The Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) will be spared from proposed funding cuts, the CIA said this week.
FBIS will continue to monitor, translate and publish accounts from about 3,500 foreign broadcast and press outlets in 55 languages and newspapers, "virtually 100 percent" of current coverage, agency spokeswoman Carolyn Osborn said.
Since last summer, a growing group of professors and other scholars have been skirmishing with the CIA over an agency proposal to cut FBIS funding by 25 percent. As with almost every budget dispute in Washington, the critics decided to turn up the heat on the CIA by starting a campaign to save the translation service.
The critics, despite the CIA pledge, still have some reservations. "We're not prepared to declare victory and go home," said Jeremy J. Stone, president of the Federation of American Scientists. "With any bureaucracy, especially one whose budget is secret, it requires a certain monitoring to ensure that what they say is what you get."
The CIA, because it is a secret operation, will not comment on the FBIS budget, how many people work for FBIS, where FBIS operates or what the flap was all about.
But it seems fairly clear that the service, like many federal agencies driven by technology, faces the challenge of keeping up with advances on the Internet and in computer and global communications. It also appears that FBIS is feeling a financial pinch, because it quit publishing its foreign broadcast and press translations in paperback volumes about a year ago.
FBIS reports now are carried on the World News Connection (wnc.fedworld.gov), an electronic site on the Web. Non-government subscribers pay about $50 a month to read the foreign media translations.
By using a Web site, FBIS can speed information to its customers faster than by publishing paperbacks, Osborn said. "The strategy here is to make more, not less, information available for public access," she said.
When rumors of the proposed budget cut made the rounds in Washington, FBIS fans were outraged that the CIA might cut back on its global monitoring role. The idea, said Jack Matlock, the former ambassador to Moscow, was "not only penny wise and pound foolish, it's just plain dumb."
Scott Cohen, a former editor at FBIS and former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff director, said FBIS "is a tiny fraction of the intelligence budget and it's the major information made available by the agency to the general public."
In his view, Stone said, the FBIS budget battle "is an opening gun in a larger struggle to reform the intelligence community's customer base."
Rather than write classified documents for readers with secret clearances, Stone said, the CIA needs to also provide "intelligence for society" by producing unclassified analyses that can be posted on the Web while protecting secret data in classified appendixes designed for the government's top foreign affairs officials.
"We're not asking them to give up their secret clearances or their secret reports," Stone said. "We're just saying, on top of that, we want you to broaden the audience you appeal to. . . . This is a question of changing emphasis, not structure."
American society needs an informed electorate, Stone said. "If they want to expand their influence and to be an acclaimed and desired asset for the U.S. government, then they've got to stop thinking of the government as their customer and start thinking of the public as a customer."
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