Army OSINT: Defining a New Course
Emily Harding: Good morning. We are here this morning to talk about the Army’s strategy for open-source intelligence. We have Dennis Eger and Shawn Nilius with us.
OSINT has been around for as long as intelligence. What is different now? Once upon a time OSINT was largely foreign press. It needed translating, but the analysis was fairly straightforward. Today, we are all swimming in data. Between Google searches, commercial imagery, social media posts by Russian soldiers on the front lines, data is everywhere. And it is now usable in a way it has never been before. The intelligence community is grappling with how and if they should use this data.
So today we have two leaders in this space who have been working OSINT for a while in a very demanding environment, the U.S. Army, and have come up with a groundbreaking new strategy that will define the future of open-source intelligence. So, first, we have Dennis Eger. He’s the senior open-source intelligence adviser for the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command. And we have Sean Nilius, who’s the director of the U.S. Army OSINT Office in U.S. Army Intel and Security Command. So happy to have you two here.
We’ve been having these discussions for a year now, maybe?
Dennis Eger: At least.
Ms. Harding: As this strategy has been in the works. I sort of seen it as it’s developed from afar, and I’m so excited that you’re getting close to the actual release. So let’s start off with you, and just tell us a little bit about the strategy.
Mr. Eger: So, first, I appreciate the time. You know, we have been working on – not just the strategy – but you and I have been working on trying to get down here to do this for quite a while. So I really appreciate the time. Yeah, so the strategy. I think this was probably one of the biggest moving parts for the Army that we’ve got across the line, right? And so kind of a little bit of the history about the reason why and surrounding it was, in the Army, you know, OSINT has been happening for quite some time, right? I mean, the Asian Studies Detachment has been around forever. They’ve been doing OSINT. And a lot of other units started doing OSTIN as well.
But what we didn’t have was kind of this synchronized effort from an Army OSINT enterprise, all of us together. And so the strategy’s aim was kind of three parts. One, to get us synchronized as an Army all moving in the same direction. The second one was resourcing. So, you know, a lot of times you’re not going to get resourcing if you don’t have a strategy kind of pointing to the direction that you want to go. And equipping, right? So in order to equip or get what we need, you need a strategy as well.
The way we broke it down was probably, you know, we aligned it with General Potter’s intel priorities and the Army’s priorities, right, so that it nested well with all of our documents. And so we started with – yeah?
Ms. Harding: Can you tell our audience who General Potter is and why she’s so amazing?
Mr. Eger: Oh, yes, General Potter – yeah, yeah, she’s incredible, right? She is the – she’s the deputy chief of staff for intel for the Army. So she runs Army intel across the globe. And very important, because she is – she is honestly the driving force for the reason why all this has gotten done. It has been her number-one priority for the past three years. So, you know, I could say I don’t know that we would be where we are today without her, so very appreciative of that.
So we aligned it with her strategy. And so we went with four basic lines of effort. The first one was about people. The other one was about modernization, then about readiness, and then about allies and partners. And so under the people line of effort, it was how do we – how do we get positions, like actual OSINT teams built from a structural perspective in Army organizations? And then how do we get them trained? And how do we do that through a lifecycle of a soldier’s career?
And then modernization was – a lot of folks when they think modernization they immediately go to architecture. So, you know, we have to modernize the architecture for speed, right? For us it was, we need to modernize everything. Which is, the architecture, how we were going to train, how we were going to equip, what our policies were going to be. We need to modernize all of that. And so we went down – we went down that path quite heavily. And we’ll talk about a few of those things as we go on.
Readiness centered on exercising, right? So how do you – how do you take OSINT and do home-station training or exercising at our combat training centers with real-world or scenario-driven information or data? And so how do we – how do we get OSINT into that training so that folks prior to deployment or prior to any other exercises, they’re trained?
And then the final thing is allies and partners, right? So we know that we’ve not – you know, no matter what war, conflict, or otherwise that we’ve been in, we haven’t done it alone. And so it takes allies and partners to get things done. And so we’ve worked heavily with our partners to really look at what they can do and what we can do. And really, I think the most important thing for us is how do we – how are we going to be able to share and disseminate information, right? Because that’s what’s important. Timely almost, you know, or near real-time intelligence between all of us.
So that’s kind of broadly what the strategy was about. And I know we’ll get into more specifics.
Ms. Harding: Yeah. So one point before we move on to definitions, which I know was a real sticking point early on in this one. The decision to modernize the entire structure, as opposed to try to go piecemeal or to do, like, a little bit here and a little bit there, can you talk a little bit about why that was the strategic decision?
Mr. Eger: Yeah. I think what a lot of folks do is they’ll try to just look at one piece instead of holistically. The problem with that is one piece, we knew, wasn’t going to get everything done for OSINT. So you could modernize – you could modernize an architecture, right, to say, well, how are we going to get near-real time collection for OSINT to the tactical edge of the warfighter? Yeah, great, I modernized it. But if I haven’t trained them, if I haven’t built the teams, if I haven’t built the policy and the regulations behind it, the architecture doesn’t matter. So you really have to do it in unison, which is – surprisingly, we’ve been able to do that quite well. We’ve taken big chunks of each of those lines of effort and moved them forward simultaneously.
Ms. Harding: Mmm hmm. I think that’s something that gets in the way for other folks who are attempting to do the same thing that you have, because it feels slower, and bigger, and more expensive to do the whole ecosystem at the same time. But in the end, it’s really not. It actually makes more sense to the entire –
Mr. Eger: It does. A lot more sense. And in the end, it’s actually cheaper to do it that way because you’ll find that so many things connect. From the training that – you know, this revolutionized training that we’re going to, you know, that takes architecture. And so you have to move them at the same time, right? If you just focused on the training, you’re going to have this big bill, right, and just the architecture, this big bill. But if I’m talking about them together, I can gain efficiency by doing it that way.
Ms. Harding: Yeah. I think it’s very smart.
So let’s talk definitions. Open source intelligence, there’s a big debate about what exactly is open source intelligence. It could be everything. It could be a very narrow set of things. It’s not just publicly available information, but it includes publicly available information. How did you guys go about defining open source intelligence?
Shawn Nilius: I’d rather you start that one. (Laughter.)
Ms. Harding: We have our first – our first punt of the event. (Laughter.)
Mr. Nilius: Yeah, well, first, thanks for having us here. If I could, just saw the strategy I think that you mentioned, so the strategy itself has not been released publicly but it has within the Army. And so for the Army OSINT Office, you know, our responsibility is to execute the program. It’s fantastic to have. And we’ve been working, you know, on the development of it. And just like Mr. Edgar mentioned, all the kind of – as we call it – kind of lines of effort inside that, whether it’s training, whether it’s equipping, you know, that aspect has been important for us as we move forward really bringing the program completely together across the Army.
But the other part of that is clearly the modernization part. And you guys both have hit on it. And that is, you want to keep those things nested together so ultimately when you get to the objective, right, it actually all syncs up and it works to do that. So anyways, I just wanted to add to that. But I do want to punt over to – (laughter) –
Ms. Harding: Well, so we’ll give you a minute to collect your thoughts. You made the tease, though, that it has not yet been released publicly. But it’s coming soon, we think.
Mr. Nilius: Yes.
Ms. Harding: Yes. So stay posted. It’ll be out there.
Mr. Eger: It is coming, yeah.
Ms. Harding: Coming soon, yeah.
Mr. Eger: So the OSINT PAI is interesting, right? It has gone back and forth. And so we know that from, you know, a directive or, you know, DOD instruction perspective, there are definitions for them. But they can be confusing when you’re talking about – especially for us –this hurdle of intelligence personnel as opposed to those that operate on the operational side of the house, right? So intelligence personnel have some very strict rules and guidelines. And then on the operational side, you know, they don’t fall under that. Doesn’t mean that they’re doing OSINT, but they do need PAI for a number of things.
So the way we’ve tackled it – a number of ways, actually. But so I’m actually going to steal one of Shawn’s examples, right? So Ukraine – let’s just take Ukraine, right? And, you know, you wake up in the morning and you and you turn on – you turn on the news. And you see, you know, the Russians have moved BTGs into the Ukraine. Publicly available, right? And then you say, hmm, I don’t know what the BTG stands for. Let me – let me Google it real quick. Ah, brigade tactical group, Russian, OK, got it. Still PAI research kind of thing.
But then if your commander turns to you and says: How many are there in Ukraine and where are they located? Now you’ve crossed the line to OSINT. And so for us, OSINT is based on that intelligence – that intelligence requirement from the commander to collect. And so when you do actual collection, where you’re printing it, storing it, rewriting, like, that is that is OSINT to us, right? And anything – you know, anything short of that will say is – we’ll say is PAI. But we’ve gone a step further, and we’re writing a definition for what we call PAI for research, which is – which is essentially, yeah, all those things leading up to that line without crossing over the line.
And so what we’ve done, and Shawn will talk about it more, but from a training perspective we’ve built a block of instruction into our training base for all intel soldiers. So when they go through the Intel Center of Excellence at Fort Huachuca for their training for whatever they’re going to be – CI, HUMINT, all source, you name it, right? We’ve added a block of instruction in there on how to use PAI and not get in trouble, right? So how to do it for research, what are safe sites where’s the line, what are the legalities? And we include that in every intel MOS. So now, when they move out, and they go to their organization, there’s not this confusion to them over can I do this or can’t I do it, because this might be OSINT. No, look, we taught you this is what PAI for research is, and that’s OK. So we thought that was important to build that in.
And then we also thought it was important was, you know, from a leadership perspective, right? So leaders, folks that have to lead those OSINT collection teams that we have, they’ve got to know where the line is, they’ve got to know what those teams are going to do. So Shawn and his folks built a – built a leader course – a number of different leader courses that we put into our foundry training. And our foundry training sites are essentially sites where you can – where there are just an incredible amount of intelligence courses that soldiers can go and take. And so they built a leader course in there.
So now leaders at all levels can go to the foundry site, they can get this training, and then they’ll understand it. So it wasn’t enough to make sure that our soldiers coming through the Intel Center understood it. It’s who else needs to know? OK, the platoon sergeant needs to know, the first –you know, and it needs to go all the way up to command leadership. So we built it out pretty well.
Ms. Harding: Yeah. So this might be a good time to jump into the question of ethics in collecting publicly available information, and the ethics of OSINT. So PAI, publicly available information, is out there. I mean, anybody with a computer and Google can locate most publicly available information. As a person who grew up in the intelligence community at CIA, where it was completely and totally forbidden to do anything even touching on U.S. citizens, this is something where the open source questions have been difficult because if you do a Google search looking at, you know, any kind of big chunks of information, the chances you’re going to be able to pull out any U.S. information from that search are very small. But on the other hand, it’s available on the internet to anybody who looks. So I know, this is a really thorny question that everybody who deals with open source intelligence is talking through. How did you guys tackle the ethics question?
Mr. Nilius: Well, I would say there’s kind of two parts to it. So we’re going to talk data is part of it. and then what we like to talk about is specifically the training. So I’ll start with the training side first. So the first thing, kind of going back to your initial question and Mr. Eger talking about the publicly available information research curriculum that we teach to everybody, the big change was also the fact that we got divided up if you’re going to be a true open source intelligence collector, there’s specific training you’re going to go to and if you’re not that’s what the publicly available information research is for, to do that.
So, again, professionalizing the force. OSINT is a discipline within the Army. Let’s get you properly trained. So we developed what we call our OSINT basic course. And it’s a four-week course, one standard. It’s now inside our schoolhouse, Intel Center of Excellence there. I think we’re the first service to do that. So but inside that, the very first week is all about legalities, the laws, the rules, the regulations, the intel oversight. All of those things right up front, we want to make sure they’re covered. Executive Order 12333 that all intelligence professionals should know and understand. So we start off right there, setting that as a requirement so that you truly know what you can and what you cannot do, to do that.
And then from there –
Ms. Harding: So before you move on to “from there,” because the three of us have grown up in public service I think that we understand at sort of a fundamental level the responsibility that folks in government feel to protect the privacy of the American people, in addition to doing the security work that they do. From those who might be watching online who have not grown up in public service, how would you explain where that line is – the approach that you take as a member of the government to being sure that you are protecting privacy, you are protecting Americans’ personal data, at the same time as you’re doing your job to secure the country?
Mr. Nilius: Do you want to –
Ms. Harding: Just a small, teensy question. (Laughter.)
Mr. Eger: Yeah, so –
Mr. Nilius: There’s that punt again. (Laughter.)
Mr. Eger: Yeah. No, no, it’s fine. Look, so just speaking purely from an OSINT perspective, right, not CI, HUMINT, those other things. I mean, they all fall under those things as well, but I’m certainly not the guy to talk about those. But from an OSINT perspective, I think it is important. And it’s an important question. But what I can say is, we don’t collect anything on U.S. citizens. Like we take this very seriously more than anything. And so we’ve put kind of guardrails in place to make sure that that doesn’t happen. So, as Shawn was talking about with the data, right? The data that we are exploiting, that we’re going to collect from, where we get the data, we make sure that the data is cleaned, in a sense.
So it has to be – the first part is we focus only foreign. There’s no - there is no U.S. data pulled in, foreign data. And then that data is cleaned. And it’s cleaned by the folks where we get the data to make sure that there’s nothing U.S. persons in it. And then they have to keep that data segregated from the rest of the data that they have, so that we know we’re just – that’s all we’re getting. So that’s kind of the first step. And so then when folks get in, and they – and they’re, you know, polling or collecting, using that data, the next step is they’ll write their report, right? And as their reports come in to our portal, we have a team of folks that actually then do another cleaning of the reporting to make sure that, you know, it’s structured right, that it goes out through our systems, but that there’s no U.S. persons in there.
And then a third step we have is we have auditors that audit everything that our collectors are doing. And so if they catch something, we have a very robust Intel Oversight Office that then takes it up. So even if it’s something that’s – we think it’s, you know, operation security-wise, or we think that they use the tool wrong, all that stuff is caught. Or, again, if we see something that looks like maybe they’re using their tools to search on the site that is U.S. people, then it’s flagged immediately. So we’ve got a bunch of guardrails in place to make sure that that doesn’t happen. But it all starts with segregating the data.
Ms. Harding: Yeah. I think it’s just critically important. I mean, with the debate about 702 going on the Hill right now – 702, being the really important collection authority the intelligence community has to collect from foreign people abroad only – there’s a lot of misinformation floating around about what that collection really is and does, and a lot of allegations about, you know, looking at U.S. persons data. And I would just really love for everybody out there to understand just how many layers of protection are in place for an effort like this. And it’s not just, you know, one check. It’s multiple layers of checks to be sure that everything is being done ethically and within the law.
Mr. Eger: Yeah, and, it’s a – and, as you said, it’s a very – it can be a very long and tedious process, right? And so what you’ll get is a lot of folks that say, well you’re – you know, you’re impeding the potential for near real-time intelligence to get to the tactical edge, right? And what I would say is, our civil liberties are more important.
Ms. Harding: Yeah, absolutely.
Mr. Eger: And so we’re not going to – we’re not going to jeopardize that, because the reality is if we jeopardize that and we do something like that in the OSINT community for the Army, it essentially will shut everything down. Will do nothing, right? So it’s not – it’s not worth the risk for us.
Ms. Harding: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. Nilius: Can I – just to expand, because it’s so important, the oversight and compliance side of this. The other thing is we control your access to that data. So if at any point there’s any kind of activity that we’re concerned with, we can immediately freeze your account, stop you from what you’re doing, until we’ve resolved it. And then we can restart, assuming everything goes through. We also do that not just from the sense from an oversight, but we’re also encouraging our collectors themselves, if they feel that they’ve done something wrong or they’re not sure to reach out and self-report, is what we call it. Let us know, so that we can look at it right away, immediately.
Again, the whole point here is we don’t want to necessarily slow them down, as we just discussed, but we want to make sure that, you know, we’re doing the right things and not dragging something out. You know, let’s figure it out. Let’s make sure we were doing it correctly. If not, what was the corrective action? And then the other thing that we’ll do is we’ll take whatever did take place, and we’ll share that with the rest of our collectors so that they know, hey, here’s maybe a new technique that we came up with, hey, don’t do this. But it’s very, very important for us. And we have a huge effort that’s dedicated to that for all those reasons.
Ms. Harding: Yeah, I mean, this is new and cutting-edge stuff. So you want people to have an open conversation about, oh, how do I interpret this nuance of this particular reg? Or how do I do this search in a way that’s on the up and up? So I think that’s really important.
Mr. Eger: Yeah, and I think that brings up – you said something near reg wise, right? So for Army, from a regulation standpoint, we’re on the cusp of producing the first-ever open source intelligence regulation in the Army. It’s in staffing right now. And we’ve been working on it for quite a while, right? And it addresses a lot of this stuff that you’re talking about. Again, because we think it’s that important. And it’s good to have a regulation, one binding document, that collectors and others can go to and say: This is what I can do and this is what I can’t do. So it becomes another mechanism to check and another guardrail, in a sense. So it’s really, really important. Another important document.
Ms. Harding: One reg to rule them all.
Mr. Eger: One reg to rule them all, that’s right. (Laughter.)
Ms. Harding: Well, so let’s talk about the Army being a leader in this space in general. I mean, not only to have the first reg, you also have the first real strategy to pursue this. Why the Army? Or perhaps more appropriately, why not the Army?
Mr. Nilius: That’s right, yeah.
Mr. Eger: You start and now tag on, but I – yeah.
Mr. Nilius: OK. Well, I think it starts with great leadership. You know, for myself, well, we talked about everybody’s got their own OSINT story. It’s been almost 20 years since I really got hooked on open source intelligence. So I was really excited about the opportunity to take – to get to run the Army Open Source Intelligence Office. But, you know, General Potter is really a driving force. It’s very important. I think her experiences alone are reason behind that. And really, probably the best guidance between her and Mr. Eger as the advisor is, hey, don’t wait, right? We’ve got to move out. Let’s do this. We’ve got a team committed to do it. And so we are working, of course, with other services, other agencies, anybody that wants to join our effort. But we’re not just going to stand around and admire the problem. We’ve just got to move out and get after it, so.
Mr. Eger: Yeah, and we talked, you know, before this, right? Like the best advice I ever been given in my 36 years in this space is when I first took over and General Potter kind of, you know, taped her finger in my chest. And she said, let’s go. Get stuff done. That’s all the guidance I need, right? Like, you know, it’s kind of like gloves off, move out, do something.
Ms. Harding: (Laughs.) Yes, ma’am.
Mr. Eger: Yeah. And, you know, and the reality is, it comes down to priorities, too, with leadership. And it’s not that OSINT wasn’t important to folks before. It was that it that it takes somebody that probably has utilized it quite often in the space, and General Potter had in the assignments that she was in so she recognized how important it was. And so yeah, she just said, go out and do things. Don’t wait. So we did. And that’s – and I think it’s a why – you know, how do we move out and others didn’t? Or are they behind, or are they – you know, I don’t know. I don’t really look at it like that, because we’re all – we are all in this together.
And I’ve had a lot of discussions with, you know, everyone across the IC about, hey, how we can make this work together. But leadership and priorities, really, I mean, she has just been – General Potter has been a driving force really behind it. And it’s allowed us to just move out and try things. But aside from that, you have to – you have to have a vision, and which is where the strategy came in, right? You can’t, as Shawn said, admire the problem and think that something’s going to change, right? I mean, when I came on board, you know, I quoted to folks, I don’t even know how many times, like, what’s the definition of insanity? Same thing over and over again, you know, expecting a different result that you don’t get.
And you’re wondering why. Well, it’s time it’s time to try something new, right? So let’s talk about what the strategy is going to be. Let’s think about – think through where we need to be not just next year, but 10 years from now. And let’s start making the leap to that. So, vision is really, really important. And when we laid out for General Potter and others, they were – OK, go. You got it. So yeah.
Ms. Harding: Yeah. Like so many things in the intelligence community, it’s a team sport, right? You can think of it like, you know, a flock of geese that flies in a V shape. The goose in front is, you know, pushing against the headwinds, but, you know, breaking up all of the surface tension for everything behind it so that everybody else in the flock can move forward a lot faster. And I see you guys that – you’re that lead goose, you know? It’s your turn to lead right now and to break up the space for everybody who’s following behind. There’ll be different folks moving forward at different points and leading as well.
Mr. Eger: Well, I’d gladly let my wings rest and kind of move to the back of the flock a little bit. That would be nice. But I’m not sure –
Ms. Harding: That’s why it’s a team. (Laughter.)
Mr. Eger: It is, yeah.
Ms. Harding: Let’s talk a little bit about tradecraft. One thing that we’ve talked about in the past is how you teach young folks who are learning how to do real OSINT work to sort the signal from the noise, to sort the real information from the mis and disinformation. Anybody who’s ever played on the internet knows that, you know, half the stuff you find is going to be completely incorrect. So how are you guys thinking about the tradecraft of open source intelligence?
Mr. Nilius: Yeah, so I’ll jump in. I think that’s, again, part of our training effort that we have and the vision for it. Where, again, as I mentioned, we divided the training again, for collectors versus non-collectors. And then for collectors, we’ve built multiple courses that we have available. First of all, the OSINT basic course, which has more than doubled in length from what was previously done. Again, we wanted to get after, as we mentioned, the oversight and compliance portion of that.
But really to get into the tradecraft, you get in through the repetitions of actually doing collection. And then even doing that, what we do is we have a session where we bring in collectors from the field, and an opportunity for them to engage with those that are about to graduate the course, so that they kind of get that exposure, as well as starting to make connections. Hey, you’re going to this unit, hey, here’s probably the most senior OSINT collector we have out there. So that’s a part of it to do that. And then once you get out there, we have courses where we continue to go back and give you additional refresher training, the tools, the capabilities, the modernization that goes with all of that.
As you all know, the internet changes rapidly. So we’ve got to change the training. And it’s got to be, again, rapidly that we can make those changes. So I think that’s a part of it, that we can – that we can get after. We still have a lot more to do. Again, the strategy will help lay out kind of the way forward to do that. But that’s probably at least the baseline of the way we see it.
Mr. Eger: That, and, you know, from a broader perspective, and some of the things that you talked about, right, we – you know, it comes down to a lot of times, you know, when you’re talking about mis and disinformation, you’re talking about the noise, right, it comes down to the capabilities that you’re going to build or have built for you to get after that, right? So how are you going to – how are you going to utilize AI? How are you going to – how are you going to utilize large language models, right?
Those are those are important, right, because the you know, the amount of information on the internet, right? You can be – as intelligence professionals, we all know we can be overwhelmed pretty quickly. And how do you cut through that? Well, you cut through that by building or acquiring capabilities and technologies that allow that noise to be filtered out and to give you just exactly what you’re looking for. And then you can narrow it from there, right, as we take that point that we’re looking for, and you tip and cue other intelligence disciplines, and they go out and look and they collect, and they come back, and it’s kind of like this never-ending circle, right? Then they come back in, and you know how to narrow your focus again, and cut out more noise.
But I think one of the biggest concerns for everybody right now is the is the mis and disinformation piece, and how do we tackle that. And so we do a lot of training on it. But we also have invested in capabilities that will help – that will help us filter that out.
Ms. Harding: Mmm hmm. I have high hopes for AI as an assistant in intelligence operations or intelligence analysis. Because I mean, you’re right, even when I stopped being an analyst, you know, 10 years ago at this point, there was too much information on a daily basis for any one human to absorb. And the idea of having AI there to help you sort through all of the massive amount of information that’s now available is really tempting. But we all know we’re not there yet, either. (Laughter.) I don’t know if you all have asked any of the AI assistants to write a bio of yourself. You tried this yet? It’s really quite entertaining. If I asked – I asked ChatGPT to write my bio. And I would like you both to know that I apparently got a Ph.D. from MIT and am a China expert, so. (Laughs.)
Mr. Eger: Well, now I’m intrigued.
Ms. Harding: I know, right?
Mr. Eger: I’ll have to go back and try it.
Ms. Harding: MIT called and they want their Ph.D. back. (Laughter.) So we’re a long – we’re a long way off. But I do have hope for the future. Is the strategy going to mention AI? Do you know?
Mr. Eger: It does.
Ms. Harding: It does?
Mr. Eger: It does, yep. Absolutely.
Ms. Harding: Edge of my seat.
Mr. Eger: It takes – it does. It takes into account that, just as a broader line of effort, that we need to look at capabilities, technologies that get after AI. And then – and then how we’re going to use it exactly, right? Because, you know, trash in, trash out.
Ms. Harding: Right, exactly.
Mr. Eger: And so it’s a conversation I have with folks. If you think you’re pulling in the right data, right, but you’re pulling in mis and disinformation into your algorithms you’re working with, that’s what your – that’s what your GPT is going to spit out. And so it’s how do we – you got to weed all that out ahead of time? And so making sure we have that.
But there’s one other – I don’t know if I want to call it a challenge, right, but I’m sure you – you know, I know you guys experienced this as well. But we, you know, PAI inherently is unclassified, right? So we really have to look at why we overclassify many times, right? That has a tendency or a possibility to inhibit what we really want to get done. Understanding that there are sources, methods, and reasons why we don’t want anyone to know, the intelligence requirement we’re collecting against, right? I get all that. So you’ve got to keep that – some of that stuff classified.
But, you know, when you overclassify, at least from an Army perspective, when you –when you over classify, it’s problematic for me to get information to the tactical edge. And so that’s a – that’s a big concern for us. And we found ways. We’re tackling it now. We kind of know what the solution is, and we’re – you know, we’re well on our way to it. But, yeah, when we do that, we can’t get the information, you know, to the tactical edge like we need.
Ms. Harding: Yeah, I’m really glad that you brought up the tactical edge because, I think, you know, I used to love spy shows when I was a kid, right? And then I joined the intelligence community and realized that, no, sadly – (laughter) – I wish we had those fun toys. One of my favorite episodes of I think was “24” was when somebody, like, retasked, the satellites from their cell phone. (Laughter.)
Mr. Eger: Yeah, we all do that, right?
Ms. Harding: If only. So, no, that definitely doesn’t happen. In reality, what’s happening out on the tactical edge is that you have some connectivity, but it’s inconsistent connectivity. You have very minute secure connectivity. And at some points you can think that it’s secure and at other points you have to assume it’s not, depending on where you are and what you’re doing. And being able to get usable information out to that tactical edge is really quite challenging, if somebody along the way has stamped a secret on it.
And then you got to, you know, sort through why is it – why is it stamped secret? Is that a real thing? Is there a way to downgrade it, declassify it? And it’s just too easy in the many steps along the way for something to touch classified information. And then somebody says, OK, well, this is now classified. And if you have a critical piece of intelligence that stops at headquarters and can’t get out to the edge, then what good is it? The classic tree falling in the forest and nobody on the frontlines can hear it.
Mr. Nilius: I want to now steal one back from what Mr. Eger says a lot. We both had a boss who said, hey, listen, if you have a lot of problems to solve, the best thing to do is solve the hardest one. And we think the tactical edge is the hardest one. It’s the one that we put as our priority to make sure that we take care of. If we can solve that and all these things that we’ve just talked about especially overclassification, to get that to the tactical edge, everything, you know, on the backside of that should be much easier to do. So that’s been, again, a key focus for us.
Yeah. And that’s what that is retired GO, she sat in my office. And as we were talking about it, and that was her mentorship to me. She was just like, Dennis, you got to solve the hardest problems first. And the hardest problem right now is OSINT at the tactical edge. Like you – OSINT, you know, TS-wise, OK, we got that. We can – we can do – they’re going to do that all day long here. But your problem is getting it to the tactical edge.
But I will also say, Ukraine taught us a lot, right? Like we’re a learning environment. Learning community, right? I mean, and, yeah, we learned a lot of lessons from Ukraine. And I think the Army as a whole learned a lot of lessons from Ukraine, in respect to OSINT, the power of it, and how it can be used. And yeah, I mean, I had a lot of – you know, a lot of folks, honestly, that would say, you know, this is – this is a Google search. And we would say, no, it’s not. You know, look, let me explain this to you. And then, as we started to do things, and then Ukraine – it was like, oh, OK, this is incredibly useful.
And for us, we say, you know, it’s – and General Potter will say it too – it’s kind of the foundational intelligence discipline. It sets things up for everything else. And it should be – it should be seen as the – you know, the discipline of first resort, is what it should be. Because the ability to take that information and tip and cue others to turn it into something is tremendously valuable. And we in – again, we learned a lot.
Ms. Harding: Yeah, without giving anything away. Tipping and cuing and doing other things like giving away.
Mr. Nilius: That’s right, oh yeah.
Ms. Harding: The stories from the frontline in Ukraine are enough anecdotes now that they’re really turning into data about the ways that, you know, soldiers are using Google Earth or whatever kind of open source imagery they have, or, you know, the various Google searches or even like, as I mentioned at the top, looking at Russian posts on social media to see where exactly that unit might be in real time. And it’s just – I think it’s revolutionizing the way this is done.
Mr. Eger: Yeah, that and we say – someone had a comeback for me one day and I wish I could remember who it was. But, you know, I stole this phrase from one of our collectors, who said there’s no cloudy days in OSINT, right? So when other things might not be able to fly or do whatever – like, there’s no cloudy days in OSINT. We can still gather intel.
Ms. Harding: Yeah, right, of course. So the combination of the open source and the clandestine. In this strategy, how are you approaching marrying up the two disciplines? And you’ve mentioned before the cycle that that continues. You know, how are you feeding into OSINT with the clandestine information, and then using the OSINT to feed into the classified information?
Mr. Nilius: Do you want it? (Laughs.)
Mr. Eger: I’ll start and pass it off to you. So what’s great about it is, from the minute we started with our strategy and the way we were going with this strategy, we’ve talked about it and circulated it extensively to the intel community, writ large, and to the other agencies. And so what that’s done is the other – the other agencies are developing their strategies, right? And we gave them our document, and said, hey, if you’re – if you’re doing yours, right, let’s make sure –let’s make sure that they all nest in, you know, the entire – we so that someone isn’t out there doing something, and the things just don’t connect.
And so, you know, I can tell you from a strategy perspective, with the with the agencies that we’re working with, all of our strategies nest very, very well. I mean, it is very synchronized. So on all sides, I mean –
Ms. Harding: And that’s a small miracle in the U.S. government. I’m very impressed. (Laughter.)
Mr. Eger: Yeah, it is. But, you know, but I’m happy about that, right? Because, you know, what you – what you don’t want to do is – again, even though we’re doing things from the Army perspective, right, what you don’t want to do is get too far out of skew with everybody else. And then you – and you start saying, OK, all these things that we’re building or doing, they don’t really connect, or link up, or can’t share, or can’t – with these other agencies. So we need to make sure that – you know, that they’re seamless, there’s no gap between the strategies, right? That we can that we can do this. So I think that was – that was really important. And I’m pleased with where we are, with all sides in the IC moving forward. So, yeah, I think that’s how we’re getting after it really.
Mr. Nilius: Yeah, I think the only thing I’d probably add, it’s just, you know, and probably Ukraine is really what’s done it for most, but really changing the mindset of, hey, instead of OSINT being last resort, maybe first resort. And especially what we’ve seen from a tipping and cuing side for all other disciplines that are out there, that to really see that it can be beneficial to you. And then, you know, I think also the ability, again, that you can share stuff more rapidly. I think those are kind of the aspects that really – I don’t know if I want to say it forces the hand of many that may not be used to it, or it’s just the fact that maybe more people are getting a little more comfortable with it.
I always share the story for myself that you know, what – I’ve seen many across the intel community learning the value of OSINT during the Ukraine crisis, that I will tell you, for me, personally, I learned over a decade ago, myself. But it was just the circumstances where it was, great assignment, something that happened, whatever. And so I think it’s a matter of just, again, that greater exposure that everybody can get. And the commitments that, hey, we’re fully committed to doing this and we need to really make it – again, between the training and ultimately the equipping of the force – that those collectors actually can deliver something valuable to the commanders out there.
Mr. Eger: Yeah. And Shawn had a good point when he said, you know, the sharing piece, because that’s really what it comes down to. You know, the strategies that are synced and, you know, no gaps between, that’s great. But, you know, as we’ve all dealt with for a lot of years, is this sharing and dissemination piece. And how do you do that from one organization, you know, to the next that everybody is – everybody is comfortable with? How are we – you know, how are we certain that we’re getting everything that we need at the time that we need it from other agencies? And the same with us, how are we doing something that they’re going to need?
So we’ve actually – we’ve tackled that. And we are in the midst of fielding our new dissemination capability. And so we’re disseminating now. We’re doing all those things. Great, whatever. But this dissemination capability will not only work across the IC to bring others in or send our information out, but we’ll get to the tactical edge. And near real time, if not real time. And so we’re developing that now. And we’re really, really excited and happy about that. It is kind of a – for us, it’s a leap forward and it’s a game changer from a dissemination perspective, I think, and from a synchronization with the other – with the rest of the IC.
Ms. Harding: Yeah, that’s exciting.
Mr. Nilius: It is. Yeah, and then just kind of the next step after that is, again, trying that to get it to partners as soon as we can as well, so.
Ms. Harding: Is it going to be a NIPR function?
Mr. Eger: Yeah.
Mr. Nilius: Yes.
Ms. Harding: Yeah? Oh.
Mr. Eger: So NIPR, with cross-domain solution.
Ms. Harding: Wow.
Mr. Eger: Imagine that.
Ms. Harding: Yeah. So to translate for those in the audience who don’t – who haven’t been stuck in Pentagon bureaucracy. (Laughter.) NIPR is the unclassified email system for basically the Defense Department and others. And then cross-domain means that if you have a NIPR terminal at your desk you can read it there, or if you only have a classified terminal desk, you could also read it there. Which is hugely useful for people who are on all sides of these particular walls. (Laughs.)
Ms. Eger: Yeah. And it does. It essentially it breaks down those walls, to get the information to the folks that need it when they need it. So, yeah, really, really excited about that. Oh, believe me, there’ll be a – you know, there’ll be a – there’ll be a party, just like there was when the strategy went it across the line, when we get that one done too, but. (Laughter.)
Ms. Harding: Well, so the implementation piece of a strategy is always very challenging. And it sounds like the technical solution you’re working on there is going to be, you know, wonderful for the implementation of the strategy. What are your priorities for implementation? What do you see as the challenges ahead for implementation? How are you taking this this wonderful piece of work and making it a reality?
Mr. Eger: You go ahead and start, I’ve got plenty of answers.
Mr. Nilius: Oh, I get to go? Well, I mean, I think the first part of it is just setting major objectives of what you want to try to accomplish to move us forward in all of those areas, whether it’s training, whether it’s equipping, whether it’s working with allies and partners. Again, how are we moving? Again, part of that modernization, how are we moving the collection that we’ve done cross domain to the tactical edge? So I think all of that, making sure that we keep it nested and, you know, for me, from Army side, you know, keep everything online that nothing’s, I don’t want to say getting ahead, but it doesn’t – that doesn’t remain synched with everything that we’re doing to ultimately achieve some of these major objectives that we have. So, but I know Dennis has much more on this.
Mr. Eger: No, yeah, we – so it’s interesting. When we – when we wrote the first version of the strategy, you know, 18 months ago or so, and we moved – we moved out, started doing things, by the time it went in for – it went in for signature and we re-looked it, we realized we had probably already accomplished 50 percent of that things that were on the strategy. So we had to – so we so we said, let’s adjust. Think through it again. What’s next? So, but we built that, from an implementation perspective, so that most of the stuff we could do ourselves without having to rely on a bunch of other organizations to implement, right?
So, you know, for us, one of the big – one of the big implementation things for us was the training piece. And it was, how do we take a bunch of training that was, you know, being conducted by 10 different organizations, a bunch of different people, the standards probably weren’t the same. How do we take that, how do we consolidate it into one course for everybody? And how do we do that in our training and doctrine command that’s responsible for all of the training, right? And so we were able to do that.
But then our next leap, we I mean, we weren’t even six months into the new course. And Shawn and I had a discussion, our next leap was, hey, how are we getting to – how are we going to save the Army, taxpayers, everybody money? Because right now we’ve got to send folks to the course, right? So how are we going to do that? We’re going to move to a live virtual synchronous environment. And so how do we do that? And I had known about some things that were out there for a couple of years, and I had been pushing and pushing and pushing. And so finally we were able to – we were able to make that happen with this organization. And so we will jump to that live virtual synchronous environment.
So we were already moving toward implementation in a lot of this. And in one of the other – probably the biggest thing that our enterprise has been talking about forever, right – and you probably heard the argument – still hear the argument about career fields, right? So should OSINT be a career field? Or is it just something we’re going to train people in and let everybody do? So we’ve moved to our first two steps of that right? And our first step started back in, like, 1819, where we built out structure in organizations to have OSINT-specific collection sales, like that is their job full time if they get assigned to that position, right?
The second step to that, in the Army the best way to do it is you assign what’s called an additional skill identifier to those specific positions, which then means that you can request and get people into those positions based off of that identifier, which is really, really tough to do. We’re there. We’ve done everything. Our stuff is in the Pentagon going through the final stages. And then, you know, an additional skill identifier will be, you know, we’re still hoping approved.
We don’t see any problems right now. And then we will assign that each one of those collector positions, which, you know, ties to resourcing, ties to equipping, you know, manning it. So we’ve – so we’ve worked through all those things from an implementation perspective. And again, we’ve tried to do it so that it’s us, what all can we implement at our level without needing a lot of outside organizations? And that’s been incredibly successful for us.
Ms. Harding: So given that career track that you’re creating with all this training, and with these skill building opportunities, what’s your – what’s your pitch? If you were going to talk to, you know, a group of kids out there who’s thinking about, you know, a career in public service or a career in national security? Come to the Army and do OSINT. How would you – what do you have to offer?
Mr. Nilius: I’ll take that. It’s actually easier than, I would say, you’d think. I would say that most of the engagements that I’ve had – because we do have several opportunities where we’ve engaged – is people are – you know, the younger generation, which I’m not a part of, they get the internet, right? I mean, they grew up on it. I always tell them, I’m an immigrant when it comes to technology. They’re native born. So to me, it comes very easy to them. So most are very interested in it. I think they understand how it operates more. So I think the biggest thing we have to do is just teach them how to be an intelligence professional, and then teach them the oversight and responsibilities that go with that.
So actually, it’s been pretty easy, at least with the engagements that I’ve had, or many others, that people want to know about it to do that. I think the other part is – on that, is there’s also the civilian side of that. But I’d like to defer to Dennis on that, because we’ve done some great work on that as well.
Mr. Eger: Yeah, my pitch would be, this is where you want to be. This is the future intelligence discipline. Like, this is it. When all other things shut down, this is what you’re going to have to rely on. And so this is it. And it is in the environment, like Shawn said, that they are used to playing in every single day. And so yeah, this is the place to be. But we’re looking at building out, you know, that our military structure that I talked about. But yeah, I’m working right now on how do we build out our civilian structure? And so what does it look like for a civilian career field or civilians that are interested in this? And how do I – how do I build or model those positions? So we’re working through that right now.
We’re also working with a number of folks to look at OSINT certifications, right, especially for our civilian population. Because, you know, everybody that falls into the Intel, at least in the Army, is career field, you know, 132, in a sense. And so, OK, so we’re probably not going to have a career field outside of 132, but then what do I do inside of that specific to intel folks? And that’s to build a certification program for civilians. And so we’re moving along quite well with what is a – what is a career path for a civilian who wants to do OSINT? You know, what should they hit at what point in their careers, you know, ultimately culminating in the certification, and then, you know, the OSINT basic course, if they’re going to go into a position. So a lot of work being done from a career perspective. That’s how serious – that’s how serious we’re taking this. I mean, it is, yeah.
Ms. Harding: Yeah. I mean, the pitch that I would make, in addition to that, is if you love true crime TV shows, if you love true crime podcasts, if you’re really into puzzles and unraveling puzzles. You know, and, like you say, you know, people who are graduating from college and grad school right now are digital natives and think of the internet as a place you go, not just a thing that’s on your phone. If you operate really well in that space and love taking little pieces of information and putting it together and to make a big picture that can serve your country, this career field is for you. And I think you’re absolutely right. It is the future.
I want to talk a little bit about partnerships before we do sort of closing thoughts. But there are concentric rings of partnerships. There’s, you know, the Army’s partnerships with the other services. There’s Army partnerships with other IC. There’s partnerships outside of government entirely into industry and the private sector. There’s partnerships with allies. These are all important. I want to get your thoughts a little bit on the partnerships with allies in particular, and how these efforts are working together. And then also on partnerships with industry.
There are a lot of organizations out there that are building a business around this idea of collecting data and analyzing data. When you look for a partner in industry, what are you looking for? What is the most useful thing that you can get from folks out there in the private sector who want to be of service?
Ms. Nilius: You know, my bumper sticker that I need it faster, I need it better, and I need it cheaper. Those are my – usually I get a response that you’ll get two of those three. But, I mean, that’s a huge part for us. I think two major parts of that is we need, again, the capability and the technology. And because the internet changes, you know, the operating environment changes daily, we’ve also got to have a partnership to change how we do business. We do that right now, with the courses that we run. Literally, after courses finish: What do we need to update? What has changed? Because the environment changes so rapidly to do that.
So I think that’s really the first part, is just knowing the importance of it, and then going out and then engaging. And we have a big chunk of my office alone that’s focused completely on that. That is just a major part of what we do. We can’t do it without the help. We’ve already talked about AI and now other things that can also help us so we’re looking at those things. You know, I won’t say further down the road, but again, as we’re looking at all this stuff. But again, we just need the best capabilities that we can get. And I think because the environment changes, and there’s so many others that are already doing it, I don’t think it’s something that we have to create.
Mr. Eger: Yeah, I think – I think that’s a big piece from an industry perspective, is we need and want to do business with folks that are that are thinking about the what’s next, right, not the what’s now. So what do I need to do in the OSINT space from a technology – like what’s after the cloud, right? Like, what – you know, how is this going to work? Where are we going to be in developing, like, you know, AI, and, you know, the machine learning stuff is one small piece, but guess what? A lot of folks were doing that years ago, right? And we’re talking about it now. And folks were saying back then, we need to – we need to start thinking about this, right? OK, great. So, you know, we’re moving great in that direction, but what’s after this? You know, quantum stuff, like, what – that’s – I mean, those are the things that are coming, right?
And it’s, like, I need somebody that can – that can stand in front of me and say: This is – this is what I can do for you from an OSINT perspective that is going to get you from point of collection to where it goes immediately. Like, its feeding – you take it, you hit a button, and it feeds a commander’s operating picture immediately. Like, that’s next level, where are we at? And so I think that’s important with industry. But I will tell you, I’ve spent, you know, a little bit of time from an academia perspective. I think that’s important.
So we – you know, we’ve talked, you know, to you guys a couple of times. And we were out with University of Arizona, and, you know, I have an upcoming visit with Florida State University for some things that they’re doing. And so I think it’s important to see, you know, what folks in academia are doing and what they’re producing, and how we can – how we can tap into that, right, and use it. I mean, I think – yeah, you sent me an incredible product about gray space, I believe it was – I circulated that everywhere. I mean, I thought it was – it really was an incredibly done piece. And so that’s the importance of being with academia, because you guys may see things from a completely different lens than what we do, that will be helpful in what we have to do. So I think that’s really important.
And I think the allies and partners things, you know, we do that quite often. And we were talking before, you know, one of our partners has a big conference going on now, and one of our partner countries. And so – and we have folks that go to those things and attend. But we are –and we bring our partners here once a year and we sit down and we talk about where they’re at with their laws and regulations, what they can do, where we are, what we can share, what we can’t share. But we’ve built into our system, in our in our dissemination and sharing capability, the ability for us to move it to partners. So, yeah, I think it’s all quite important. But academia – I’ve been focusing on academia quite a bit over the last year.
Ms. Harding: Yeah. Well, I’m really glad that we can be of service. The great joy and luxury of this job is that after I spent, you know, almost 20 years in government trying to answer the mail and put out the fires on a daily basis, to be able to take a step back and look at the bigger picture and try to help, you know, our folks who were still in the trenches, anticipate the bigger trends, and then the bigger issues, and look ahead. And this one, I think it’s difficult to do because it is changing so rapidly, but trying to anticipate those changes is even more important than ever.
Well, in our last couple of minutes, let’s talk about success and what success looks like from your perspective, both for the strategy and also for open source in the intelligence community in general. I know that the folks at CIA and open source enterprise are doing a lot of work on this. I know that folks at DIA are. There’s a lot of people that are pushing forward, pushing the same boulder up the hill. And you guys have really led the way, and I think will be very helpful in their efforts to do that. But if you look out, you know, five years from now, for the Army and for the intelligence community, what does success look like?
Mr. Eger: Well, for me, success – and we’ve had this conversation – success for me five years down the road means that everything that we’ve looked at in the strategy and our vision for things are in place, and I don’t need to do this job anymore.
Ms. Harding: Listen, if you manage this level of organizational change I have a feeling plenty of other doors will open for you saying, come solve my intractable problem. (Laughter.)
Mr. Nilius: I think I would add, and mine’s probably – I don’t want to say a little – is more kind of currently where we are from where we have been. And that is kind of breaking down manning, training, and equipping. So the Army has committed itself to manning OSINT collector positions across the force. So just making sure that we ultimately have those in the right places. And then the training side, again, we’ve talked a lot about the training of where we are on that. But continue to develop the training and make sure it’s very adaptable to the changes that happen. And then the same thing on the equipping side. We talked about the part with the industry, but continuing to equip the force. And again, as most companies I’ve dealt with, the faster, better, cheaper. To just know we’re just going to – it’s going to be a constant change. We can’t spend two to five years looking for something. Maybe it’s two to five months, you know, we’ve got to do it.
And so I think those kinds of three things are a real big focus for us going forward. And then you add into that, how do we modernize, again, picking the next three to seven years out? What are those key things that we’ve got to get to? And then how are we getting from where we are to that point? And that’s really where the strategy comes in for us. Very important for us to be able to execute that.
Mr. Eger: And I think, writ large, right, that, you know, everyone in the IC, one of the things that we fully understand about OSINT is that if you – if you look five years down the road, right, and you want this to be successful, then it’s about sustained resourcing. All right, I mean, sustained resourcing is what’s going to make OSINT, or any other discipline for that matter, a success. If you don’t have sustained resourcing, it can make things incredibly challenging. So successful be on a path, you know, to sustained resourcing. And we’re there. I’m very happy that we’re there. So, but yeah, I think from the IC writ large, you have to – you have to dedicate the resources to it.
Ms. Harding: Mmm hmm. And, I mean, in IC terms, the resources that you have to donate – or, designate for open source intelligence, or, as a percentage, smaller than a lot of the other disciplines. So in a way, I mean, yes, you’re adding additional resources, but long term, you’re saving money for the taxpayer. And I think that really is my vision for where this would be in five years. You would be at a place where in near real time you can get high quality information derived from publicly available information. And then you can have a seamless way to sprinkle in the gold dust that is the highly classified or even somewhat classified information that sometimes does change the game. But it’s a seamless combination of the two. And you’ve got it at the edge. I mean that that picture is just perfection in my mind.
Mr. Eger: We’re going to be there.
Ms. Harding: We’re going to be there. I love it. I love the positivity.
Mr. Eger: We’re going to be there. Two years.
Ms. Harding: Two years? (Laughs.) You heard it here first. Two years.
Mr. Eger: Well, we’ll make a date for what, 2025, and we’ll come back and we’ll have this conversation again.
Ms. Harding: Yeah, that’s right. We will be here celebrating our successes. This will be champagne or something else. It won’t be water. Yeah. (Laughter.)
Mr. Eger: I’m in. I’m definitely in.
Well, thank you so much, gentlemen. You should be really proud of getting the strategy finished and in the leadership that you’ve shown, and the Army has shown. My best to General Potter. I’m a big fan. And I really – I look forward to seeing what you do next. Thanks so much.
Ms. Harding: Thanks.
Mr. Nilius: Thank you. (Applause.)