the world, and relies on a wiki approach to verify their accuracy. As the site’s founder Assange notes, Chinese dissidents will examine the accuracy of Chinese documents and so on.
Wikileaks certainly has some flaws–their particular focus on obtaining American military and intelligence documents, for example, is reminiscent of CIA traitor Philip Agee and his infamous CovertActionQuarterly. What they are doing is highly reckless, dangerous, and may eventually cost American lives. That being said, Assange and co. are in privileged company. Wikileaks could also conceivably be exploited by foreign powers as a vehicle for covert propaganda. Soviet-era "active measures" campaigns excelled at flooding the media with rumors and forgeries. Perhaps an enterprising foreign intelligence service or terrorist group could use Wikileaks as a tool of strategic influence.
Additionally, the wiki approach, which always had some accuracy issues, may be ill-suited to something as important as highly-placed leaks. The Federation of American Scientist’s blog Secrecy News argues that "in the absence of accountable editorial oversight, publication can more
easily become an act of aggression or an incitement to violence, not to
mention an invasion of privacy or an offense against good taste."
But for all of its flaws, Wikileaks should not be taken lightly. Their secure interface and moral support from free-speech advocates allows them to avoid retaliation for its leaks, as a Caribbean bank’s clumsy takedown attempt indicates. And they are part of a broader trend in intelligence that has not received much attention.
We’ve heard a lot about private intelligence contractors offering everything from augmentation to existing state intelligence enterprises, competitive intelligence, corporate espionage, and private analytical outfits like Stratfor. But all of those entities seek to provide a privatized version of state intelligence (classified information and analysis).
In contrast, the activist and NGO communities lack (for both structural and cultural reasons) their own intelligence outfits that can produce products. Why would an NGO need an intelligence agency? NGOs are riding the wave of non-state power in an attempt to influence world events and change state behavior in increasingly ambitious ways. To do so, powerful transnational NGOs need an intelligence capability.
In order to collect evidence to further their aims, NGOs and activists need information–inside proof of human rights violations or lawbreaking, indications and warning (I&W) of genocide, GEOINT for visual representation of order of battle (in this case, perhaps the formations of Sudanese Army and janjaweed irregulars), and cultivated HUMINT sources that can feed them information that they can use to shape their campaigns.
No entity, or collection of entities, currently exist that can provide such information. There are, however, plenty of think tanks and NGOs who draw from information networks cultivated by clever researchers, local personnel, and regime dissidents. Also, Wikileaks can be considered a kind of rudimentary counter-cultural intelligence agency for the NGO and activist community, providing incriminating documents and rudimentary analytical intelligence products. Other activists have collaborated using public-use geospatial tools like Google Earth to identify villages in Darfur destroyed by rampaging janjaweed.
We may see the emergence of private NGO intelligence outfits, which will leverage the following trends/assets:
- Increasingly powerful publicly available all-source intelligence tools
- The perception of impartiality to gain deep access
- Collective intelligence (Wikified intelligence products)
- Participation from former intelligence community insiders
- Robust human intelligence networks on the ground from IDP camps, relief campaigns
- Covert "support" from state powers running strategic influence campaigns
- A growing culture of "radical transparency"
- A staff of idealistic and committed volunteers willing to potentially risk their lives for little or no pay.
Many of these elements are already available—peruse any Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch report and you’ll find a wealth of inside information.
What would a true NGO intelligence outfit look like? Would it be Amnesty International’s version of Stratfor? Or a pathetic nuisance? Will it harm national security and endanger American soldiers? I don’t know the answers to these questions. In the long run, only time will tell. But the trends are unmistakable. As troubling as Wikileaks may be, it represents a future that states will have to adjust to.