In what experts say is a welcome nod to common sense, the CIA, having spent billions over the years on undercover agents, phone taps and the like, plans to create a large wing in the spookhouse dedicated to sorting through various forms of data that are not secret—such as research articles, religious tracts, websites, even phone books—but yet could be vital to national security, TIME’s Timothy J. Burger reports.
Senior intelligence officials tell TIME that CIA Director Porter Goss plans to launch by Oct. 1 an “open source” unit that will greatly expand on the work of the respected but cash-strapped office that currently translates foreign-language broadcasts and documents like declarations by extremist clerics.
The scary part, of course, is that it's taken the CIA so long to figure this out. After all, so-called open source intelligence has been all the rage for, oh, say, a decade. The reasons it's been become so popular are obvious: It's useful to read what your enemy puts out and the stories about them--and with the advent of the Internet it's become much easier.
So why hasn't the CIA put many resources into it? Like many other institutional flaws in this world, it's about values--which ones the CIA holds in high esteem and which ones it doesn't. In other words, it's a cultural thing. Time explains:
Critics have charged in the past that despite the proven value of open-source information, the government has tended to give more prominence to reports gained through cloak-and-dagger efforts. One glaring example: the CIA failed in 1998 to predict a nuclear test in India, even though the country’s Prime Minister had campaigned on a platform promising a robust atomic-weapons program.
“If it doesn’t have the secret stamp on it, it really isn’t treated very seriously,” says Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit. The idea of an open-source unit didn’t gain traction until a White House commission recommended creating one last spring, and utilizing it will require “cultural and attitudinal changes,” says the senior DNI official.
Of course, over-valuing intel simply because it's secret isn't a problem limited to the CIA, is it?