So, in the last couple years I have been interested in and attracted to ideas about “open source intelligence”, particularly the ideas of Robert D. Steele, the guru of the OSINT movement. Yet, I have always felt a little uncomfortable about his work, his evangelical tone, his arrogance, and the fact that within a few clicks of his site one can find some really wacky, cultish sorts of sites devoted to collective intelligence, hive minds, etc.

In an ironic twist, a lone reviewer on Amazon of the 9-11 conspiracy book, 9-11 Synthetic Terror: Made in USA, pointed me in the direction of a review written by Steele which has been picked up by the infamous 9-11 conspiracy site, 911Truth.org.

Steele concludes,

It is with great sadness that I conclude that this book is the strongest of
the 770+ books I have reviewed here at Amazon, almost all non-fiction. I am
forced to conclude that 9/11 was at a minimum allowed to happen as a pretext
for war (see my review of Jim Bamford’s “Pretext for War”), and I
am forced to conclude that there is sufficient evidence to indict (not necessarily
convict) Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and others of a neo-conservative neo-Nazi coup
d’etat and kick-off of the clash of civilizations (see my review of “Crossing
the Rubicon” as well as “State of Denial”). Most fascinatingly,
the author links Samuel Huntington, author of “Clash of Civilizations”
with Leo Strauss, the connecting rod between Nazi fascists and the neo-cons.

This is, without question, the most important modern reference on state-sponsored
terrorism, and also the reference that most pointedly suggests that select rogue
elements within the US Government, most likely led by Dick Cheney with the assistance
of George Tenet, Buzzy Kronguard, and others close to the Wall Street gangs,
are the most guilty of state-sponsored terrorism.

Well now…there you have it! And this guy wants to lead the charge in reforming the U.S. intelligence community! And why should anyone listen to him? Well, for all the talk of “collective intelligence”, the “hive mind”, and power to the people, Steele clearly sees himself as just a little smarter than all the other members of the hive.

I sit here, a 54-year old, liberally educated, two graduate degrees, war college,
a life overseas, 150 IQ or so, the number #1 Amazon reviewer for non-fiction,
a former Marine Corps infantry officer, a former CIA clandestine case officer,
founder of the Marine Corps Intelligence Center, and I have to tell anyone who
cares to read this: I believe it.

Well, I mean, since he has a 150 IQ, geez, I guess we have no choice, right? And what about those graduate degrees? I know I’m sure impressed! (FYI, that was sarcasm.)

There is an interesting tension that arises from this merging of OSINT and conspiracy theory. OSINT has been highly influenced by “wisdom of crowds”, “collective intelligence”, and “smart mob” thinking, the idea that large groups of people working together will always be smarter than individuals, even subject-matter experts and professionals. There is often a “volkish”, anti-expert rhetoric that runs through this literature.

But conspiracy theory often works differently. Conspiracy theory follows a pattern in which it is a small, often misunderstood and persecuted group that really knows the truth. It is the majority that has been mislead by the powers-that-be. Strong resistance to the allegations of a conspiracy, evidence against the conspiracy, a lack of positive evidence to prove the conspiracy, all are seen as further evidence of a conspiracy.

OSINT is supposed to value the wisdom of the crowd. But what if the crowd has been mislead? There is a fundamental contradiction between valuing the wisdom of the crowd on the one hand and believing that the crowd has been mislead, that only a select few really know the truth, on the other. If we take the wisdom of the crowd regarding 9-11 seriously, then we should conclude that the official account of the events of that day are correct.

If we take collective intelligence, wisdom of the crowd, and smart mobs to their extreme, we get a crude form of majority rule, a way of thinking based on the logical fallacy of argument ad populum (believing something is true just because everyone else believes it’s true), and potentially mob mentality. An important idea at the heart of our system of government is protection of the minority and a concern with preventing a “tyranny of the majority”. But taken to its extreme, collective intelligence, wisdom of the crowd, “smart mobs” seems to value a tyranny of the majority.

But what if we do not take it to its extreme? What if the crowd does not need to be in the majority to be considered correct? Then there is room for multiple, contending crowds. But in that case, there is no reason to believe the crowd just because it is the crowd; being a crowd provides no claim to a unique ability to discern the truth. Now we must look for some other measuring stick to use for discerning truth. Presumably, the availability of evidence in support of one crowd as opposed to another would be important. However, in the conspiratorial way of thinking, a lack of evidence, or even an abundance of contradictory evidence, can itself be evidence in favor of the conspiracy.

I worry that OSINT, taken to its extreme (which seems to be the position of many of its strongest advocates), leads to a tyranny of the majority, fallacious, mob mentality. In its weaker version, it does not seem to offer any better way of discerning truth. Throw in conspiratorial thinking, and it becomes doubtful whether OSINT really provides a viable recipe for producing, well…”intelligence”.

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