OSINT reading tips for holiday / lockdown

Earlier this month I launched the OSINT Library which lists now over 80 publications and hopefully will grow further. In this contribution I will discuss a selection of publications from the current library and do so primarily with the aim to provide ideas for reading during the upcoming holidays when many of us most probably will (still) be in lockdown.

More in general I would like to provide insight in the available literature on OSINT, so more of this type of literature review blogposts are planned. For this post two categories of publications were selected: history and analysis.


The first two articles I would like to point out, are Roop (1969) and Calkins (2011) who dive into the early history of structural institutionalised exploitation of information from open sources. This started at the beginning of WW2 when the BBC in the UK and the Foreign Broadcast Information Service in the US were tasked with listening, transcribing and translating foreign broadcasts from all over the world to support their nation’s intelligence efforts. BBC Monitoring still performs this function although nowadays they also serve commercial clients. A recent Janes’ Intelligence podcast which has the Editorial Director of the BBC Monitoring as a guest, is well worth listening.

The use of information from open sources continued after WW2 and two interesting short articles in this respect come from Bagnall (1958) and Becker (1957). Both are declassified articles and provide an insight in the CIA open source efforts in the 1950s towards the Soiet Union.

A similar short article by Croom (1969) provides a very detailed account of the exploitation of foreign open sources by the CIA in the 1960s, including a description of the ‘open source machinery’ as well as some statistics. He further dives into the different types of insights the CIA gleaned from foreign publications at the time which makes fascinating reading.

In this period of time also the private sector discovers the value of information of open sources. Harper (1961) and Kelley (1965) discuss for example the elements market information, economic research, and product research, which in effect is what we nowadays would call open source intelligence. This is around the same time that Fair (1966) publishes his prediction of a ‘Corporate CIA’.

In the 1980s Ghoshal (1983) takes a (corporate) intelligence perspective in his investigation into the technical possibilities of the collection of international business information. He does so still without mentioning the term ‘open source intelligence’. Neither do Sigurdson and Nelson (1991) who discuss how technological information on the electronics industry in Japan can be gleaned from various databases. While they call it ‘grey intelligence’, the methods they describe would nowadays be seen as OSINT.

One of the first publications in which the term ‘open source intelligence’ was used, seems to be Dedijer (1992) and in 1993 the American Intelligence Journal has a special issue on OSINT with for example the contributions of Steele (1993) and Studeman (1993). From that moment owards the amount of publications on OSINT grows.

Looking back

A different historical perspective on OSINT is provided by Yates and Zvegintzov (1999) who investigate the accuracy and comprehensiveness of articles and books on the Baikal-Amur Mainline Railway. They compare publications from before the collapse of the Soviet Union with the information that became available afterwards. Their conclusion is that while many of the publications were not accurate, relevant information was accessible, although not in English. They further highlight the need for subject matter expertise and thoroughly checking of original sources.

In similar fashion Pringle (2003) reviews some analyses on the Soviet Union that were (largely) based on open sources. His findings show not only the possibilities of open source intelligence, though mostly also the limitations, in particular in relation to analyses that aimed to distill the intentions of actors from information in open sources.


That brings us to a different category of titles in the OSINT library which relate to intelligence analysis. The key works are of course Heuer’s ‘Psychology of Intelligence Analysis’ and the more practical ‘Structured Analytical Techniques’ by Pherson and Heuer (2020, 3rd edition). In particular ‘Structured Analytical Techniques’ (of which I would recommend the spiral bound hard copy and not the eBook) provides a very comprehensive work of reference with over hundred analysis techniques.

In this category also the study by Travers, Van Boven and Judd (2013) is interesting to read. They demonstrate that people tend to infer informational quality from secrecy, that is, people judge documents as being of higher quality when presented as secret documents rather than public documents. Anyone familiar with the Curveball story will known how risky this can be.

Similar findings are presented by Pedersen and Jansen (2019) who found that intelligence analysts assign significantly more credibility to secret intelligence than to identical open-source intelligence. However, they did find that ‘this was true only when the intelligence estimate constituted a ‘complex’ problem characterized by a high degree of uncertainty and not when the estimate constituted a ‘simple’ problem characterized by a low degree of uncertainty’.  And even worse, they also found that intelligence analysts are significantly more confident in their own assessments when they process ‘secret’ intelligence and more uncertain when they process identical open-source intelligence. Interesting findings to reflect on and maybe to take into account when you report your work.

I hope the publications discused above have awakened your interest and provided you with some ideas to read. Looking forward to hearing your feedback and if you have any tips for additional academic publications to include in the OSINT library, please let me know.

I wish you a Merry Christmas and a wonderful 2021 !