Jeffrey Lewis of the Monterey Institute for International Studies (MIIS), also known as Arms Control Wonk, has written a nice primer on open-source intelligence. If you want to know more about that subject, I highly recommend it.
Back in the mid-1990s, my environmental remediation team at Los Alamos had an interesting problem: find where wastes from early operations at the Laboratory had been buried. One landfill in particular was very poorly marked. It was believed to contain explosives, so we couldn’t drill. (The idea that explosives would be buried is a little silly, but off the topic of this post.)
We decided to find all the information we could about where the burial pit might be and put it together computationally. That involved historical and current imagery. The historical imagery was taken from relatively low-flying planes, in contrast to today’s satellite photos. As a result, some of the information we needed was not flat, but at an angle to the ground. A postdoc named Paul Pope figured out how to convert those photos, a predecessor to Google’s fly-throughs and other apps that depend on changing the angle of view. Here’s a summary of what we did.
We also had an infrared-camera-equipped plane fly over the area to get photos in that part of the spectrum. A pit would tend to collect water and be cooler than surrounding unexcavated areas.
So I am a fan of such things. The amount of information now available is much greater, of course. Organizations like MIIS are beginning to use the information and diagnostics available to answer questions of nonproliferation. Bellingcat has identified the BUK launcher responsible for bringing down the MH17 passenger plane over Ukraine and is looking at the war in Syria.
These methods are very powerful and available to all with the time and skill to apply them. They are a valuable adjunct to conventional methods of verifying treaty compliance, as in the case of the Iran nuclear agreement, of which Lewis gives an example.
We’ve added a volunteer element to the services that have done this sort of work, and that’s a good thing. Read Lewis’s primer for more.
Graphic: Overhead image, with overlays, from a case study in Lewis’s primer.