Intelligence: Soliciting Human Geography

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May 27, 2014: U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) recently advertised for individuals or organizations able to supply social, cultural, economic and military information on places like Burkina Faso, Burma, China (mainly the southeast), Djibouti, Honduras, Iran, Jordan, Morocco, Nigeria, North Korea, South Sudan and Trinidad & Tobago. Technically, the information provided is to be obtained legally. That is, outside the countries in question by consulting travelers from those countries. In practice the suppliers can obtain information inside the countries listed at their own risk and without any official support from SOCOM or the United States.

All this information is what SOCOM calls human geography (or cultural geography). This sort of data collection and analysis was employed extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan. Data collected from open sources (like this recent open solicitation) is merged inside SOCOM with classified data to produce a database that SOCOM can use to plan operations and which the operators carrying out those missions can consult while they are on the job.

This is not the first time SOCOM or the CIA, has used “open sources” like this. During and after the Cold War (1947-1991) intelligence was often collected from people who were not spies but were usually residents in foreign countries. This was often innocuous stuff like clippings from local newspapers or simply gossip heard on the street. Depending on where the source was, collecting such information and passing it on (often to a legal visitor from a neighboring country) was considered espionage and punishable by severe punishments if you were caught at it. The U.S. would instruct these open source information providers how to proceed with the least risk, and pay then according to the risk they were exposed to. Even in dictatorships, the local spy catchers tended to go after more dangerous (to the national security) spies and ignore the suppliers of newspaper clippings and gossip.

The U.S. often relied on contractors (local or American) to supervise these open source informants, to further insulate the United States government from these sources, and vice versa.

 

 


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