Tales from the History of OSINT: Foreign Broadcast Information Services

Tales from the History of OSINT: Foreign Broadcast Information Services

The Federation of American Scientists once described the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) as “the biggest bang for the buck in the American intelligence community.”1 The service was founded in 1941 to monitor shortwave radio broadcasts from Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union that were meant to influence American citizens’ political opinions.2 In this way, it is a precursor to many of the counter-disinformation working groups in the intelligence community and academia today.  

In the 2001 Studies in Intelligence journal article, Stephen Mercado summarized the need for FBIS:

“Increasing global tensions in the 1930s fueled the propaganda competition among the Communist Soviet Union; Fascist Germany and Italy; and France, Great Britain, and imperialist Japan. Germany’s short-wave transmission capacity grew from four kilowatts in 1930 to 280 kilowatts in 1940. France surged from zero to 123 kilowatts and Great Britain’s capacity grew from seven to 240 kilowatts. 

The airwaves crackled with a variety of programs for foreign consumption. Prior to the Anschluss, Berlin put forth appeals to Austrians to cast their lot with the Reich. Tokyo’s broadcast languages included English for audiences in North America and elsewhere. The radio programs at times resulted in diplomatic repercussions. London protested the inflammatory language of Rome’s broadcasts in Arabic to British colonies in the Near East until the Anglo-Italian accord of 1938 brought a halt to such propaganda.” 3

By 1967, FBIS had expanded to capture all mass media worldwide. The task of capturing broadcast data was carried out by twenty monitoring stations strategically spread over the surface of the Earth. Capturing newspapers, print media, and lower power broadcasts fell to small task units assigned to each embassy.  

One strength of FBIS information was its open nature. Because everything was publicly captured data, reporting could be generated at the unclassified level. This made the intelligence gleaned from these reports easy to share with foreign partners, without jumping through bureaucratic hoops. This is one of the most appealing aspects of OSINT at the federal level.

FBIS was often the first service to detect coups, social movements, and other localized phenomena in countries where the United States maintained smaller diplomatic or intelligence footprints.  Its importance grew throughout the Cold War as a result.

The sheer volume of data brought in by FBIS made it the largest single source of potential intelligence information in the days before the internet. While FBIS’ collections were very different from modern OSINT, it is indicative of the general principle that the public generates far more intelligence data than classified sources ever could. 

FBIS in the Modern Era

In 2005, FBIS did not shutdown as is often cited.  Instead, their stations and mission were absorbed by the newly formed Open-Source Center under the Director of National Intelligence.  This post-9/11 construct was much better suited to the modern internet and integrating the huge volumes of data it created.

The scale and scope of OSINT is much of the reason 443ID decided this data was such an integral part of identity assessment management.  We collect and curate data to give our clients early warning of problems and protect their applications from those who mean harm. This is very similar to the role played by FBIS at the national level a generation ago.


  1. Williams, Heather J.; Blum, Ilana (2018-05-17). “Defining Second Generation Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) for the Defense Enterprise”RAND Corporationdoi:10.7249/rr1964ISBN 9780833098832.
  2.  “National Archive”Records of the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service. Retrieved 2011-04-28.
  3.  https://www.cia.gov/static/96048eae9f1b9aa309a24c4b5582ea62/fbis-against-the-axis.pdf, pg. 1
Steven Sheffield is a career intelligence professional with a background in special operations mission support, targeting, and OSINT collection. During his 20+ years in the industry, he has worked as both an analyst and a user experience researcher. This experience uniquely positions him to manage intelligence shops, design new analytic processes incorporating the latest technologies, and write AGILE user stories for developers building next generation OSINT products. He is currently a PhD candidate at Clemson University in Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design.

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