CIA Halts Public Access to Open Source Service

10.08.13 | 4 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

For more than half a century, the public has been able to access a wealth of information collected by U.S. intelligence from unclassified, open sources around the world.  At the end of this year, the Central Intelligence Agency will terminate that access.

The U.S. intelligence community’s Open Source Center (OSC), which is managed by the CIA, will cease to provide its information feed to the publicly accessible World News Connection as of December 31, 2013, according to an announcement from the National Technical Information Service (NTIS), which operates the World News Connection (WNC).

The WNC “is an online news service, only accessible via the World Wide Web, that offers an extensive array of translated and English-language news and information,” an NTIS brochure explains. “Particularly effective in its coverage of local media sources, WNC provides you with the power to identify what really is happening in a specific country or region. Compiled from thousands of non-U.S. media sources, the information in WNC covers significant socioeconomic, political, scientific, technical, and environmental issues and events.”

“The information is obtained from full text and summaries of newspaper articles, conference proceedings, television and radio broadcasts, periodicals, and non-classified technical reports. New information is entered into WNC every government business day. Generally, new information is available within 48-72 hours from the time of original publication or broadcast.”

“For over 60 years, analysts from OSC’s domestic and overseas bureaus have monitored timely and pertinent open-source materials, including grey literature. Uniquely, WNC allows you to take advantage of the intelligence gathering experience of OSC,” the NTIS brochure says. Soon, that will no longer be true.

The WNC public feed from the Open Source Center is a highly attenuated version of what is available to official government users.  Within government, copyright considerations are ignored, but for public distribution they must be respected, and so (with some exceptions) only information products whose creators have signed a royalty agreement with NTIS are publicly released.

Even with that significant limitation and the attendant public subscription fees, the NTIS World News Connection has remained a highly prized resource for news reporters, foreign policy analysts, students and interested members of the public.

I check it almost every day.  Recently, for example, I have been following official statements from Russian officials who allege that the U.S. is covertly developing biological weapons for use against Russia in a military laboratory in the Republic of Georgia. The claim seems bizarre, but may nevertheless be politically significant.  Detailed English-language coverage of the matter, or of many other stories of regional interest and importance, is not readily available elsewhere.  (Moreso than in the past, however, portions of the material that is publicly accessible through WNC can be obtained elsewhere, through other news services or foreign websites.)

The reasons for the decision to terminate the World News Connection are a bit obscure.  Producing it is not a drain on U.S. intelligence– the marginal costs of providing the additional feed to NTIS are close to zero.  (The total budget for open source intelligence was about $384 million in FY2012, according to classified budget records obtained by the Washington Post from Edward Snowden.)  However, the program is a headache for NTIS to manage, particularly since NTIS officials had to negotiate numerous contracts with media source providers to offer their products to the public.  But the large majority of that work has already been accomplished, and now it will be rendered useless.

Mary Webster of the Open Source Center had initially proposed to cancel the public information feed as of September 30, according to an NTIS official.  Then she was persuaded to grant a six month reprieve.  But in the end, a cut-off date of December 31, 2013 was set.

If that comes to pass, it will be a blow to researchers and proponents of public intelligence. The Federation of American Scientists had previously argued that the U.S. government should actually expand public access to open source intelligence by publishing all unclassified, uncopyrighted Open Source Center products.  (“Open Up Open Source Intelligence,” Secrecy News, August 24, 2011.)  Instead, even the current range of publications will no longer be systematically released.  (Only a small fraction of publicly unreleased OSC records ever seem to leak.)

Although the Open Source Center is managed by the Central Intelligence Agency, it is formally a component of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.  Yet the move the terminate public access to OSC products seemed to catch the ODNI unawares.

“Obviously our attention is on a possible lapse in appropriations, but we are looking into this,” said an ODNI spokesman on September 30, just before the government shutdown.

“The information provided through NTIS makes an irreplaceable contribution to U.S. national security,” wrote Prof. Gary G. Sick of Columbia University in an October 1999 letter, in response to a previous proposal to curtail coverage in the World News Connection.

The World News Connection “informs us about other countries in ways that otherwise would be nearly impossible,” Dr. Sick wrote. “It costs virtually nothing in comparison with almost any other national security system. It is not as sexy as a bomber or a missile, but its contributions to national security can be attested to by generations of policy-makers. I was in the White House during the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis, and my respect for the power of this information was born at that time. I often found it more helpful than the reams of classified material that came across my desk at the NSC.”