"Even minutiae should have a place in our collection,
for things of a seemingly trifling nature, when enjoined with
others of a more serious cast, may lead to valuable conclusion."
George Washington, known OPSEC practitioner
What is Operational Security (OPSEC)?
The Intelligence Puzzle
Intelligence collection and analysis is very much like assembling
a picture puzzle. Intelligence collectors are fully aware
of the importance of obtaining small bits of information (or
"pieces" of a puzzle) from many sources and assembling
them to form the overall picture.
Intelligence collectors use numerous methods and sources
to develop pieces of the intelligence puzzle . . .their collection
methods range from sophisticated surveillance using highly
technical electronic methods to simple visual observation
of activities (these activities are referred to as "indicators").
Information may be collected by monitoring radio and telephone
conversations, analyzing telephone directories, financial
or purchasing documents, position or "job" announcements,
travel documents, blueprints or drawings, distribution lists,
shipping and receiving documents, even personal information
or items found in the unclassified trash.
The Premise of OPSEC
The premise of OPSEC is that the accumulation of one or more
elements of sensitive/unclassified information or data could
damage national security by revealing classified information.
The Goal of OPSEC
The goal of OPSEC, as a "countermeasures" program,
is to deny an adversary pieces of the intelligence puzzle.
ORIGIN OF OPSEC
There is nothing new about the principles underlying OPSEC.
In fact, we can trace OPSEC practices back to the colonial
days and the Revolutionary War. George Washington, our first
president, was a known OPSEC practitioner. General Washington
was quoted as saying, "Even minutiae should have a place
in our collection, for things of a seemingly trifling nature,
when enjoined with others of a more serious cast, may lead
to valuable conclusion."
However, OPSEC, as a methodology, originated during the Vietnam
conflict when a small group of individuals were assigned the
mission of finding out how the enemy was obtaining advance
information on certain combat operations in Southeast Asia.
This team was established by the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific,
and given the code name "PURPLE DRAGON."
It became apparent to the team that although traditional
security and intelligence countermeasures programs existed,
reliance solely upon them was insufficient to deny critical
information to the enemy--especially information and indicators
relating to intentions and capabilities. The group conceived
and developed the methodology of analyzing U.S. operations
from an adversarial viewpoint to find out how the information
The team then recommended corrective actions to local commanders.
They were successful in what they did, and to name what they
had done, they coined the term "operations security."
OPSEC and Government Activities
Over the years it became increasingly apparent that OPSEC
had uses in virtually every government program that needed
to protect information to ensure program effectiveness. OPSEC
professionals modified and improved techniques based on experience
gained with many different organizations and in areas far
afield from military combat operations.
Today, OPSEC is as equally applicable to an administrative
or research and development activity as it is to a combat
operation. If OPSEC is not integrated into sensitive and classified
activities, chances are that our adversaries will acquire
significant information about our capabilities and limitations.
It probably would have been difficult for the "Purple
Dragon" team to foresee that, 20 years later, the methodology
they developed would become a national program.
OPSEC AT HOME
You have probably been practicing OPSEC in your personal
life without knowing it! When you are getting ready to go
on a trip have you ever:
Stopped the delivery of the newspaper so that they would
not pile up outside and send a signal that you are not home?
Asked your neighbor to pick up your mail so the mailbox would
not fill up, also indicating that you are away?
Connected your porch lights and inside lights to a timer
so they would go on at preset times to make it look like someone
Left a vehicle parked in the driveway?
Connected a radio to a timer so that it comes on at various
times to make it sound like that someone is inside?
Well, guess what you did? You practiced OPSEC!
The critical information here is obvious - we do not want
anyone to know the house is unoccupied. None of the actions
(countermeasures) listed above directly conceal the fact that
your residence is unoccupied. A newspaper on the lawn or driveway
does not necessarily mean no one is at home. Newspapers in
the yard or driveway are only an indicator to the adversary.
That indicator, combined with other indicators, (no internal
lights at night, mail stuffed in the mailbox, etc.) will provide
the adversary with the information needed to reach a conclusion
with an acceptable level of confidence. In this case, the
more indicators that the adversary is able to observe, the
greater the level of confidence in his/her conclusion. When
you eliminate these indicators, you have a much better chance
of ensuring that your home is not burglarized while you are
The same holds true at your place of work. We must protect
our critical information and eliminate indicators available
to the adversary.