Sunday, April 24, 2005

A recent director of central intelligence was asked by one of his senior intelligence analysts about establishing a group within the community to look at managing all the new sources of information on the Internet. The director immediately snorted back, “I only have money to pay for secrets.”

This is but one example of the ill-informed and unhappy basis on which America’s intelligence analysts have been dealing with the modern Internet age.

With billions of pages of free information expanding every day on the Internet, access is limited by both security concerns and language barriers. With intelligence analysis in shambles, new Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte must position America’s intelligence organizations for the 21st century. He and his chosen senior intelligence analyst must come to grips with the exploding challenge of so-called “open-source” information, harnessing this source to bolster a new system of effective and useful analysis for America’s policymakers.

For Mr. Negroponte, the job will not be easy. In many ways, the intelligence community is a “first-generation” information business.Established mostly in the 1950s, the intelligence community’s structure and information -sharing techniques reflect its age — “stove piping” of information along organizational lines and compartmentation to the nth degree based sometimes on security, mostly on corporate turf protection.

Still, the ability of American intelligence to uncover valuable secrets against its Cold War adversaries was impressive. However, like first-generation corporate titans Timex and Kodak, time wore on and the systems that were so successful early began to be challengedandthen overwhelmed as all around them progressed.

By the late 1980s, it became quite clear that new and extensive information and databases were available to many in the outside world. With the invention and explosion of the Internet in the mid-1990s, “secrets” of the Cold War era simply did not always have the same value they used to have. Today, America now deals with enemies who gleefully post their intentions, strengths and locations on the Web for all to see.

So what should the new DNI do about this expanding “information gap?” The Robb-Silberman commission was the latest to recommend the most effective solution — establish within the intelligence community an Open Source Directorate; a cadre of no more than “50 analysts that could become the intelligence experts in finding and using unclassified, open source information.” This would leaven greatly the current stale analysis taking place in the intelligence community.

More often than not, the analyst today lives in the rarified air of the classified world — of human spies and satellite imagery and signals. However, the analyst needs and must fit classified information into an open-source context for it to truly make sense. Moreover, his client the policymaker lives in the real world of so-called “open-source” information. Policymakers must and do develop their own “open-source” information systems through friends, colleagues, advocates and opponents, as well as the usual news sources.

The limits on analysts receiving open-source information are often bogged in arcane matters of security — we don’t want “them” to know what we are looking at — and old technology that does not allow the analyst to access state of the art translation capabilities for news sources and databases world wide. What open intelligence he receives is often a result of his own haphazard research limited by security concerns and language capabilities. This simply is unacceptable in this day and age.

As the commission further recommended, technology can over come many of the security concerns and deal effectively with the dense amount of data in the open. A specific office could be set up to “acquire or develop when necessary information technologies” to deal with large amount of information — the vast majority of which is not in English. A number of prominent private-sector technology companies have been dealing with this issue since the late 1990s. It is perhaps time the intelligence community used some of its recently acquired lucre to advance its analytical capabilities into the 21st century.

The analyst and his analysis are the “voice” of American intelligence. But, it is a voice hobbled by outdated ideas and limited information. As Mr. Negroponte moves to quickly make the changes that count, dealing with open-source information is a quick fix that can greatly magnify the power and reach of American intelligence. We cannot allow this information gap to stand.

Ronald A. Marks is a 16-year veteran of the CIA and former intelligence counsel to Senate leaders Robert Dole and Trent Lott.

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