Robert David Steele, former Marine, CIA case officer, and US co-founder of the US Marine Corps intelligence activity, is a man on a mission. But it’s a mission that frightens the US intelligence establishment to its core.
With 18 years experience working across the US intelligence community, followed by 20 more years in commercial intelligence and training, Steele’s exemplary career has spanned almost all areas of both the clandestine world.
Steele started off as a Marine Corps infantry and intelligence officer. After four years on active duty, he joined the CIA for about a decade before co-founding the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity, where he was deputy director. Widely recognised as the leader of the Open SourceIntelligence (OSINT) paradigm, Steele went on to write the handbooks on OSINT for NATO, the US Defense Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Special Operations Forces. In passing, he personally trained 7,500 officers from over 66 countries.
In 1992, despite opposition from the CIA, he obtained Marine Corps permission to organise a landmark international conference on open source intelligence – the paradigm of deriving information to support policy decisions not through secret activities, but from open public sources available to all. The conference was such a success it brought in over 620 attendees from the intelligence world.
But the CIA wasn’t happy, and ensured that Steele was prohibited from running a second conference. The clash prompted him to resign from his position as second-ranking civilian in Marine Corps intelligence, and pursue the open source paradigm elsewhere. He went on to found and head up the Open Source Solutions Network Inc. and later the non-profit Earth Intelligence Network which runs the Public Intelligence Blog.
I first came across Steele when I discovered his Amazon review of my third book, The War on Truth: 9/11, Disinformation and the Anatomy of Terrorism. A voracious reader, Steele is the number 1 Amazon reviewer for non-fiction across 98 categories. He also reviewed my latest book, A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization, but told me I’d overlooked an important early work – ‘A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, Report of the UN High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change.’
Last month, Steele presented a startling paper at the Libtech conference in New York, sponsored by the Internet Society and Reclaim. Drawing on principles set out in his latest book, The Open-Source Everything Manifesto: Transparency, Truth and Trust, he told the audience that all the major preconditions for revolution – set out in his 1976 graduate thesis – were now present in the United States and Britain.
Steele’s book is a must-read, a powerful yet still pragmatic roadmap to a new civilisational paradigm that simultaneously offers a trenchant, unrelenting critique of the prevailing global order. His interdisciplinary ‘whole systems’ approach dramatically connects up the increasing corruption, inefficiency and unaccountability of the intelligence system and its political and financial masters with escalating inequalities and environmental crises. But he also offers a comprehensive vision of hope that activist networks like Reclaim are implementing today.
“We are at the end of a five-thousand-year-plus historical process during which human society grew in scale while it abandoned the early indigenous wisdom councils and communal decision-making,” he writes inThe Open Source Everything Manifesto. “Power was centralised in the hands of increasingly specialised ‘elites’ and ‘experts’ who not only failed to achieve all they promised but used secrecy and the control of information to deceive the public into allowing them to retain power over community resources that they ultimately looted.”
Today’s capitalism, he argues, is inherently predatory and destructive:
“Over the course of the last centuries, the commons was fenced, and everything from agriculture to water was commoditised without regard to the true cost in non-renewable resources. Human beings, who had spent centuries evolving away from slavery, were re-commoditised by the Industrial Era.”
Open source everything, in this context, offers us the chance to build on what we’ve learned through industrialisation, to learn from our mistakes, and catalyse the re-opening of the commons, in the process breaking the grip of defunct power structures and enabling the possibility of prosperity for all.
“Sharing, not secrecy, is the means by which we realise such a lofty destiny as well as create infinite wealth. The wealth of networks, the wealth of knowledge, revolutionary wealth – all can create a nonzero win-win Earth that works for one hundred percent of humanity. This is the ‘utopia’ that Buckminster Fuller foresaw, now within our reach.”
The goal, he concludes, is to reject:
“… concentrated illicitly aggregated and largely phantom wealth in favor of community wealth defined by community knowledge, community sharing of information, and community definition of truth derived in transparency and authenticity, the latter being the ultimate arbiter of shared wealth.”
Despite this unabashedly radical vision, Steele is hugely respected by senior military intelligence experts across the world. As a researcher at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, he has authored several monographs advocating the need for open source methods to transform the craft of intelligence. He has lectured to the US State Department and Department of Homeland Security as well as National Security Councils in various countries, and his new book has received accolades from senior intelligence officials across multiple countries including France and Turkey.
Yet he remains an outspoken critic of US intelligence practices and what he sees as their integral role in aggravating rather than ameliorating the world’s greatest threats and challenges.
This week, I had the good fortune of being able to touch base with Steele to dig deeper into his recent analysis of the future of US politics in the context of our accelerating environmental challenges. The first thing I asked him was where he sees things going over the next decade, given his holistic take.
“Properly educated people always appreciate holistic approaches to any challenge. This means that they understand both cause and effect, and intertwined complexities,” he said. “A major part of our problem in the public policy arena is the decline in intelligence with integrity among key politicians and staff at the same time that think tanks and universities and non-governmental organisations have also suffered a similar intellectual diminishment.
“My early graduate education was in the 1970’s when Limits to Growth and World Federalism were the rage. Both sought to achieve an over-view of systemic challenges, but both also suffered from the myth of top-down hubris. What was clear in the 1970s, that has been obscured by political and financial treason in the past half-century, is that everything is connected – what we do in the way of paving over wetlands, or in poisoning ground water ‘inadvertently’ because of our reliance on pesticides and fertilisers that are not subject to the integrity of the ‘Precautionary Principle,’ ultimately leads to climate catastrophes that are acts of man, not acts of god.”
He points me to his tremendous collection of reviews of books on climate change, disease, environmental degradation, peak oil, and water scarcity. “I see five major overlapping threats on the immediate horizon,” he continues. “They are all related: the collapse of complex societies, the acceleration of the Earth’s demise with changes that used to take 10,000 years now taking three or less, predatory or shock capitalism and financial crime out of the City of London and Wall Street, and political corruption at scale, to include the west supporting 42 of 44 dictators. We are close to multiple mass catastrophes.”
What about the claim that the US is on the brink of revolution? “Revolution is overthrow – the complete reversal of the status quo ante. We are at the end of centuries of what Lionel Tiger calls ‘The Manufacture of Evil,’ in which merchant banks led by the City of London have conspired with captive governments to concentrate wealth and commoditise everything including humans. What revolution means in practical terms is that balance has been lost and the status quo ante is unsustainable. There are two ‘stops’ on greed to the nth degree: the first is the carrying capacity of Earth, and the second is human sensibility. We are now at a point where both stops are activating.”
It’s not just the US, he adds. “The preconditions of revolution exist in the UK, and most western countries. The number of active pre-conditions is quite stunning, from elite isolation to concentrated wealth to inadequate socialisation and education, to concentrated land holdings to loss of authority to repression of new technologies especially in relation toenergy, to the atrophy of the public sector and spread of corruption, to media dishonesty, to mass unemployment of young men and on and on and on.”
So why isn’t it happening yet?
“Preconditions are not the same as precipitants. We are waiting for our Tunisian fruit seller. The public will endure great repression, especially when most media outlets and schools are actively aiding the repressive meme of ‘you are helpless, this is the order of things.’ When we have a scandal so powerful that it cannot be ignored by the average Briton or American, we will have a revolution that overturns the corrupt political systems in both countries, and perhaps puts many banks out of business. Vaclav Havel calls this ‘The Power of the Powerless.’ One spark, one massive fire.”
But we need more than revolution, in the sense of overthrow, to effect change, surely. How does your manifesto for ‘open source everything’ fit into this? “The west has pursued an industrialisation path that allows for the privatisation of wealth from the commons, along with the criminalisation of commons rights of the public, as well as the externalisation of all true costs. Never mind that fracking produces earthquakes and poisons aquifers – corrupt politicians at local, state or province, and national levels are all too happy to take money for looking the other way. Our entire commercial, diplomatic, and informational systems are now cancerous. When trade treaties have secret sections – or are entirely secret – one can be certain the public is being screwed and the secrecy is an attempt to avoid accountability. Secrecy enables corruption. So also does an inattentive public enable corruption.”
Is this a crisis of capitalism, then? Does capitalism need to end for us to resolve these problems? And if so, how? “Predatory capitalism is based on the privatisation of profit and the externalisation of cost. It is an extension of the fencing of the commons, of enclosures, along with the criminalisation of prior common customs and rights. What we need is a system that fully accounts for all costs. Whether we call that capitalism or not is irrelevant to me. But doing so would fundamentally transform the dynamic of present day capitalism, by making capital open source. For example, and as calculated by my colleague JZ Liszkiewicz, a white cotton T-shirt contains roughly 570 gallons of water, 11 to 29 gallons of fuel, and a number of toxins and emissions including pesticides, diesel exhaust, and heavy metals and other volatile compounds – it also generally includes child labor. Accounting for those costs and their real social, human and environmental impacts has totally different implications for how we should organise production and consumption than current predatory capitalism.”
So what exactly do you mean by open source everything? “We have over 5 billion human brains that are the one infinite resource available to us going forward. Crowd-sourcing and cognitive surplus are two terms of art for the changing power dynamic between those at the top that are ignorant and corrupt, and those across the bottom that are attentive and ethical. The open source ecology is made up of a wide range of opens – open farm technology, open source software, open hardware, open networks, open money, open small business technology, open patents – to name just a few. The key point is that they must all develop together, otherwise the existing system will isolate them into ineffectiveness. Open data is largely worthless unless you have open hardware and open software. Open government demands open cloud and open spectrum, or money will dominate feeds and speeds.”
On 1st May, Steele sent an open letter to US vice president Joe Bidenrequesting him to consider establishing an Open Source Agency that would transform the operation of the intelligence community, dramatically reduce costs, increasing oversight and accountability, while increasing access to the best possible information to support holistic policy-making. To date, he has received no response.
I’m not particularly surprised. Open source everything pretty much undermines everything the national security state stands for. Why bother even asking vice president Biden to consider it? “The national security state is rooted in secrecy as a means of avoiding accountability. My first book, On Intelligence: Spies and Secrecy in an Open World – which by the way had a foreword from Senator David Boren, the immediate past chairman of the Senate Select Committee for Intelligence – made it quite clear that the national security state is an expensive, ineffective monstrosity that is simply not fit for purpose. In that sense, the national security state is it’s own worst enemy – it’s bound to fail.”
Given his standing as an intelligence expert, Steele’s criticisms of US intelligence excesses are beyond scathing – they are damning. “Most of what is produced through secret methods is not actually intelligence at all. It is simply secret information that is, most of the time, rather generic and therefore not actually very useful for making critical decisions at a government level. The National Security Agency (NSA) has not prevented any terrorist incidents. CIA cannot even get the population of Syria correct and provides no intelligence – decision-support – to most cabinet secretaries, assistant secretaries, and department heads. Indeed General Tony Zinni, when he was commander in chief of the US Central Command as it was at war, is on record as saying that he received, ‘at best,’ a meagre 4% of what he needed to know from secret sources and methods.”
So does open source mean you are calling for abolition of intelligence agencies as we know them, I ask. “I’m a former spy and I believe we still need spies and secrecy, but we need to redirect the vast majority of the funds now spent on secrecy toward savings and narrowly focused endeavors at home. For instance, utterly ruthless counterintelligence against corruption, or horrendous evils like paedophilia.
“Believe it or not, 95% of what we need for ethical evidence-based decision support cannot be obtained through the secret methods of standard intelligence practices. But it can be obtained quite openly and cheaply from academics, civil society, commerce, governments, law enforcement organisations, the media, all militaries, and non-governmental organisations. An Open Source Agency, as I’ve proposed it, would not just meet 95% of our intelligence requirements, it would do the same at all levels of government and carry over by enriching education, commerce, and research – it would create what I called in 1995 a ‘Smart Nation.’
“The whole point of Open Source Everything is to restore public agency. Open Source is the only form of information and information technology that is affordable to the majority, interoperable across all boundaries, and rapidly scalable from local to global without the curse of overhead that proprietary corporations impose.”
It’s clear to me that when Steele talks about intelligence as ‘decision-support,’ he really does intend that we grasp “all information in all languages all the time” – that we do multidisciplinary research spanning centuries into the past as well as into the future. His most intriguing premise is that the 1% are simply not as powerful as they, and we, assume them to be. “The collective buying power of the five billion poor is four times that of the one billion rich according to the late Harvard business thinker Prof C. K. Prahalad – open source everything is about the five billion poor coming together to reclaim their collective wealth and mobilise it to transform their lives. There is zero chance of the revolution being put down. Public agency is emergent, and the ability of the public to literally put any bank or corporation out of business overnight is looming. To paraphrase Abe Lincoln, you cannot screw all of the people all of the time. We’re there. All we lack is a major precipitant – our Tunisian fruit seller. When it happens the revolution will be deep and lasting.”
The Arab spring analogy has its negatives. So far, there really isn’t much to root for. I want to know what’s to stop this revolution from turning into a violent, destructive mess. Steele is characteristically optimistic. “I have struggled with this question. What I see happening is an end to national dictat and the emergence of bottom-up clarity, diversity, integrity, and sustainability. Individual towns across the USA are now nullifying federal and state regulations – for example gag laws on animal cruelty, blanket permissions for fracking. Those such as my colleague Parag Khanna that speak to a new era of city-states are correct in my view. Top down power has failed in a most spectacular manner, and bottom-up consensus power is emergent. ‘Not in my neighborhood’ is beginning to trump ‘Because I say so.’ The one unlimited resource we have on the planet is the human brain – the current strategy of 1% capitalism is failing because it is killing the Golden Goose at multiple levels. Unfortunately, the gap between those with money and power and those who actually know what they are talking about has grown catastrophic. The rich are surrounded by sycophants and pretenders whose continued employment demands that they not question the premises. As Larry Summers lectured Elizabeth Warren, ‘insiders do not criticise insiders.'”
But how can activists actually start moving toward the open source vision now? “For starters, there are eight ‘tribes’ that among them can bring together all relevant information: academia, civil society including labor unions and religions, commerce especially small business, government especially local, law enforcement, media, military, and non-government/non-profit. At every level from local to global, across every mission area, we need to create stewardship councils integrating personalities and information from all eight tribes. We don’t need to wait around for someone else to get started. All of us who recognise the vitality of this possibility can begin creating these new grassroots structures from the bottom-up, right now.”
So how does open source everything have the potential to ‘re-engineer the Earth’? For me, this is the most important question, and Steele’s answer is inspiring. “Open Source Everything overturns top-down ‘because I say so at the point of a gun’ power. Open Source Everything makes truth rather than violence the currency of power. Open Source Everything demands that true cost economics and the indigenous concept of ‘seventh generation thinking’ – how will this affect society 200 years ahead – become central. Most of our problems today can be traced to the ascendance of unilateral militarism, virtual colonialism, and predatory capitalism, all based on force and lies and encroachment on the commons. The national security state works for the City of London and Wall Street – both are about to be toppled by a combination of Eastern alternative banking and alternative international development capabilities, and individuals who recognise that they have the power to pull their money out of the banks and not buy the consumer goods that subsidise corruption and the concentration of wealth. The opportunity to take back the commons for the benefit of humanity as a whole is open – here and now.”
For Steele, the open source revolution is inevitable, simply because the demise of the system presided over by the 1% cannot be stopped – and because the alternatives to reclaiming the commons are too dismal to contemplate. We have no choice but to step up.
“My motto, a play on the CIA motto that is disgraced every day, is ‘the truth at any cost lowers all other costs'”, he tells me. “Others wiser than I have pointed out that nature bats last. We are at the end of an era in which lies can be used to steal from the public and the commons. We are at the beginning of an era in which truth in public service can restore us all to a state of grace.”
Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is an international security journalist and academic. He is the author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It, and the forthcoming science fiction thriller, ZERO POINT. ZERO POINT is set in a near future following a Fourth Iraq War. Follow Ahmed on Facebook and Twitter.