National Security Watch: Bringing spooks out in the open
As the Bush administration moves ahead with its plan to reform the U.S. intelligence community, White House officials are considering creating a unit at CIA headquarters to specialize in publicly available information. The proposal would address a long-standing criticism of the intelligence community: that it has done a poor job of analyzing what those in the spy world call open-source intelligence.
The new center would report to the director of national intelligence and serve the 15 agencies that make up the intelligence community. "The real value added is enabling the entire community to make better use of that which is already available," says Gen. Michael Hayden, the deputy national intelligence director.
"If you make full use of information you don't have to steal, you may discover you don't have to steal as much," says Hayden.
The idea to mine open-source intelligence has been around for a while. In some ways, it's surprising that open sources remain a challenge for the nation's spy agencies. But the CIA and others, burdened by security concerns, have been very slow to embrace the Internet and commercial research tools that have become standard for just about every other professional enterprise. (Another example: Intelligence officials say that Google is a much more powerful search technology than anything available to intelligence analysts for searching top-secret cables.)
In addition, veterans of the CIA have long described an institutional bias against information available in the news media and over the Internet, with most spooks preferring to work in the clandestine world of stolen secrets. But the former intelligence officials add that CIA reports frequently repeat information and analysis that has already been published elsewhere.
Hayden does not envision this new center's producing a flood of its own analyses and reports. Instead, it would most likely facilitate training for analysts on how to best exploit open sources and help design the necessary information technology. There might even be what Hayden calls a "SWAT team of experts" that would be on call to help agencies target their analytical efforts.
The new center will probably be housed at the CIA "so that we can build on the one successful open-source endeavor we have, which is FBIS," says Hayden, referring to the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Information Service, which monitors and translates foreign press reports. FBIS, portions of which are available as a subscription service, has long been a valuable tool for both government officials and private researchers.