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OSINT – A Job Creation Scheme?

Lately, there has been quite some public outcry about German domestic intelligence agencies failing in tracking down a neo-Nazi terrorist cell for more than a decade. As if that wasn’t enough, it has come to light that German domestic intelligence has also put one third of the Left Party fraction in the German Parliament under surveillance.

By janramroth @flickr / CC BY 2.0

In a heated discussion on German TV, the former President of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution elaborated on OSINT, and here’s the original transcription (‘Günther Jauch‘, 29. January 2012, 21.45h, Das Erste).

Peter Frisch, fmr. President of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV):

– “(…) Sie werden mir Recht geben, daß es meistens Daten waren aus Zeitungsberichten, genauso wie der Verfassungsschutz hauptsächlich aus offenen Quellen, nämlich aus Zeitungen, Nachrichten sammelt. (…)”

Dietmar Bartsch, Member of Parliament, ‘Die Linke’:

– “(…) Wenn Sie wirklich nur aus Zeitungen [sammeln], dann ist das wirklich eine Arbeitsbeschaffungsmaßnahme. (…)” (*)

Peter Frisch:

– “(…) Das habe ich eben nicht gesagt. (…) Es gibt einmal offene Nachrichten, das sind Informationen, Nachrichten und Erkenntnisse, die aus offenen Quellen gewonnen werden. Das sind die Zeitungsmeldungen, das sind die Medien, das sind auch Beobachtungen, das sind auch Photographien, allerdings keine Filmaufnahmen, die sind dem Verfassungsschutz nicht erlaubt, aber zu Photographieren, das kann er durchaus, das passiert auch. (…) Das ist ungefähr 60%. Und dann 20%, das sind so Feststellungen, wie sie im Laufe der Jahre getroffen wurden, 20% sind dann Informationen, die von anderen Behörden kommen. (…) Und dann, in nur 20% der Fälle, da muss man beispielsweise bei sicherheitgefährdenden Bestrebungen, vor allen Dingen bei geheimdienstlichen Bestrebungen, die es gibt, das ist Spionage, auch das gehört zur Aufgabe des Verfassungsschutzes (…) ich wollte bloß auf die geheimdienstlichen Methoden [zu sprechen kommen], die werden doch angewandt.

Frisch argues that most of the agency’s information is drawn from open sources, such as newspapers, which makes Bartsch reply that, if this holds true, the whole undertaking is hardly more than a job creation scheme. Frisch continues to distinguish the various sources and means of intelligence collection, and comes up with the following list: 60% of all intelligence information is made up of open source information. He explicitly refers to observations and taking photographs (videos are forbidden by law), too, highlighting the HUMINT aspect of OSINT which is oftentimes ignored. Another 20% is made up of information passed on and shared by other agencies. And finally, 20% accounts for the actual ‘secret’ sources and means, with counter-intelligence sticking out.

Following our definition, OSINT only considers sources and means publicly available and legally accessable to the general or specialized public, excluding institutions with extended legal authority such as the ‘other agencies’ sharing information with the BfV. Thus, according to Frisch, OSINT would account only for 60% of the intelligence collection. Unfortunately, he does not clearly distinct collection from analysis and does not make any qualitative statement.

But Bartsch – himself being no intelligence professional or scholar – does so by doubting the value of OSINT to the intelliquence requirement, to national security.

This confirms two of our hypotheses:

1. The analytical part of intelligence tradecraft – putting the collected pieces from ALL sources together and drawing sound conclusions on that base is what makes the difference.

2. It is important to distinguish the different sources and means by their quantitiy and quality. However, an intelligence service not knowing what the public knows would be a laughingstock. Therefore, the base of intelligence tradecraft must be OSINT, representing the largest quantitative share simply because of the mass of public sources and means. Yet, its qualitative contribution to intelligence requirements must not be underestimated because public information is very robust in general and it includes the expertise of non-state specialists contributing more and more to national security.

The challenge for intelligence enterprises is to be better informed than the public and than their adversaries. Who is who? (**)



(*) In a recent newspaper op-ed, former Liberal politician Burkhard Hirsch clarifies that as soon as a government starts collecting ‘open information’, this goes beyond the usual “Schnipseldienst” (i.e. the practice of cut and paste in commercial or journalistic media monitoring).

(**) This post includes contributions by Jan Störger.

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