Former Clandestine Operative Says Automated Systems Not Good Enough

May 13, 2008

Editor’s Note: Robert Steele, former Marine Corp. officer and intelligence operative, was one of the first, if not the first, intelligence professional since World War II to question the relative value of secret sources and technologies in relation to open sources and technologies. Mr. Steele agreed to meet me near his office in suburban Washington, D.C. The full text of the interview appears below. After we spoke, Mr. Steele provided me with illustrations he referenced in our conversation. I have included these in the transcript at the point where Mr. Steele references them. You can read more about Mr. Steele at his Web site, OSS.Net.

How did you get interested in using information that’s readily available to anyone in a library, in newspapers, and online as a source of useful intelligence?

I went into the international spy program at CIA with a Master’s in International Relations, and knew quite a bit about citation analysis and primary research. What I was not expecting over the course of my clandestine career was the obsession with stealing secrets to the exclusion of all that could be known from open sources.


Robert D. Steele

The clandestine officers also refused to interact with the analysts—before leaving for my first overseas assignment, the Chief of Station took me to the analysis side of the house, and on my way there he said something along the lines of “these folks know nothing useful, and we tell them nothing.”

When the Marine Corps asked me to leave CIA to create the Marine Corps Intelligence Center in 1988, I promptly did what I thought the government wanted; that is, I spent $20 million on a codeword analysis center, including a Special Intelligence Communications (SPINTCOM) work station. I thought it would do everything except kill the terrorist.

Was I in for a shock. I had put a PC with Internet access in an isolated room, not connected to any government network. The PC had a modem. I was curious about online and bulletin board systems. In a short time, analysts were leaving their super charged workstations to stand in line to use the PC. These professionals were looking for information that was not in the government system and not known to our officers in the field (including diplomats and commercial or defense attaches).

What a wake up call.

That is when I learned that expensive systems are as good as their sources—narrow casting into the secret world made much of our multi-billion dollar technology virtually worthless. Analysts using the PC showed me that 80 to 90 percent of the information we needed could be obtained using the PC and public information to include direct calls to overt human experts. I also learned that useful information was available in 183 other languages no one in the US Government can speak or understand. Even today, a large number of Washington officials don’t understand the intelligence value of open sources of information including commercial imagery, foreign-language broadcasts that must be accessed locally, and gray literature, such as university yearbooks for a photo of a terrorist. Washington is completely out of touch with human experts that are not US citizens eligible for a secret clearance—the spies don’t want them unless they agree to commit treason, and the analysts are not allowed to talk to them by paranoid ignorant security officials.

Almost every vendor asserts that their systems can “do” business or competitive intelligence. In your experience is this accurate?

Look. BI and CI are not really intelligence.

BI or business intelligence is commonly used as a descriptor for what is nothing more than internal knowledge management, spiced up with a point-and-click graphics dashboard. Not only are most of these system non-interoperable with everything else, they are as smart or as stupid as the digital data they can access.

The reality of information in most organizations is that most of what is really valuable is not digital. And, most CEOs have zero idea what intelligence (decision support) actually means.

CI or competitive intelligence focuses on competitors. What I practice, Commercial Intelligence, focuses on

  • External information
  • Collaborative work
  • Knowledge management
  • Organizational intelligence.

Commercial intelligence leverages what can be drawn from the human social networks interacting with an organization and the other sources of information. External information is not information about competitors. It includes such factors as “true cost” of goods and next-generation “cradle to cradle” opportunities. You have to factor in the art and science of retaining Organizational Intelligence. I will send you a diagram that shows my view of this commercial intelligence space.

four sectors

In my experience, today’s systems are edging toward failure. The systems aren’t very good, useful, or usable. As the Gartner Group recently said about Windows, it is untenable. I like Microsoft for its cash flow—they need to dump the legacy and launch an open source network with shared call centers and Blue Cube power processing.

Let’s be more specific. What are the problems that users have with today’s search, text processing and business intelligence systems?

None of these systems can address more than a modest percentage–maybe as low as 10 percent–of what is known or can be known. There are hundreds of search “solutions” but they are like the rainbow, each sees only one color—even one shade of one color.

The other issue that most people don’t think about is that most databases are sharply limited to English-language “business” information. Most claims of historical or foreign language or non-business coverage are usually baloney.

These folks throw in a few articles in other languages, and assert that this information expands their systems’ scope. Peter Drucker made a good point in Forbes ASAP (24 August 1998) when he observed that computers have had a very pernicious impact, causing executives to focus inward rather than outward.

I prefer humans with thirty years experience, hired one day at a time, to any “system.” In today’s complex environment, systems are generally stupid, and if I were John Henry with a cell phone and a laptop, John Henry wins over the steam engine (the secret technology archipelago).

In 1995, I demonstrated that six phones calls on a specific subject produced everything available. The other team used the fancy government intelligence system. The problem with spies is they only know secrets. A secret out of context is almost useless. My approach delivered context and actionable information.

Right now, the government is spending as much as $60 billion a year on secret technologies and the protection of information, only 10% of which is secret. In my opinion, these technologies provide zero information about eradicating the ten highest-level threats to humanity. I will send you a diagram that is based on work by Diane Webb in 1986. What you see is a rich information “space” and easy access points.

webb diagram 1966

We don’t have a device in software or hardware that makes this type of information “touch” a reality. Maybe some day Cisco, Google, or another outfit will create this type of system.

In any system, the output is only as good as the information coming into the system. Since most of what we need to know is not in English and a great deal of it is either unstructured or offline, I have to conclude that there is no commercial solution today that can be relied upon for the necessary mix of global monitoring, help desk, tailored studies, and strategic forecasting, these are the four critical value propositions defined by Jan Herring in the 1970’s. Now 30 years later, no-one stop shop exists to deliver this type of access.

What can be done to help a company or person looking for an online system make a more informed decision.

At this time [May 7, 2008] there is no online system that can help make an informed decision across a full range of needs and inquiries.

I define “pure” intelligence as a process that does not need online systems at all. It consists of requirements definition (understand the question in context, the desired outcome); collection management (know who knows), source discovery and validation (generally done by expert humans who have spent their life mastering the domain, at someone else’s expense); analysis, which can be aided by but does not necessarily require automated support; and compelling timely actionable presentation to the decision-maker.

This type of information costs money, but solid intelligence makes money. That is a profound litmus test for anyone claiming to be an intelligence expert, but it is also a good test for the in-house IT budget. Paul Strassmann in Information Productivity: Assessing Information Management Costs of U. S. Corporations (Information Economics Press, June 1999) has documented, most IT departments do not add value. Some IT shops reduce information value. NONE of them produce commercial intelligence.

Also, these is no one stop shop. In my view, Microsoft should take its billions and buy some of the more interesting companies in the intelligence sector, not chasing high-traffic ephemera like or over-priced networks like Yahoo. I think Michael Bloomberg asserted that companies should build not buy. Microsoft needs a strategic global architecture for sources, tools, sense-making, and dissemination, not just Web traffic. As Bloomberg has taught me, outsiders will give you what you ask for. The insiders will give you what you need.

The US government “buys one of everything”. The procurement people say, “We are learning.” Is this an efficient way to move technology from the commercial sector into the defense, intelligence, or enforcement agencies?

Every government spends. The US government is just better at it than almost any other nation. Perhaps the new president will terminate the DoD Global Information Grid as well as 75% of the secret technical stovepipes. A major part of the problem is that the Office of Management and Budget has not done “management” since the 1970’s, and the Congressional oversight committees have no clue that most of what needs to be done can be done at a fraction of the cost using open sources and technologies that still provide robust commercial security.

Maybe we can start with a clean sheet of paper. One idea is to shift to open source software, open source information, and open spectrum devices in to play. If a new administration could find a way to fold that open source initiative into a Multinational Decision Support Center, we would have a new angle to follow. Properly managed, this open source approach would provide access to broader information across in all languages without the stovepipe problem. It would be possible to provide actionable intelligence to such organizations as the United Nations, the Red Cross, and other appropriate entities.

Let me think out loud. Assume we create this new center and make the open source commitment. Here are two outcomes I see.

First, it would become clear that we can meet 90 percent of our intelligence needs with low-cost generic open source information technology, and that the information sharing this enables would begin to create enormous efficiencies and then wealth dividends.

Second, we could prepare a social graph to match resources. This approach to intelligence might allow us to make better use of current charitable activities. As David Osborne once said, government should steer, not row. I could cut the size of government by two thirds and still triple its global influence on peace and prosperity simply by leveraging information and intelligence. The government lacks both the strategic leadership and the engineering insights needed.

There are more than 500 companies selling search, content processing, and business intelligence systems. There is precious little data that makes it possible to point to a specific dollar pay off from most of these systems when in use. What are the benefits of a systems approach to intelligence?

A systems approach to intelligence does not require hardware or software, only a systematic approach. I can learn more about anything for $5,000, by finding exactly the right person, who has in hand 30 years of memory, direct access to a global network of current experts, a range of graduate diggers and synthesizers, and—this is the really cool part—hands-on access to pre-prints and unpublished new knowledge. Knowing who knows, and focusing on getting the exact best and most current knowledge for each specific requirement, is what makes human intelligence so precious. Let me stress this by pointing out that Jim Bamford’s book, Body of Secrets, has a stunning conclusion. After summarizing the US National Security Agency’s monetary waste, he asserts that NSA may one day reach the Holy Grail in computing–a computer that weighs little, requires little energy, and performs petaflops of calculations per second. He calls this, “the human brain.”

The world has discovered that people use online to communicate and share information. What’s your view on processing documents versus looking at the inter actions among users of information as a source of intelligence?

It is a known fact that 80 percent of the value of SIGINT or Signals Intelligence from World War II onwards, has come from pattern analysis rather than content decryption and understanding. Social networks can be helpful but also not so helpful. On balance, a properly harnessed social network is quite useful for producing interesting intelligence that can contribute to other processes because each human can discover, discriminate, distil, and disseminate “just right” contributions.

The world is going mobile, and this will make social graph analysis more important. The “who calls whom when” information is particularly intriguing. We can also use mobile technology to help educate the five billion people who want to learn with one cell call at a time, free. Some companies will be able to monetize certain transactions, while the free education creates localized stabilizing wealth, and moves five billion people into the global marketplace.

Mobile technology makes it difficult to pull off centralized intelligence or centralized information services. The government intelligence approach is both an oxymoron and a mammoth elephant stuck neck deep in tar pits of history. There are eight intelligence tribes, and if all eight are not sharing, none of them will get what they need. [The eight tribes are government, military, law enforcement, academia, business, media, non-governmental organizations, and civil society including labor unions and religions.]

Is usage tracking of every click and every mobile call a time bomb waiting to go off in the commercial and federal sectors?

Yes, it is a time bomb. And in multiple ways.

First, in the US, we have a government of good people trapped in a flawed system. If the precautionary principle should apply to scientific and technological research, it should ably doubly to government initiatives. The things that the telecommunications and computing industry agreed to do for the US Government in the aftermath of 9-11 are, in my opinion, criminal. There should be no statute of limitation on those crimes.

What is frightening to me is the combination of naivete and intrusiveness that come with any government initiative in the information technology arena. We have a terrorism watch list with 900,000 names on it—fewer than 90 names are real threats.

We have government losses of laptops with critical information. We have a bureaucracy so ill-informed about IT vulnerabilities despite warnings in the 1990’s from Winn Schwartau, Peter Black, myself and many others, that all of our Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems—for fuel, natural gas, water, electricity, etcetera—are connected to the Internet.

But let’s go beyond the electrons and into the computational mathematics. I read every word of your two books on Goggle so far, and it was enough to persuade me that Google means well, but the company is being driven by its own technology. Google’s ability to link ads and search and content is a money machine, but it opens the door to fiddling the results.

We’re in a spot where governments and companies have created an information flood choked with sharks. The craziness of the Y2K “scare” was, as Stewart Brand has said, “a whiff of the carnage to come.”

Most open source information systems aren’t easy to interconnect. There’s a lot of chatter about Web services, but silos still exist. How much of a barrier are these real and implicit silos?

The greatest barrier is our mind-sets at the CEO, CTO, security, and legal levels. Many of today’s most influential managers were educated in the 1950’s to the 1960’s. Aging managers don’t understand today’s threats as well as today’s possibilities. Many senior managers are simply unwilling to migrate from the stovepipes to the circular or commons model.

In today’s flat world, information resources and capabilities can be and are shared but not in across most organizations—there are iron curtains between nations, bamboo curtains between industries, and plastic curtains between individuals. Medard Gabel, Buckminster Fuller’s partner in creating the World Game, taught me that you cannot combine multiple games if each was built with different rules for different purposes. What you CAN do is adopt the open source approach and ensure that sources, software, and spectrum are totally open.

What we must avoid at all costs is any single central point of control such as Google-inspired organizations represent. Intelligence needs to stay on the edges, we should reject all tethered devices, and we should insist on keeping the generative capabilities that allowed our first Internet gold rush to go so well.

With the US presidential elections rushing toward us, what policy changes are needed to make open source a more useful contributor to government decision makers? Is it too late? Is it possible to change?

There are some truly exceptional minds and hearts within the US Government, especially the branches of the White House like the General Services Administration where Citizen Services has real meaning, and the Office of Management and Budget, where they know a military industrial rip-off when they see it. Change begins at the top, and I think we will have to wait and see what happens after the November 2008 election. Until then, I don’t see much change in US government practices.

Big companies like IBM and Verizon are generally confident that Google is a flash in the pan. What’s your view of Google as it relates to open source intelligence?

Most people are happy to think about Google as a free Web search company that makes money from advertisers putting ads on Google Web pages. But I think Google has the potential to leap frog certain legacy industries from communications and entertainment to finance and publishing as well as computer storage and sense-making.

I’m into open source, but I think of Google as proprietary as AT&T or Standard Oil before their government-mandated break-ups. Google could become the foe of bottom up democracy and unfettered information sharing—I am especially concerned by their ability to manipulate search results so that one sees only what someone else has paid for you as a specific target to see.

From a strategic intelligence point of view, I consider IBM and Verizon, among many others, to be eager consumers of their own KoolAid. I’ve heard that Google’s employing Vint Cerf at Google is a guarantee that Google will be friendly to telecommunication companies and the Internet overall.

Not so. Vint is a gentleman and one of the most honest people I know. But Google is bigger than any one of its engineers, including Vint Cerf. Google is shaping up to be a new and improved supranational predator that no government and no public can understand or control. Few people see Google in this way. I do.

Stephen Arnold, May 13, 2008


2 Responses to “Former Clandestine Operative Says Automated Systems Not Good Enough”

  1. Commercial Intelligence: A Better Way to Do Competitive Intelligence : Beyond Search on May 13th, 2008 6:28 am

    […] You can read the full interview on the Interview section of the Beyond Search Web log site here. […]

  2. Smehndi on May 21st, 2008 5:19 am

    I really appreciate Mr. Robert’s thoughts and ideas. He has put everything in perspective – “we cannot create intelligence using dumb machines”.

    Seriously enlightening – more of a wake up call for the corporates spending billions in software that does not support their intelligence needs.

    Many Thanks,

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