Early OSINT history in a ‘contre-espionnage’ booklet

Some years ago when I was researching my PhD on European Police Cooperation I used to buy any old book on policing I could get my hands on. Living in Paris at the time, one day I found at the book market at Rue Brancion a French Gendarmerie booklet titled ‘Contre-espionnage. Notes sur la participation de la Gendarmerie a ce service‘.

Eventually the booklet wasn’t really useful for my PhD research so I completely forgot about it. However, when I stumbled on it recently in my library, it turned out to contain some very interesting indications of early OSINT activities in Europe.

It is a booklet issued in June 1918, so during the last months of the First World War. It is classified as ‘secret’, each copy is uniquely numbered and issued to a named individual, noting that the recipient was ‘personnellement responsable de sa conservation‘. As the title suggests, the booklet contains internal instructions for the Gendarmerie on organising their counter intelligence efforts. It has 64 pages and is divided in three parts:

  • liaison – coordination with other organisations, especially la Sureté;
  • organisation – internal coordination and distribution of resources;
  • preparation – practical study of the modus operandi of espionage and counter intelligence techniques.

The third part, ‘preparation’, is the longest and obviously the most interesting as it details the different methods used in espionage at that time, obviously with the aim to learn to recognise these. Methods of clandestine correspondence are discussed, as are the use of fake identity documents, disguises, hidden compartments, evasion and destruction procedures and much more. Also demoralisation procedures, including ‘propagation de fausses nouvelles‘ what we now know as ‘fake news’, are explained.

The booklet further discusses different counter measures against espionage, including ‘censorship’:

Contra-espionnage. Notes sur la participation de la Gendarmerie a ce service‘, 1918, page 49

Loosely translated here the warning is given that censorship should always be vigilant as even a small piece of information that slips through, like for example a regiment number or encampment location, could help the enemy learn about the movements of the army.

The most interesting part is however the following:

Contra-espionnage. Notes sur la participation de la Gendarmerie a ce service‘, 1918, page 32

Again loosely translated, it reads that an increased interest had been detected from Swiss businesses in the acquisition of certain local and regional newspapers by taking subscriptions. It goes on, explaining that there is always something to glean (from newspapers), as the censors sometimes miss detail on facts or local incidents that could be interesting intelligence for the enemy. It adds that also the ‘journaux de tranchées’ (trench newspapers) are read by the enemy as these could provide interesting details.

The fact that censorship existed is already evidence that at that time governments knew that other actors could be reading their (open source) press and use that to their advantage. So in fact, the French already in 1918 understood that, as William Donovan, the founding father of the CIA later in 1946 wrote: “Even a regimented press will again and again betray their nation’s interests to a painstaking observer.”

However, the booklet reveals more. The description of the identified interest in local press, indicates the apparent existence of structured efforts to collect information from open sources for intelligence purposes.

There are examples that suggest that information from public sources was used by early modern intelligence structures long before the 20th century. In her excellent book Venice’s Secret Service on the rise of secret services in 16th century Europe, Ioanna Iordanou for example points out how public knowledge such as rumour, propaganda and gossip were integral constituents of early modern intelligence. However, regularly printed newspapers did not exist till the 17th century – let alone any other media – so for a long time nearly all information for intelligence purposes was essentially collected through human sources (HUMINT).

Generally it is assumed that the first structured collection of information from open sources for intelligence purposes (OSINT) started at the eve of the Second World War with establishment of the BBC Monitoring Service in 1939 in the UK and the establishment of both the Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service and the Research and Analysis Branch of the Office of Strategic Services in 1941 in the US.

The remarks in this small French Gendarmerie counter intelligence booklet nonetheless suggests that already decades earlier apparently German (military) intelligence undertook a structured collection of information from open sources for intelligence purposes. While the booklet does not say that with so many words, it does link an interest in local French newspapers by Swiss businesses to an intelligence interest of the ‘enemy’, which at that time could only have been Germany.

Obviously, if French counter intelligence instructions warn that interesting information can be gleaned from newspapers, it is not unreasonable to assume that also the French themselves applied that method to obtain information from the enemy. It would be interesting to see whether there are any further details to discover in French and German archives and whether we could find some further clues there on what appears to be indications of very early OSINT efforts.

[update 9 March 2022]

And yes, a bit of digging archives suggests that indeed materials on reviews of German press exist in French military in relation to their intelligence efforts during the First World War:

Thus, to be continued!