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The Washington Post

Friday, January 31, 1997, page A20

Listening to the World

The latest strangeness at Langley is the CIA's reported decision to cut way back on the foreign broadcasts and press articles it translates and distributes not just to government analysts and policymakers but to academics, business types, journalists and interested others. This is said to be underway for budgetary considerations, though the sums involved-- reportedly in the $18 million to $20 million range-- pale against the $30 billion widely estimated as the intelligence community's due.

This premier global translation service has a certain Beltway flavor. Not everybody will leap to spend good money so that the foreign policy elite can catch speeches and newspaper stories from some countries others can't find on a map. But the service has provided much useful information over the years when it was hard to find out what was really going on in places of importance to this country. Since the beginning of World War II, the United States has mined the radios and press of countries of interest to American policy in order to learn what they say to and among themselves. In the Cold War the readership of this service was extended beyond official circles into the still-growing ranks of private citizens engaged in the world.

The ending of the Cold War and the opening of cyberspace account for recent changes in the old "Foreign Broadcast Information Service." Its American-manned monitoring bureaus are being phased out; local employees now do the initial winnowing. Hard-copy dispatches have been replaced by Internet transmissions, which subscribers (including this newspaper) pay for. Some of its documents are now conveyed in the original, untranslated.

Presumably the government is seeing to whether these changes provide the necessary grist for an intelligence collection and analysis operation undertaking to rely ever more fully on open sources. But it is quite clear that many of the unofficial consumers of the flow-- a shrinking flow and some of it not even translated-- are convinced they are being short-changed. No one has come up with a good alternative for the legions of private citizens who want to know the international word. This is not a smart way to step out on the information highway.

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