Classified vs. Unclassified Intelligence
Harry Kemsley: So, hello Sean. Thanks for joining this inaugural podcast. So I'm Harry, Harry Kemsley from Janes. And as the president of the national security and government part of Janes, I thought it was about time that people like you and I got together, had a conversation about a few things that I think are both topical and interesting. To get us started, I can give you a second to talk about yourself. Just give us a couple of words about who you are. I've known you for a very long time. And we both had a lot more hair when we started. But give us a few words on yourself, Sean, just for those that don't know you.
Sean Corbett: Sure. Great. It's good to be here, Harry. So I'm Sean [ Corbett 00: 00:37], ex Royal Air Force intelligence officer of about 30 years. Spent most of my time in hot and dangerous places, supporting various different commanders, all the way from the strategic to the tactical level, which is less of a relevant model these days. But I've had some really interesting tours, including the final tour, which was as a deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the US, on loan to the US, with specific role of increasing intelligence sharing with maybe the Five Eyes allies, but also other partners. A real privilege. Since then, I've been doing various things. I left the air force about two and a half years ago now. Work for a imagery analysis and provision company, developing artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities. So we could do automatic object recognition, taking out the human in the loop as much as you can. And then I went solo. And since then I've been working... Well, before that, obviously we've been working together. One of my roles is now on your strategic advisory group. And as you know, that as you are as well, I've been championing open source intelligence for a number of years now.
Harry Kemsley: Absolutely. Thanks, Sean. So what I thought we would do with this regular check- in is look at a range of different themes, both contemporary, but also some of them universal. They've always been the way that they are. What kind of thematics would you like to discuss here, Sean, in this podcast go for? What are the things that you think would be interesting both for you and I, and hopefully therefore, for the audience.
Sean Corbett: What's really interesting at the moment is, unsurprisingly, the world is being looked at through a COVID lens. And that's absolutely right, but all the dynamics that have been happening in the world are still going on. But I think the really important thing is to go through the... As you've said, what is open source intelligence? As you know, that's something that you and I have both been looking at for a long time. I would say there's almost an irony right now, where there is so much information out there. How do you get to the truth? Because the irony is that although there's that much information, so much of it is wrong. And that could be disinformation, misinformation, or just wrong. And in the open source domain, as well exactly the same as in the classified government domains, how you get to the truth is becoming more and more complex. So I think we could unpack that. We're getting into a more connected, digitized world. That comes with advantages and disadvantage. So that's another area [ crosstalk 00:00:03:01].
Harry Kemsley: I think that's a great theme. I mean, you and I have both been in times when we lacked for information. Or perhaps probably better said, we lacked for access to the information we needed at that time.
Sean Corbett: Yeah.
Harry Kemsley: The challenge these days is, deciding which bit of information to rely upon because there's so much of it out there, as you alluded to. I think people talk these days in a variety of acronyms around it. But the one I remember first from some years ago is the volume, variety, and veracity. And the veracity piece of it you touched on there. But we can come back to that, for sure. The open source domain as well, Sean, I think is worth looking at, because I don't think necessarily everybody fully appreciates yet just how powerful open source can be. I think we're better today than we were even just two or three years ago, with a number of different things being discovered in the open source well before they were found, or even looked for, probably better said, in the more classified environment. But equally, the power of that open source to direct the exquisite assets and capabilities that governments have to look for the thing they really want to find. Helping them decide where to start looking, which part of the haystack is the best place to start looking is one of those things we can look at. I think as well, Sean, and you touched on it a second ago, the emergence of advanced analytics and artificial intelligence. It's back in the day when I was working in joint planning, joint military planning. I remember the days when people started talking about effects- based operations, General Deptula's originated thought. And if you weren't talking about effects- based, then you weren't frankly relevant.
Sean Corbett: Yeah.
Harry Kemsley: It seems to me that the word cyber has gone through that particular mill in recent years. But then in more recent times, if you're not talking about machine learning algorithms and how they drive artificial intelligence, then again, you're not relevant to anything. I'd really like to dig into that. I think there are many advantages to use of technology. But I think you and I both bear the scars of having been let down by technology so many, many times over the years. But I have to be honest, that at the risk of sounding like a middle- aged great bearded old man, then I actually don't start with the presumption that it will help me. I start with the presumption that it may be helpful, we'll find out.
Sean Corbett: And just on that one, it's a really well- made point, that if you're a company out there... And even defense, actually. There's the Joint AI Center, for instance, in the States. And I think we're about to follow that route. It's got to be understood that it's a tool. It's to make what you do easier, and it's not going to replace the cognitive" so what" piece. And I know there are analysts out there that think they're going to be replaced by algorithms. For me, that's not the case. That's not what it's all about. It's about using tools to make your own time, where the cognitive process is more efficient, the" so what" and the" what if", as I've always called it. So I think that's a really important one. And if I could just go back to another point that you made about open source intelligence versus the super secret sauce stuff. Just because something is classified or taken from exquisite sources doesn't mean to say it's right. And I really think that we're getting there, but slow to change, cultural institutional change. That sort of thing. Is that at the moment, probably if you're in the intelligence world, 80% of what you use is going to be from classified sources, with a little bit of added extra where there's a few gaps that you don't have added with the open source stuff. I would strongly suggest that in the not too distant future, if we're going to stay relevant within the community as a whole, that's going to be reversed. And you're going to talk about probably 80% of stuff is going to taken from open source, which then allows a far more efficient use of the exquisite, very expensive collection assets within the intelligence world to actually do that extra value added. So it's almost a reverse in the way that I certainly look at it.
Harry Kemsley: Yeah, I agree. In fact, I have heard in my conversations with seniors around the intelligence world almost exactly that starting to emerge. It by no means is the norm. But it is not anymore the exception that it once seemed to be, that you would use open source as a primary source to get you into things that you really do need to look at with more exquisite and capable classified means that would be available to governments and the like. So we'll put that on the map for a theme for you and I to chew on in the coming weeks, for sure. One of the things that I guess I'm almost obliged to talk about, given what Jane's does, as increasingly data centric intelligence work for Jane's, is how organizations like Jane's, but not exclusively Jane's, can work with governments. How we can step into the defense and national security arena and actually be of great use. I have seen in the last six, seven years I've been at Jane's a very simple way of looking at it. It's not very simple to do, but it's a very simple way of looking at it. And that is in the capabilities that governments have, and in the capacity they have to use the capabilities they've got to do all the things they need. And it's in that capability and capacity domain that I've found Jane's is able to step in as a commercial organization and help create a capability or fill a capability gap, or indeed just scale something for a customer that is otherwise unable to do so for a variety of good reasons. So without wishing it to become all about how commercial organizations specifically do things in intelligence, what I'd be really keen to look at is, where could governments think about expanding their engagement with partners from industry, and how would that benefit both sides? I think it's fair to say, Sean, from your experience as a senior in DIA in the US you will have seen a great deal more prevalence of contractors on the floor plate. You'd have seen a great deal more engagement day- to- day, week- to- week of contractors in the workflow. And that's something that I think the US are better at overall. I'm sure there are pros and cons with it, and I'd love to look at those pros and cons. But that whole idea about the community of interest, including a commercial partner as much as it does, perhaps another one of the Five Eyes partners, if you're a Five Eyes member, that community of interest expanding into the commercial realm is an interesting topic. And one that I'm convinced we need to get right. We haven't quite got it right yet.
Sean Corbett: No, I agree with that. They are very different models, the USA to the UK. And a lot of that comes down to that word culture. It's easy to hide behind trust and clearances and all the rest of it. But the US is able to treat contractors as they would with somebody within the intelligence community. It's still a need to know, but they go through all the vetting process. And they're just another sort of expert that happens to sit in the space. I think in the UK, particularly, and to an extent, some of the other Five Eyes partners as well, we've tend to thinking we have to do it ourselves. And of course that comes with all sorts of training burdens and resource that you just don't have. So at some stage there needs to be that," Okay, how do we trust..." It's that trust word. And we're going to come back and back to that trust word." How do we trust commerce to do what we need them to do without either giving away our secrets or giving away our intelligence gaps?" Which is a valid thing to worry about. But I think inevitably, and going to Jane's, the sources that you have, the tradecraft that you have, the information you have, you cannot replicate that right now without a huge amount of money being thrown at it within the intelligence community. So some way, shape, or form there has to be that accommodation. And that's going to be evolutionary, not revolutionary, I believe. And it's going to have to be that development of trust over time.
Harry Kemsley: All right, let's put that on the map. We talked about things like artificial intelligence, getting to the truth, verifying what we see. And you've used that word trust quite a few times, Sean. So I definitely want to hold that as one of our themes throughout, because ultimately as a decision maker, you want to be able to trust the information you're basing your decision on. And intelligence is a massive part of that decision making cycle of course. In the interest of time for this introductory podcast, Sean, what are the kind of topics we could cover in the coming weeks? I mean, clearly there are probably an infinite list of topics. But what kind of things would you like to go through in the coming weeks that we could touch on, perhaps through those themes?
Sean Corbett: The big strategic issues haven't really changed. Okay, we've got to look through in the COVID lens. But you've got a China which is the sort of new potential hegemon, not just regional, but globally. What does that mean? Is it because they do things differently? It's economic more than it is military. But they are developing some military capabilities. So we may want to look at that both from a sort of pure capability, but also the threat capability plus intent plus opportunity. But also, how it impacts the region. Because something like 40% of global trade now comes from the Indo- Pacific. And of course, it's not just a case of," All right, we're going to pivot and have a look at that now." It's part of the world order. And so I think it'd be really good to do a deep dive in all those aspects, not just the China, but obviously driven by China. So I think that's an important one.
Harry Kemsley: I think that's right. Sean, just to interrupt you for a second. You think about that event that you and I both spoke at in Indonesia, the geopolitical event.
Sean Corbett: Yeah.
Harry Kemsley: One of the things that struck me at that event was the number of nations around the table, the virtual table of course, who are from that region who felt somewhat aggrieved that their sovereign air space, their sovereign national interests were being trampled on, not just by China, but by other major powers operating in that region for their own national interests.
Sean Corbett: Absolutely.
Harry Kemsley: And with the best of intent, I'm sure, for the nations there. But were basically trampling through the back gardens, the yards of those countries, perhaps unaware of the impact they were having on... And the confidence, and so on, of those countries. And the lack of multilateralism, I think, was the topic for that event. So I think China inevitably will be on our list of topics we can look at. But actually getting to the truth of what's happening in the Asia- Pacific region, with China and around the South China Sea, for example, I'm sure will be something we'll need to touch on.
Sean Corbett: Absolutely. And looking at the intent.
Harry Kemsley: Yes.
Sean Corbett: If you talk to China and just say," Look, we are just part of the normal international order. The economy will do what it does. We've got no intent to take over the world." But is that true? And that's a really difficult question.
Harry Kemsley: It is a difficult question. But it's interesting that you and I started our careers 35 plus years ago when it was all about Russia and all about what was then a dying entity, the Soviet Union. And we were very good, we, the Western world, and I'm sure for their part, the Soviet Union, were very good at understanding each other in that strategic intelligence environment. But in the more recent few decades we've been increasingly focused on non- state armed groups and terrorism of one sort. Countering terrorism has been the major part of my military career. Counterinsurgency, counter- terrorism. I've spent most of my time countering things, it seems. And yet now that we've started to recognize peer threats more as an everyday concern, rather than an occasional glimpse, I think we maybe have lost the ability to understand how to do that strategic intelligence in the way that we have, particularly in the new order. And that's the bit that I'm winding my to say, which is, I don't think it's really just about the military orbat that it brought to the battlefield, or the potential battlefield, that is of relevance to these discussions with China and possibly Russia. It's, as you touched on, Sean, the manner in which warfare is waged is different today. And I don't mean even just cyber. I don't mean the cyber domain per se. I think it's a great deal more rich than that. The use of economics, soft power, diplomacy skill, all of these things woven with the use of overt military power, like the recent flybys of Taiwan by Chinese air force assets. All these things stitch together into a rich tapestry. And I think you and I could do well to unravel some of those topics within the themes we've described earlier.
Sean Corbett: Definitely. Yeah. I mean, call it what you will, the buzzwords change, hybrid warfare, asymmetric warfare. But it's absolutely true, it's using all leverage of power. That I don't think necessarily us in the West have done particularly well. But you raise a really important point, because I remember, almost to the week, where the UK intelligence community pivoted from," We knew everything there was to know about Russia." We didn't, but we were pretty good. And went," No, that's all over now. The Wall's gone down." Just shows how old we are." Right, now it's all about terrorism." And then we got very, very good at understanding non- state groups. But of course, Russia never went away. China's upon us. And so how do we balance the... Or how does the community, including Jane's, balance its weight of effort of non- state, non- traditional threats as well, of course, as well as the sort of traditional state actors? And that's a really tricky one because... Just to sort of pull that thread. Like you, I spent most of my... Certainly my latter years, as I said, in hot and dangerous places, countering the violent extremist threats. And I'm worried that because now we're looking more internally as countries... The pandemic hits, the economy is getting dragged, domestic terrorism potential. We can talk about that another time as well. But are we losing our focus on those ungoverned spaces and the economic and sociopolitical circumstances in which violent extremism is actually fermented? I would have to say you're seeing very similar conditions now to what we were seeing when Al- Qaeda came up, and then the latest iteration of ISIL. And the big question, which I'd love to have, which is what I've been looking at for a long, long time is, is all international terrorism actually domestic? Or is it international? Well, the answer of course is both things can be, and are, true. But I'd love to unpack that at some stage and talk about that.
Harry Kemsley: And of course, looking at that whole range of topics in different geographies also teaches you something about what we haven't got right previously as much as what we need to get right that's different on this occasion. And of course, we're all seeing in Africa a whole series of dynamics bubbling up there that are, well, significant. But one of the things that I'm sure will be very different about Africa is the culture of Africa is different to that of the Middle East or of Asia- Pacific, of course. And it will bring its own variants of terrorism and strife. But it will also do so in a context of a world that is now fully awake to the environmental dangers that we face globally, to matters like pandemics. I mean, let's be candid here, Sean. We always have been. The West has been mostly ignorant of the realities of the likes of SARS inaudible MERS of previous years, which our Asia- Pacific friends have done a great deal more to counter in their own experience of it. And have been arguably more able to deal with this particular pandemic, COVID, than we have. But we're now all woken up to it, both in the East and the West. And therefore, we have to bear that in mind. And that overlays very, very clearly on top of all these national security concerns that we understandably will want to focus on based on our backgrounds and our experience. But we have to do that through the sort of non- traditional security threats, threats to public safety as well.
Sean Corbett: We all have our baggage, but one of the things that always sticks out was the Ebola crisis, which is the first time we've really, certainly as a UK military, had to address a nontraditional threat that you couldn't see, hear, and feel. And we struggled through it, if I'm being honest. I mean, there's some absolutely fantastic activity. Logistics were fantastic. Command and control was great. But as an intelligence community, I don't think we ever really understood it, because we weren't looking at that sort of thing. We weren't optimized to collect, for instance, against that sort of thing. Most of which would have been at the unclassified level anyway. And as always, you go... And I'm being frank here, and I'll probably upset people. But we used to call them lessons learned. Then it was lessons identified. Then it just went lessons. Because we never actually... We always sort of move on before we've really thought," Okay, what do we need to do here?" And one of those lessons was actually being able to do intelligence at an unclassified level. Which I remember writing a paper on actually after that event. And I don't think it went anywhere. But those are with us to stay. And I really do hope... And I think now because this pandemic is a pandemic by definition, then I think we will learn those. But it's a really interesting subject to get into.
Harry Kemsley: I think we've just given ourselves enough homework to keep us both busy for a few weeks and months.
Sean Corbett: Just a bit.
Harry Kemsley: So let's just summarize then, Sean, the things to talk about coming forward then. So we've agreed that at the center of what we want to talk about are the truisms that you and I have lived by for the last 35 years in and around intelligence. You very much in it, me around it, and occasionally in it. And that is getting to the truth, understanding how technology can support, enable, augment intelligence process. Thinking about how defense communities can operate better with commercial partners around them. Thinking about where we're trying to get to in terms of the use of some of those really high- end capabilities out there, like artificial intelligence, that the latest version of the effects- based, the cyber, and now artificial intelligence. And doing that around some of the re- emergent strategic threats, like Russia. Looking at the knotty problem of China and their variety of ways of warfare, which are alien perhaps to some of the military thinking that you and I certainly started out life in. As well as some of those non- state armed group factors that are still very present and potentially re- emergent in other parts of the world, like Africa, which will be different to the way we've seen in the Middle East. And then these non- security matters that absolutely will have implications for national security, which we touched on at the end there. I think with those themes and those topics we'll keep ourselves extremely busy. We'll see where it takes us.
Sean Corbett: Absolutely. Of course, we haven't even mentioned DPRK around climate security, et cetera. And I'm sure we'll get into those as we talk about those themes. But no, that sounds like a good plan. And I think it's going to keep us busy.
Harry Kemsley: I totally agree. So, Sean, first of all, thank you in advance for the support to this. We'll have an interesting conversation, and hopefully bring some people with us on the way. And again, thank you for your time. We'll speak again soon. Thanks, Sean.