Beginning in 1974, the U.S. intelligence community provided the public with a broad selection of foreign news reports, updated daily. These were collected and translated by the Central Intelligence Agency’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), which was reconstituted in 2004 as the Open Source Center (OSC).
But the CIA has now terminated public access to those news reports, as of December 31. The Open Source Center cut off its feed to the National Technical Information Service’s World News Connection, which was the conduit for public access to these materials (through paid subscriptions).
Translation of foreign news reports had been one of the few direct services that U.S. intelligence agencies offered to the American public. Many journalists, scholars and researchers benefited from it, and citations to old FBIS translations can be found in innumerable journal articles and dissertations. The utility of this public service was diminished somewhat in recent years by copyright constraints on publication. But it remained a valuable if eclectic source of alternative perspectives on regional and international affairs in a searchable global database that extended across decades.
Now it’s over.
Of course, the CIA will continue to collect and to translate foreign news reports at its Open Source Center. It just won’t permit the public to access them.
CIA spokesman Christopher White explained: “The Open Source Center (OSC) remains committed to its mission of acquiring, analyzing, and disseminating open source information within the U.S. government. As technology evolves rapidly, the open source feed of information to the National Technical Information Service, Department of Commerce, has become outdated and it would be cost prohibitive to update this feed. In addition, publicly available open source information and machine translation capabilities are now readily available to individuals on the Internet.”
The original 1974 decision to allow public access to FBIS products was “a particularly significant event,” said FBIS deputy director J. Niles Riddel, speaking at a 1992 conference organized by Robert Steele‘s Open Source Solutions. Public access enabled “expanded participation in informed analysis of issues significant to U.S. policy interests,” he said.
In fact, in the climate that prevailed in the early 1990s, public access to FBIS products was actually promoted by intelligence community officials. Mr. Riddel said then that it was “strongly supported by our customers in both the Intelligence and Policy Communities who value the work of private sector scholars and analysts who avail themselves of our material and contribute significantly to the national debate on contemporary issues such as economic competitiveness.”
But that’s all finished. Instead of adapting and expanding its open source product line in response to the needs and wants of the interested public, this four-decade CIA experiment in public engagement is concluded. Americans are invited to look elsewhere.
“We are sad to be losing this popular file,” said Sherry Grant of ProQuest, which managed public subscriptions to the NTIS World News Connection. “However, as you can see, it’s beyond our control.”
There are some alternatives. “You can access a similar service from BBC Monitoring,” suggested Rosy Wolfe, head of business development at BBC Monitoring. “I’d be happy to provide you with more information.” At least someone is happy.
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A comparative assessment of foreign news coverage by FBIS and the BBC was presented in “The Scope of FBIS and BBC Open-Source Media Coverage, 1979-2008” by Kalev Leetaru, Studies in Intelligence, vol. 54, no. 1, March 2010.
“Unfortunately, many misconceptions about the application of OSINT [open source intelligence] continue to endure throughout the [intelligence] community,” wrote Lieutenant Colonel Craig D. Morrow in “OSINT: Truths and Misconceptions,” Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin, April-June 2013, pp. 31-34.
“Though the future of FMM [foreign media monitoring] is unclear at this time, current users agree that it fills a capability gap to automatically collect, organize, and translate open source content near real time, making sense of the overwhelming amount of foreign language data available to intelligence analysts today.” See “Foreign Media Monitoring: The Intelligence Analyst Tool for Exploiting Open Source Intelligence,” by Tracy Blocker and Patrick O’Malley, Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin, July-September 2013, pp. 36-38.
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