Probing Galaxies of Data for Nuggets
Friday, November 25, 2005
The CIA now has its own bloggers.
In a bow to the rise of Internet-era secrets hidden in plain view, the agency has started hosting Web logs with the latest information on topics including North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il's public visit to a military installation (his 38th this year) and the Burmese media's silence on a ministry reshuffling. It even has a blog on blogs, dedicated to cracking the code of what useful information can be gleaned from the rapidly expanding milieu of online journals and weird electronic memorabilia warehoused on the Net.
The blogs are posted on an unclassified, government-wide Web site, part of a rechristened CIA office for monitoring, translating and analyzing publicly available information called the DNI Open Source Center. The center, which officially debuted this month under the aegis of the new director for national intelligence, marks the latest wave of reorganization to come out of the recommendations of several commissions that analyzed the failures of intelligence collection related to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
They pointed to decentralized and insufficient efforts to tap into the huge realm of public information in the Internet era, as well as a continuing climate of disdain for such information among spy agencies. "There are still people who believe if it's not top secret, it's not worth reading," said an outside expert who works with government intelligence agencies.
By adding the new center, "they've changed the strategic visibility," said Douglas J. Naquin, a CIA veteran named to direct the center. ". . . All of a sudden open source is at the table." But, in an interview last week at CIA headquarters, he added that "managing the world's unclassified knowledge . . . [is] much bigger than any one organization can do."
Today's Open Source Center began life as the Foreign Broadcast Information Service -- FBIS to insiders -- in 1941, when it was charged with monitoring publicly available media and translating it. Its pastel-hued booklets became a familiar presence throughout government. At the height of the Cold War, it was FBIS translators who pored through the latest issues of Izvestia and Pravda from the Soviet Union, providing the little hints such as a word change that might signal something broader for the CIA's Kremlinologists.
By the 1990s, the office had fallen on hard times. Some advocated abolishing FBIS, saying it was irrelevant in the age of 24-hour cable news. It survived, but had its personnel slashed 60 percent, according to Naquin. Sept. 11 gave it new purpose, as "open source" became an intelligence buzzword. Across government, policymakers began to debate how to find the nuggets of genuine information hidden in the Internet avalanche.
"We weren't going to be just a translation service anymore," Naquin recalled. Now, with the new name, FBIS is "repositioned," he said. "Our definition of open source is anything that can be legally obtained," whether how-to-build-a-bomb manuals or inflammatory T-shirts.
Even before the Open Source Center's debut, the office had retooled its Internet efforts earlier this year. It added a new video database that makes all its archives available online, and it rolled out an upgraded Web site with the blogs and homepages for key intelligence topics, such as Osama bin Laden, Iraq insurgency leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, China and even avian flu.
The center also sees itself as a repository of what Naquin calls "open-source tradecraft" in a self-conscious echo of his clandestine colleagues. It teaches courses to intelligence analysts across the community, with titles such as "Advanced Internet Exploitation."
Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA's special bin Laden unit, said he had long believed that "90 percent of what you need to know comes from open-source intelligence." He considered FBIS to be "the crown jewel of the American intelligence community," though he said it was perpetually short of funds and personnel, and often focused on low-priority tasks such as extensive updates on Northern Ireland.
Several outside experts who have dealt with the center said it is still far from offering cutting-edge expertise in how to glean information from the Internet. This is especially so when it comes to a top priority of the moment -- the rapid proliferation of al Qaeda-affiliated Web sites and password-protected chat rooms, and the many creative uses to which the Internet is being put by those who utilize them.
"There's some really hard questions that need to be sorted out" about the role of the Open Source Center, said one outside expert who works with government intelligence agencies. This expert and others noted they often receive complaints from government officials who say they find out faster about new statements and video coming from Iraq insurgents such as Zarqawi through private services. "It's just hilarious how little these people know," said another outside expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because discussions with the agency were confidential.
Naquin acknowledged the complexities of trying to monitor a fast-adapting enemy at a time when many government agencies are lurking about in jihadist chat rooms and may or may not even be aware of the presence of other U.S. officials. The center's piece of it, Naquin said, is "open Internet exploitation" as it monitors 150 to 300 jihadist Web sites it considers most significant. That means "we don't break into sites," he said. "We can sign up with password-protected sites but we don't post as somebody beside ourselves. . . . It's a fine line."
Perhaps the toughest challenge for the new Open Source Center is proving its mettle inside a skeptical intelligence community, in which the stolen secret has long been prized above the publicly available gem. Clearly there are skeptics. Although the center's Web site is unclassified and available across the government, at the moment it has just 6,500 users with active accounts, Naquin said.
"Rarely is there the 'aha!' The 'oh-you-solved-this or you-prevented-this' " moment, Naquin acknowledged.
"The reluctance to use it is astounding to me," Scheuer said. "Nobody wants to go back in response to an assignment and say 'oh, my Open Source Center found this on a server in Belgium.' "
The culture clash isn't likely to disappear anytime soon -- especially with an intelligence community that still takes steps to classify material found easily on the Internet. Not long ago, recalled a former senior government terrorism analyst, he was teaching a class to future CIA intelligence analysts that included a PowerPoint presentation on al Qaeda's post-Sept. 11 evolution, with various images taken from the Internet.
Two men in the back of the class came up to the instructor after the presentation. Where, they asked, did he get a particular image from Iraq? It's classified, they insisted. The former analyst laughed. He had taken it from a gruesome Web site that compiles terrorist atrocity videos along with pornography.