Spy Agencies Turn to Newspapers, NPR, and Wikipedia for Information

The intelligence community is learning to value "open-source" information.

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A few days ago, a senior officer at the Pentagon called his intelligence officer into his office. The boss had heard a news report about China while driving to his office and wanted some answers. It wasn't a tough assignment, given the news coverage, but there was a hitch. "There was plenty of information in the public domain about the topic," recalls the intelligence officer, a 10-year veteran. "And yet, if there wasn't some classified information cited in my report, the boss would never believe it was accurate."

The officer calls it "the seduction of the 'top-secret' stamp."

That's a common refrain in the intelligence community when the subject of so-called open-source information comes up. It's the kind of anecdote recounted over and over again this week at the intelligence community's second annual conference on the use of open-source information.

Another anecdote involves public information—commonly newspaper reports—that is paraphrased or quoted verbatim and then stamped "classified" to make the report more appealing to superiors.

Yet it's a practice that might be changing. The use of nonclassified information, whether news accounts or other publicly retrievable information, is gaining credibility within the intelligence community. And officials say there can be good reasons for putting some of that open-source information under the secrecy umbrella. "The information might be unclassified but our interest in it is not," Gen. Michael Hayden, head of the CIA, told the conference.

More than 15,000 people in the intelligence community now use the limited-access opensource.gov portal for information. "By using open-source information, we can distribute it more widely among our customers in the State Department than we could if it was classified. Not everyone who works with the State Department has top-secret clearance," says James Bell, acting director of the Office of Research at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

In addition, open-source information is sometimes simply easier to access. Soldiers in Iraq, for instance, occasionally lacking maps of their area of operations in Baghdad, regularly used satellite imagery from Google Earth to plan operations last spring. Also on the intelligence community's radar: the new version of Picasa, a Google-owned application for digital photographs that allows users to use facial recognition software.

Indeed, the Open Source Center, an office overseen by the director of national intelligence, now has more requests for information than it can handle, according to officials. Says Kim Robinson, a senior executive at from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, "Open source is starting to be institutionalized."

Open-source information is both a curse and a blessing to intelligence professionals. On the one hand, it makes information far more accessible, sometimes more timely, and easier to disseminate. That means that more people can be more informed in a shorter amount of time, even despite concerns about the reliability of some of the information—Wikipedia, for instance.

On the other hand, it means a loss of power for those very intelligence agencies. "The intelligence professional is no longer the most, or the only, authoritative source of information," says Don Burke of the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology.

Burke's now in charge of Intellipedia, a classified, interservice version of Wikipedia for spies and analysts. When he began at CIA in 1988, Burke says, there were no personal computers on analysts' desktops. Now in its second year, Intellipedia, some of which is open source, has more than 35,000 registered users and some 200,000 pages of information, according to the CIA.