Open Source Intelligence in a Networked World

Title:                      Open Source Intelligence in a Networked World

Author:                 Anthony Olcott

Olcott, Anthony (2012). Open Source Intelligence in a Networked World. New York : Continuum

LCCN:    2011034355

JF1525.I6 O39 2012


  • When information retrieval system meant the memory of the oldest employee — The screwballs of K Street and the four-eyes brigade — Intelligence analysis and open sources — Not indigestion but gluttony — Collecting puzzle pieces while mysteries abound — Six qualities of information — So what? addressing the signal-to-noise problem — Improving information “food searches” — Narratives of persuasion and the battle for attention — A world awash in images.


Date Posted:      February 11, 2016

Reviewed by Joshua Sinai[1]

With the vast amount of open source information available on the Internet, intelligence analysts are literally drowning in such digitized data, which in the intelligence world is termed a “signal-to-noise ratio.” The author, a veteran intelligence analyst (and a leading expert on Russian history as well as an author of two novels), explains how to navigate this rising flood of data to collect, process, and analyze such information into finished intelligence studies. The book also includes case studies on the difficulties in analyzing data on terrorist groups.

Reviewed by Hayden Peake.[2]

After a teaching career in the Russian Department of Colgate University, Anthony Olcott in 2000 joined the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), which became the DNI Open Source Center in 2005. He served there as director of Analytic Assessment and Academic Outreach. In 2009, he joined the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. Until this year, he also served in the CINs Center for the Study of Intelligence. Throughout his career, Olcott has studied the information revolution and its impact on the use of open sources in intelligence. Open Source Intelligence in a Networked World is the result of his research.

US intelligence organizations have made use of open source information since WWII, when the Research and Analysis Branch of the OSS, using material in the Library of Congress, prepared reports on the North African beaches for Operation TORCH, the Allied invasion of that region. The use of open source material continued after the war, when the Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service-created even before the OSS-became part of the CIA as the Foreign Broadcast Information Service and provided the Agency and other government organizations with daily media translations from numerous countries. Olcott reviews this history, citing theoretical foundations, bureaucratic battles, and various commission reports. He stresses that past failure to pay attention to open sources has resulted in unnecessary surprise. For example, he characterizes the Intelligence Community’s failure to perceive the onset of the Iranian revolution during 1978 and 1979 as an “open source blunder.” (p. 59) He goes on to note that even in 1998, the CIA’s preference for secret over open source information caused the Agency to be surprised when India resumed nuclear testing, even though Indian leaders had publicly stated their intentions to do so. (p. 89)

As the Community worked to prevent similar incidents, he suggests, it was simultaneously striving to deal with what became known as the information explosion. Most of Olcott’s book addresses this multifaceted problem and its implications. For example, the nature of open-source information has evolved to include more than the traditional base of media and government reports. One must now take into account resources on the Internet, including Google, social networks, blogs and microblogs, and Wikipedia, So while the volume of data and rapid access have always been problems, they are compounded in today’s world. Olcott describes technology solutions to solve intelligence problems as well as the importance of asking the right questions. (p. 146) Chapters such as “So What? Addressing the Signal-to-Noise Problem” and “Improving Information ‘Food Searches’“ consider these issues in detail.

The new information age also presents new analytical challenges, and Olcott devotes substantial attention to them. Here he considers the “power of heuristics,” or the tendency to use familiar structures or models. He notes the traditional compliance with Sherman Kent’s guidance that an intelligence organization should have the combined characteristics of “a large university faculty, our greatest metropolitan newspapers, and an organization engaged in manufacture of a product.” But in today’s world, he adds, “each of these forms of enterprise is in profound trouble” due to the transformation of the information environment. (p. 252) New models and approaches will be necessary to satisfy demand for quick and accurate information.

Open Source Intelligence in a Networked World is a thoughtful, well-documented, if at times ponderous treatment of a very practical-and important problem. Open source intelligence has finally received the careful analysis it has long deserved.

[1] Sinai, Joshua, PhD. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (19, 1, Winter/Spring, 2013, pp. ). Dr. Joshua Sinai is a Washington-based educator and consultant on terrorism and counterterrorism studies. He has provided capsule reviews of important books recently published on terrorism and counter-terrorism-related topics. He can be reached at:

[2] Hayden Peake is a frequent reviewer of books on intelligence and this review appeared in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (19, 1, Winter/Spring, 2013, pp. 110-111). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Di recto rate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found on line at

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