Monday, November 28, 2005

Retooling after 9/11, the CIA starts to blog

Washington -- 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 opened 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.

The commissions noted decentralized and insufficient efforts to tap into the huge realm of public information in the Internet era, as well as continuing 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 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, 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. 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 with staffing slashed 60 percent, according to Naquin. The attacks of 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.

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 home pages for key intelligence topics, such as Osama bin Laden, 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, with titles such as "Advanced Internet Exploitation."

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.

"The reluctance to use it is astounding to me," said Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA's special bin Laden unit. "Nobody wants to go back in response to an assignment and say, 'Oh, my Open Source Center found this on a server in Belgium.' ''


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