The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) is leading efforts to block budget cuts that could end the translations gleaned from more than 3,500 foreign newspapers and broadcasts in 55 foreign languages, from Armenian to Swahili.
But public debate on the issue has been limited because CIA secrecy requirements prohibit the agency from even acknowledging the cuts are being considered.
The CIA refused to comment on plans for FBIS, which was founded in 1941, years before its parent agency.
CIA spokesman Dave Christian said he could not discuss the FBIS budget, impending cuts, staffing or possible firings because CIA budgets are classified information. FBIS officials are barred from speaking to the media and requests for interviews were turned down by the CIA.
However, it is widely known in Washington as well as in England, where the BBC is complaining about the loss of access to the FBIS translations, that deep cuts in the service are expected.
A CIA official stationed in Europe said recently that he had visited Africa to prepare to lay off much of the FBIS staff there.
"We've heard of the cutbacks in FBIS," said Doug Ritter, spokesman for Rep. Curtis Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican on the National Security Committee. "We'd like to see FBIS not go away or not be diminished."
Along with many other policy makers, journalists and academics, Mr. Weldon has already mourned the loss of the paper version of FBIS, now available only in electronic form over the Internet at a charge of $50 a month.
Until this summer it was possible to take the magazine-format, paper FBIS reports-- coded green for China, yellow for East Asia, orange for Eastern Europe and so on-- on a plane flight or taxi ride.
One could catch up on the actual speech Fidel Castro made that week, for example, or read what the official media of North Korea, Iraq or Vietnam told its people about everything from economics to war to AIDS.
Now the money-saving moves are about to touch the content of FBIS as well as its format.
"It seems the executive committee of the agency [CIA], at the request of the directorate of science and technology, which has been the parent of FBIS in recent years, has agreed to cut the funding for FBIS and, I believe, to close the overseas bureaus," said Scott Cohen, a former FBIS editor and former staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations committee under Sen. Charles Percy, Illinois Republican.
"I understand three smaller overseas bureaus are scheduled to close soon. The rest may be phased out in a year or two.
"The intention is to have foreign stringers who would submit material untranslated that they consider of importance and that would be made available on-line [via the Internet]. But American editorial supervision overseas would be phased out.
"It seems crazy to put it out untranslated. It doesn't make any sense at all. Reports would be translated in so many places or ignored by those who couldn't afford to have them translated."
Mr. Cohen noted that FBIS has been "an essential service since before Pearl Harbor, not only to the White House and government agencies, but it was available to the general public-- academics, scholars, think tanks.
"It may have been the least expensive operation at the agency."
The BBC, which works with FBIS to monitor world media, is upset at the CIA cuts, the London Sunday Telegraph reported recently.
The cuts will also affect British government departments-- particularly the Foreign and Cabinet offices and the Ministry of Defense-- which analyze the information for their own purposes, the Telegraph said.
Between them, the BBC and the CIA gather information from television, radio and news agencies in 140 countries and 70 languages.
While the BBC covers Europe, the Middle East and Africa, FBIS covers China, Korea and Russia from another floor at the BBC monitoring center's headquarters at Caversham in Berkshire, west of London.
The Telegraph said the cuts would save the CIA $18 million a year.