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Secrecy & Government Bulletin

Issue Number 71
October 1997

CIA's Open Source Network: Another Brick in the Wall

In the last couple of years, the Central Intelligence Agency has undertaken a new effort to tackle the explosion of unclassified open source information and has created an online network known as the Open Source Information System (OSIS) which is intended to make the universe of open sources more easily accessible to intelligence analysts working in their classified cloisters. But as currently configured, the new OSIS network falls short of its potential and faces an uncertain future.

The global production of open source material-- unclassified information of intelligence value that can be openly acquired without engaging in espionage-- is accelerating and poses a growing challenge to the structure of the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy. But instead of moving swiftly to capitalize on the open source revolution, U.S. intelligence agencies have continued to spend enormous sums of money on clandestine and technical collection of information, much of which is never even analyzed, much less disseminated or used.

"The need for a centralized agency to administer the growing exploitation of all foreign open sources of information is... already evident," one analyst wrote as long ago as 1969 in a recently declassified article from the CIA journal Studies in Intelligence. "Such an agency could operate openly, serving the nation as a whole, including the intelligence community." (Herbert L. Croom, "The Exploitation of Foreign Open Sources", Summer 1969, emphasis added).

Unfortunately, the OSIS neither operates openly nor does it serve the nation as a whole. Instead, it represents another brick in the wall that separates the intelligence bureaucracy from the rest of society.

OSIS and related topics were discussed at the Open Source Conference for the Intelligence and Law Enforcement Communities on September 16-18, sponsored by the CIA Community Open Source Program Office (COSPO) and the DCI Crime and Narcotics Center (CNC).

The conference seemed to be plainly modeled on the Open Source Symposium organized annually by Robert D. Steele of Open Source Solutions, Inc., with a similar format and many of the same speakers. But where Steele envisions an open network that would engage the public, OSIS is hermetically sealed and offers nothing to interested members of the public.

Although the American public is locked out, the governments of Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom have been granted access to the OSIS network since August 1. In this "burden sharing" arrangement, it is anticipated that the system as a whole will benefit as these countries add their own open source content to the network. Further expansion of the network is expected to include the government of Israel ("provided that they are able to provide the information that we have asked for from them") and several Nordic countries ("since they are involved in peacekeeping and humanitarian activities-- a fertile ground for open source").

"No country can be upset by the fact that we are collecting open source information against them," said Dr. Joseph Markowitz, director of COSPO, which developed the OSIS. "In fact, they should be honored." Dr. Markowitz added that as far as he is concerned, he would even like to see countries like Iraq, North Korea and Cuba joining OSIS and adding their open source material to the network.

But wait. Is CIA suggesting that the government of Cuba could have preferred access to its open source network while the American public could not? "That sounds like a trick question," Dr. Markowitz told S&GB.

"The issue with the American public has to do with copyright," not national security, Dr. Markowitz said. Foreign partners in the network "have to identify and hold us harmless against copyright infringement. And if we have information that is copyrighted, they have to be responsible for their own actions in that regard, not us. If you came to us as a private citizen and said 'I'm prepared to deal with all of the copyright holders', we would be happy to deal with you as well." But since the network involves many hundreds or thousands of individual copyright claims, this is not a practical option.

Instead, if the public is to gain any access to the information on OSIS, the near-term alternative is to adopt the same strategy used to provide access to products of the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), which are made available in part through the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) of the Department of Commerce.

In that case, NTIS contacted all of the diverse FBIS media sources around the world and requested permission to publish translations of their news reports. The products of those who agreed (and of those who did not respond)-- comprising 70% of the total FBIS output-- are marketed to the public at a hefty $58 per month and the copyright holders are then reimbursed from the subscription fees.

Similarly, explained Dr. Markowitz, "Any information that we hold in the OSIS network that could be made available through that mechanism-- we're happy to have NTIS be just as aggressive as possible. They have insights into everything we have and anything that can be made available to the public, they could take." But the political will to make this happen is not immediately evident.

More fundamentally, the future of the whole CIA open source effort (disparaged as "open sores" by some old- timers at the CIA) is open to question. "We are an espionage organization," said DCI George Tenet in a characteristic confusion of intelligence means-- of which espionage is only one-- and intelligence ends-- which ought to be to produce the best possible information to guide national security policy.

Then what about the possibility, Senator Robert Kerrey asked Mr. Tenet at his confirmation hearing last May, of establishing an agency external to CIA that would organize and disseminate open-source information, much like the 1969 proposal?

"I haven't had those kinds of discussions, Senator," Mr. Tenet replied.

Iraq Asks U.S. Senate to "Respect the Constitution"

Last month the Iraqi National Assembly sent a letter to the United States Senate protesting-- on Constitutional grounds-- the involvement of Senate staff members in a CIA covert action against Iraq.

Dr. Sa'dun Hammadi, the Speaker of the Iraqi legislative body, cited an extraordinary article by Jim Hoagland in the Washington Post (6/26/97) which reported that "Congress... has played a major role in pressing for covert action [against Iraq]" and that "the Senate intelligence committee... sent two staff aides along with CIA agents on evaluation missions in the north [of Iraq]." Hammadi inferred from this article that the Senate staffers "took part in hatching plots against Iraq."

"The involvement of two employees of the Senate, which represents the American people who granted them confidence, in an intelligence and espionage operation contradicts the mission of a prominent legislative establishment that should respect the Constitution of the country," wrote Hammadi in his letter to the Senate.

"The representatives of the Iraqi people at the National Assembly condemn the involvement of the U.S. Senate in this activity and demand a fair investigation to bring to account the officials who departed from their democratic tasks," he added.

The letter was originally reported by the Iraqi News Agency on September 18, and was translated from the Arabic by the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS-NES-97-261).

While it may be preposterous for Iraq to invoke the U.S. Constitution in its defense, the Speaker's letter raises serious questions that are rarely asked about the character of congressional oversight of intelligence. The Speaker discerns correctly that when it comes to intelligence oversight the textbook notion of "checks and balances" is increasingly obsolete.

To a remarkable degree, the congressional intelligence committees have been absorbed into the intelligence bureaucracy, and they now tend to adopt its perspectives as their own. Thus, after years of pressing for declassification of the intelligence budget total, the Senate voted for the very first time last June to oppose declassification. And last month, the House Intelligence Committee sponsored an FBI/NSA proposal for severe controls on domestic use of encryption by American citizens. The Committee action was so far beyond the pale that it was criticized even by some Clinton Administration officials who favor controls on encryption.

As for staff participation in CIA operations in Iraq, "We did have staff visit Kurdistan in Fall of 1994," a Senate Intelligence Committee staffer told S&GB. "But that doesn't mean 'plots are being hatched.' We have staff going places all the time. It's part of the oversight function."

The staffer cautiously declined to confirm any specifics of the covert action against Iraq. But, he said, "I don't think the Committee can be faulted for being on site. I don't think you could argue that the staff would do a better job of oversight if they weren't there."

Was pressure from Congress an important motivating factor behind the Iraqi covert action? "I can't comment on that," the staffer said. But he acknowledged that in the past, "There have been covert actions that Congress has been enthusiastic about, and that it has encouraged successive administrations to pursue," he said, citing the case of Afghanistan in the 1980s. "As with any foreign policy issue, it's impossible for Congress to be neutral."

But if Congress cannot be neutral about a covert action program, and if its actions are completely exempt from public scrutiny, can it conduct impartial oversight of that program? "That's an interesting question," he said. "Can you be an enthusiastic supporter of something and also oversee it? Will you be able to ask if the goals are correct? If the money is being spent properly? I don't know. That's what the staff is supposed to keep an eye out for."

This is not an entirely satisfactory answer, since the staff serve at the pleasure of the members and are not in a position to overrule them. The brute fact is that when the intelligence committees assume an advocacy role, the public is denied institutional accountability since the committees' secrecy makes it difficult or impossible for anyone to watch the watchers. In highlighting this problem, Iraqi Speaker Hammadi's argument is precisely on target.

To the extent that accountability exists at all, it must come through investigative journalism, supplemented and informed by unauthorized disclosures of classified information. So, for example, thanks to the Hoagland article in the Washington Post, Americans can learn more details about the failed CIA covert action in Iraq than they are permitted to know about many other covert actions that ended decades ago. And the appearance of the principal participants in the ongoing Iraqi operation on a national ABC News broadcast on June 26 is probably unprecedented.

But although there has been a spectacular increase in leaks of classified information, this constitutes a flawed alternative to impartial institutional oversight. "It is true that sometimes covert activities are disclosed in the public media," said then-Chairman of the Intelligence Committee Senator Arlen Specter at an October 23, 1996 hearing, "but it is a relatively rare occurrence, considering how many there are."

And even the detailed disclosure of the failed Iraqi operation did not produce any consequences for its sponsors and advocates or any identifiable changes in U.S. intelligence policy. On the other hand, Iraqi resistance leaders and presumably other opposition forces around the globe have learned the limitations of CIA covert actions, even if Congress has not.

"We have learned the hard way that covert action that is not part of a large strategic political program is of no value," Iraqi opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi told the Washington Post. "Our involvement with any covert agencies is finished."

As of late September, the letter from the Iraqi National Assembly had not yet reached the Senate Intelligence Committee, and a formal response is considered unlikely. "My recommendation would be not to respond," the Senate staffer said, "since I don't view the Iraqi legislature as a true legislature."


  • "The Human Rights Information Act," introduced in the Senate on September 25, is intended "to facilitate the declassification of certain United States documents that relate to past human rights abuses in Guatemala and Honduras." Despite repeated requests from those governments, the Clinton Administration-- and particularly the intelligence agencies-- have been slow to cough up the requested documents in a useful form. The new bill (S.1220), sponsored by Senators Dodd, Bingaman, Bumpers, and Murray, would require government agencies to review for declassification all relevant records within 120 days. Any decisions to withhold records would have to be reviewed and approved by an interagency panel.

  • Senator Daniel P. Moynihan introduced a bill (S.1232) on Sept 26 to require the Department of Energy to return the journals of Dr. Glenn Seaborg to their author in unexpurgated form. Some 14 years ago, DOE had seized the personal journals of the former Atomic Energy Commission Chairman, then decided on highly questionable grounds that they included classified information, and ever since has refused to release them intact. Dr. Seaborg is a revered sponsor of the Federation of American Scientists. He also discovered plutonium, won the Nobel Prize, etc.

  • At CIA's 50th anniversary celebration on September 17, former President (and former DCI) George Bush offered these reflections: "To those who say we no longer need CIA, I say you are nuts. To those who want to dismantle CIA or put it under some other department, State Department or anybody else, you are nuts, too. (applause) And to those who feel the 'right to know' takes precedence over legitimate classification of documents or overprotecting [sic] our most precious asset, our people, same to you You're nuts and so is the horse you came in on. (applause)."

    Secrecy & Government Bulletin is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

    The FAS Project on Government Secrecy is supported by grants from the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Greenville Foundation, the Stewart R. Mott Charitable Trust, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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