Open access to intel limits need for spying
Fifteen young Syrian killers lounged on pillows on the floor of the two-room apartment they shared, some smoking, others staring intently at a young American woman.
Melonie Richey didn't know who they were, but she knew they would be there.
Richey's journey to an Istanbul suburb began five months earlier and 5,000 miles away, on a hill overlooking Lake Erie. A graduate student in Mercyhurst University's Intelligence Studies program, she set out to build one of the most detailed population maps of Turkey, and ended up charting a course to this refugee enclave.
Using public information about terrain, roads, railways and infrastructure, Richey built a computer model that predicted a path for the estimated 1 million Syrians spilling across Turkey's border. The model showed refugees in southern Turkey migrating northwest, beginning with the central provinces of Nigde and Aksaray.
“The week after I finished the simulation (in December), there were some news releases saying the U.N. was building two new refugee camps,” said Richey, 23.
The locations: Nigde and Aksaray. “That's when I got really excited.”
As intelligence agencies spend billions of dollars on covert programs that sweep up private data, they're neglecting the kind of open-source research Richey used, some former intelligence officials say. Some answers that spies hunt are broadcast on blogs, not stashed on hidden flash drives.
“How much (information) do you have to steal anymore? The answer is a lot less than you used to,” said retired Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security and Central Intelligence agencies.
America's intelligence spending has dropped every year since 2010, according to budget documents posted by the Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit policy group that focuses on security issues. In 2013, the National Intelligence Program budget fell below $50 billion for the first time since 2009, the documents show.
Despite dwindling resources, the government is boosting support for clandestine electronic snooping, James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, wrote in his 2013 budget message to Congress. The classified document is among those former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked.
Old habits hard to break
Intelligence collection breaks into three broad categories: signals intelligence, such as the interception of phone calls or emails; image intelligence, including photos from spy planes and satellites; and human intelligence, or spies.
The NSA stores the duration and phone numbers involved in almost every call originating or ending in the United States, according to Snowden's leaks. The disclosure sparked a national debate on a surveillance apparatus so large that it collects data on innocent citizens. President Obama promised reforms.
Intelligence agencies hold bias toward secret information, Hayden said. They came of age in a pre-Internet world, when information about where people travel and who they know wasn't as easy to track, and old habits die hard.
“Stealing information is really important, but we've got to recognize there's so much more information out there,” Hayden said.
“There was no secret document hidden in the desk drawer of any Arab leader that would have let us predict” the Arab Spring, he said. Evidence of unrest was public, posted on Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and blogs by soon-to-be revolutionaries.
Following the trail
Mercyhurst's program deals only with publicly available information, said professor Kristan Wheaton, a former Army intelligence officer.
Before Richey began her Turkey project, she and Wheaton mapped the American Nuclear Society's social network. Based on tweets, they identified 19 influential people to whom you would feed information if you wanted it to spread quickly through the global network of 6,500 people.
They spotted “lurkers,” perhaps journalists or intelligence analysts, who monitored the network without contributing.
Richey used ORA software, developed at Carnegie Mellon University, to make her ethno-linguistic map of Turkey. Most ethnic maps show basic divisions of Kurds, Arabs and Turks; she wanted to show subdivisions of Caucasians, Armenians, Greeks and others.
“I was looking at travel blogs, people who were hiking across Turkey for fun and saying, ‘I am right here, and I'm standing in a Crimean-Tatar village,' ” Richey said. She culled information from bloggers and organizations that try to preserve dying languages.
With two weeks left in a four-month project, Richey realized she had overlooked the 1 million Syrian civil war refugees. Incorporating the nebulous, mobile population “snowballed into turning Turkey into a network and running simulations that mapped Syrian refugee movement in the country.”
It worked. Yet she felt distant from the people whose futures she forecasted. She wanted to see for herself.
Journey across the ocean
Richey grew up in Georgia and South America before attending college in Florida. During her mapping project, she connected with a researcher at U.S. Central Command. He put her in touch with an aid organization that introduced her to a refugee working with an aid group in Istanbul.
Richey purchased a plane ticket and met the man in a park. For 10 days, they traveled to settlements in Istanbul's suburbs, where she interviewed refugees to determine whether her predictions were true.
One interview occurred in that two-room apartment shared by 15 former members of the Free Syrian Army. All were about her age, and many had been university students, but their similarities with her ended there. In their experience, accuracy referred to bullets, not bullet points.
She asked them how they knew to look for work in Bayramtepe, an obscure western suburb more than 500 miles from the Syrian border. One of them looked at her strangely, as if the answer were obvious.
“Facebook,” he said.
Mike Wereschagin is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.