You can find some pretty interesting open-source intelligence surfing Senate Committees pages while waiting for the melatonin to kick in at night. For instance, there wasn’t much (enough) media coverage of Tuesday’s Senate Select Committee on Intelligence open hearing (rare) with National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Director Robert Cardillo. Since it was an open hearing, I wasn’t really expecting anything too subversive. What I read in Director Cardillo’s record testimony, though, was pretty exciting. Watching it over about an hour and a half even more so. NGA’s intelligence sources are, in some cases, right at our fingertips. “To truly succeed in the open,” Cardillo wrote, “NGA must lead the IC in overcoming our historic reluctance to allow analysts to engage externally and embrace the ever-expanding private marketplace.”


Everyone’s played with Google Earth, exploring from above old haunts where that drive-in theater used to be, tiny Pacific islands where nobody lives, ancient towns in the Middle East, or the deepest reaches of Amazonian rain forests. You never know what you might discover. NGA is leveraging that approach to significantly and relatively inexpensively add depth and reliance to their analysis with the same sort of open-source imagery. Indeed, for NGA and the specialized, high-tech intelligence it can provide customers, leveraging open-source imagery rounds out the intel picture in a world saturated with information. “With the explosion in publicly available information and non-traditional sources,” Director Cardillo writes, “the IC no longer has a monopoly on access or insight, but the IC is routinely asked to corroborate what is being reported and to put it into the context of what we know about the evolving issue, to include the motives of the participants and the potential threats to our interests.”


Perhaps the most valuable characteristic of intelligence analysts isn’t their ability to get a TS/SCI clearance (though that’s important). The valuable characteristic is the ability see what we all may see in a way that reveals details others would certainly miss. It’s how Sherlock Holmes did his work. Along the same lines, Cardillo explains, “NGA has been using publicly available information such as social media data, together with geospatial information to anticipate hostile actions to U.S. or Allied interests and provide a fully integrated intelligence picture.” In other words, it’s all there if you know what you’re looking for, or see what the information is telling you, both explicitly and implicitly. With that mentality, what “open-source intelligence” means vastly expands, and if what you’re seeing in secret aligns with what you’re reading in the open, all the better. It’s a clearer picture.

While NSA’s giant information vacuum collects private conversations with high speed computer programs, some smart intelligence analysts are taking more and more seriously what they can find on Facebook, Twitter, My Space, and other platforms to reinforce conclusions. “Open content will be embraced with the same fervor as classified content,” writes Cardillo, “and in many cases, we will use open content first and augment with classified sources to reject, confirm, or increase confidence in analytic judgments.” That’s great depth and reassurance to analysis.


As Cardillo sees it, “This new open content paradigm will open the floodgates of information opportunities for us. Instead of just imaging a small percentage of the Earth each day, we will sense all of it every day.” Suddenly, all that information that innumerable commercial platforms are collecting and publishing examined holistically and systematically tells stories to the intelligence communities that they may not have found otherwise.

If you’re just wondering exactly what—or generally what—the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the National System for Geospatial-Intelligence (NSG) do, read the written testimony. Director Cardillo lays it out, and more, with examples of current events to which NGA has contributed, to both military and civil endeavors. Exciting stuff.

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Ed Ledford enjoys the most challenging, complex, and high stakes communications requirements. His portfolio includes everything from policy and strategy to poetry. A native of Asheville, N.C., and retired Army Aviator, Ed’s currently writing speeches in D.C. and working other writing projects from his office in Rockville, MD. He loves baseball and enjoys hiking, camping, and exploring anything. Follow Ed on Twitter @ECLedford.