Robert D. Steele is just back from briefing the U.S. Special Operations Command, ready for another week of scouring the globe for information from his computer terminal at an intelligence agency in Northern Virginia. He runs a network of human sources, calls up satellite imagery and gathers intelligence on potentially "loose" suitcase nukes for senior U.S. government policymakers on the other side of the river.

It's all more than a little reminiscent of his days at the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley. But Steele is a former CIA spy and now runs his own agency a few miles away. And he thinks there is one aspect of the intelligence game that he plays better than his former employer: gathering up publicly available information.

His claim is bold, since the CIA invented the Foreign Broadcast Information Service to monitor the world's media.

But Steele and a growing number of intelligence entrepreneurs say the intelligence community continues to give "open sources" short shrift, even as the quantity and quality of publicly available information has increased exponentially in the digital age and most of the nation's old communist adversaries have become more open societies.

Mark M. Lowenthal, Steele's partner at Open Source Solutions Inc. in Fairfax and the former staff director of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, likes to quote Richard Kerr, a former CIA deputy director: "The intelligence community has got to get used to the fact that it no longer controls most of the information."

Lowenthal said he decided to leave the government after 22 years when a new chairman took over the House intelligence committee and brought with him a new staff director. Lowenthal figured he was leaving the best government job he could imagine "and just decided it was time to try the private sector."

Steele left his post as the top civilian at the Marine Corps Intelligence Center, he said, when his superiors decided he could no longer run national conferences on open source intelligence because he was becoming too high-profile.

Senior intelligence officials deny that they do not make adequate use of open sources. But they readily concede that there is an information revolution underway with profound consequences for the intelligence community.

"Yeah, there's an adjustment," one intelligence official said. "We are all still in the infancy of this world of cyber-information. To tell you that we understand this completely and have this licked--we're all making this up as we go along."

Open sources are almost always cheaper than spies and spy satellites, the official said. Sometimes, they're just as good. But they're next to useless, he said, against the hardest targets--for instance, cracking Saddam Hussein's inner circle, or trying to forestall the next attack by terrorist financier Osama bin Laden.

"We're very mindful of the current [information] explosion on the Internet. Do we have to be part of it and find ways to exploit it? Absolutely. And we are exploring ways to do this, including with Open Source Solutions," the official said.

Steele had his open-source epiphany in 1992 when he realized that 80 percent of the tactical information needed by Marine battle planners--the depth of ports around the world, for example--did not exist in the intelligence community's stockpiles of secrets and could be obtained through public sources.

But his defining moment came late one afternoon three years later as he sat before a government commission on intelligence reform, chaired by former defense secretaries Les Aspin and Harold Brown, extolling the virtues of open sources. Retired Air Force Gen. Lew Allen asked him whether he would be willing to put his money where his mouth was and match his Rolodex against the intelligence community.

Allen's challenge: Who could provide more useful information on Burundi by Monday morning?

No winner was ever announced. But everyone agrees that Steele more than impressed the commission with what he was able to produce with six telephone calls:

* The names of the top journalists reporting on Burundi from Lexis-Nexis.

* The names of the top academics writing on Burundi from the Institute for Scientific Information.

* Twenty-two briefing papers on Burundi prepared by Oxford Analytica in England.

* A map of Burundi showing all tribal areas and order-of-battle data on each tribe from Jane's Information Group.

* A listing of immediately available Soviet military topographical maps of Burundi, which the U.S. military has never produced, from East View Publications.

* Commercial satellite imagery of the entire country, detailed enough for use in selecting targets for precision munitions, from Spot Image Corp.

"The information obtained [by Steele] from open sources was substantial and on some points more detailed than that provided by the intelligence community," the commission said in its 1996 report, concluding that the community had been "inexplicably slow" in exploiting newly available public sources.

Steele and Lowenthal don't contend that open sources can replace clandestine human and technical sources. But the intelligence agencies exhibit a bias for their own secrets, they say, and lack internal systems for fully mining business experts, academic authorities, scientific journals, foreign government reports and burgeoning commercial databases, not to mention the Internet.

"Open sources are just as complex as clandestine sources," Steele said in a recent interview. "It's a discipline in its own right. Eighty percent of what we need to know is not online, not in English and not in the United States. I've spent seven years scouring the open source community--knowing who knows. That's what we're selling."

Life After Government

Robert D. Steele

Age: 46

Then: Special assistant/deputy director, Marine Corps Intelligence Center, 1988-1992; clandestine case officer, Central Intelligence Agency, 1979-1988.

Now: President, Open Source Solutions Inc.

Other pursuits: Organized seven international conferences and one European conference on open source intelligence; consultant to 18 goverments on open sources.

On the benefit of publicly available information: "I'm not a librarian saying open sources are good. I'm a former spy saying open sources are good."

Mark M. Lowenthal

Age: 50

Then: Deputy secretary of state for intelligence, 1988-89; senior foreign policy analyst, Congressional Research Service, 1989-95; staff director, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, 1995-97.

Now: Chief operating officer, Open Source Solutions Inc.

Other pursuits: Deputy chairman, Armed Forces Communications Electronics Association's intelligence committee; 1988 grand champion on "Jeopardy!"

On the Internet: "I have pleaded with the intelligence agency heads: `Don't let your analysts go Internet surfing, you'll never see them again.' "

CAPTION: Robert Steele, front, and Mark Lowenthal run Open Source Solutions Inc., which uncovers important intelligence by plumbing publicly available data. "I've spent seven years scouring the open source community," said Steele.