Analysis & Opinions

Intel community weighs role of open source intelligence amid Ukraine conflict

| Apr. 21, 2022

Lauren Zabierek and Maria Robson Morrow were interviewed by the Federal News Network's Justin Doubleday for his radio show "Inside the IC."

Intelligence agencies have struggled to define how open source intelligence fits into its broader work, but the wide breadth of publicly available information about the Ukraine conflict, combined with proactive disclosures of classified information, are providing some clarity about OSINT’s role.

During an appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies last week, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Stacey Dixon said publicly available satellite imagery, for instance, puts the intelligence community “in a different place” in not being the sole arbiter of information about a foreign conflict like the one in Ukraine.


Lauren Zabierek, a former intelligence officer and executive director of the Cyber Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, said the CSIS report provides a good overview of the myriad policy, legal and cultural challenges that can constrain the use of OSINT within the intelligence community.

“Analysts want to do a good job, they want to be able to use information in their analyses,” Zabierek said on “Inside the IC.” “But there are a lot of different issues that I think the community and even Congress really need to address.”

She said Congress could improve how it sets budgets and requirements to advance the role of OSINT, while both Congress and the executive branch need to work through legal issues governing how analysts can use publicly available information, so they can do so while ensuring privacy and civil liberties are protected.

Maria Robson, program coordinator of the Intelligence Project at the Belfer Center, studies how the private sector has increasingly built up OSINT tradecraft over the last two decades. She said while some people retain their security clearances when they move to the private sector, the clearances aren’t providing “nuggets of gold” compared to OSINT.

“A lot of it is just the power of open source information in a way that didn’t exist 10 or 20 years ago,” Robson said on “Inside the IC.” “The distinction that we see here with public and private is the extent of the training on open source intelligence analysis that exists in the private sector that doesn’t necessarily exist in the government because of the access to classified information. And so one of the things I think we need to see is learning from those private sector models in terms of how to train analysts and how to effectively take advantage of all the open source intelligence available.”

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Intel community weighs role of open source intelligence amid Ukraine conflict.” , April 21, 2022.