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White Information

Two weeks ago, the US Joint Center for Operational Analysis issued its lessons learned from the past decade of military operations. With regards to intelligence, it states that – in past theaters – too little attention has been given to so-called ‘white information’, a term mainly referring to atmospheric cultural, political and economic open-source intelligence. John D. Stempel in 2007  narrows it down as “overt, or white, information that is attributed to official sources and represents the sponsoring government’s official view”. In a broader sense, white information encompasses not only officially sanctioned information, but pretty much all relevant information not exclusively dealing with enemy activity. JCOA‘s report elaborates (emphasis added):

“Because the traditional intelligence effort tended to focus on enemy groups and actions, it often neglected “white” information about the population that was necessary for success in population-centric campaigns such as counterinsurgency (COIN) operations. Local commanders needed information about ethnic and tribal identities, religion, culture, politics, and economics. Intelligence products provided information about enemy actions but were insufficient for other information needed at the local level. […] As a result, processes for obtaining information on “white” population-centric issues tended to be based on discovery learning, and were not consistently passed to follow-on units.”

By rossap @flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Such criticism reflects recommendations made, for example, in the USMC Intelligence Activity‘s 2009 ‘Cultural Intelligence Indicators Guide’, calling for intelligence to invest more effort into the “identification of key cultural observables”, and not solely on concrete operational enemy activity. Yet another 2005 USMC paper stresses why cultural intelligence matters:

“Conducting successful expeditionary operations requires not merely knowledge of and limited experience with the foreign culture in which such operations are conducted, but a deep understanding of it. This is particularly true in the ideological war on terror and insurgencies in general. Such understanding can only be found in those possessing high cultural intelligence […].”

And ultimately, a Center for a New American Security’s 2010 report takes the same line:

“Fusion Centers and CJ2 [Combined Joint Staff Branch for Intelligence] shops are overwhelmingly focused on “red” activity – concerning the enemy – devoting relatively little effort to “white” activity – the Afghan population, economy, development, and government.”

It’s about time for governments to do more than pay lip service to white information, not only in expeditionary military contexts, and to explore how the OSINT enterprise can be put to best use, particularly through teaming up with academia, a centuries old business built on white information.

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