The New York Times November 13, 2005
A T-Shirt-and-Dagger Operation
By Scott Shane
A DOCUMENTARY on Italian television on Tuesday accuses American forces of using white phosphorus shells in the assault on Falluja last year not just for nighttime illumination, their usual purpose, but to burn to death Iraqi insurgents and civilians. The mainstream American news media, whose reporters had witnessed the fighting and apparently seen no evidence of this, largely ignored the claim.
But on the Internet home page of the Open Source Center, a new American intelligence unit that keeps an eye on the global flood of nonsecret information, a report on the documentary was featured prominently.
"We posted it because it was getting significant play on the Web and in foreign media, which means it could influence public opinion," said Douglas J. Naquin, director of the center. The Web site - open to government workers and contractors - included links to the video and to foreign news reports about it from the BBC in London to The Daily Times in Pakistan.
In the jargon-happy world of spying, Humint is human intelligence, or the recruitment of foreign agents; Sigint is signals intelligence, or eavesdropping; Imint is imagery intelligence, or satellite photography. But those costly disciplines are best for obtaining well-hidden nuggets: plans for the next Qaeda attack, or the state of North Korea's nuclear program.
By contrast, Osint, or open-source intelligence, is a low-cost way to try to understand the Islamic militancy that fuels Al Qaeda or to track subtle shifts in the public statements of Kim Jong Il, the eccentric North Korean dictator. It gleans insights not just from foreign newspapers and television, as its less ambitious predecessor did, but from the ballooning riches of the Web and such diverse sources as Palestinian rap and Indonesian T-shirts.
The creation of the center, announced last week, might seem like it comes late in the game, given that the Web has been a resource for years. Indeed it reflects a growing consensus that open-source intelligence has been neglected, in part because it lacks the attraction of stolen secrets.
"Collecting intelligence these days is at times less a matter of stealing through dark alleys in a foreign land to meet some secret agent than one of surfing the Internet under the fluorescent lights of an office cubicle," Stephen Mercado, a C.I.A. analyst, wrote last year in the agency's in-house journal, Studies in Intelligence. The presidential commission on intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction agreed, recommending last summer a major expansion of the open-source collection.
John E. Pike, who follows American intelligence agencies at a Web site, GlobalSecurity.org, that itself is a rich compilation of open-source material, noted that the use of public information had grown since the 1940's, when the government's Foreign Broadcast Information Service began translating media. He said the greatest challenge for the center, which replaces F.B.I.S., would be to select what is most revealing. "It's like drinking from Niagara Falls," he said.
Some might question what can be learned from inflammatory T-shirt slogans or Web scribblings. But officials say such easily collected items help fill in the intelligence mosaic, allowing agents and eavesdroppers in the other intelligence spheres to focus on the truly hard-to-get secrets.
Open-source officers scan technical journals for evidence of suspicious work on toxins or germs that might be used in an attack. They follow trade publications to identify companies capable of supplying parts to illicit nuclear programs. They lurk in foreign-language chat rooms, hunting for insights into shifting public opinion. The center's officers have found that Farsi, the language of Iran, is among the top five languages used by bloggers, who can be quite informative. Snapshots posted on Iranian blogs show how young women are following or flouting ruling clerics' strictures on head coverings and skirt lengths - not exactly a code-cracker, but one gauge of the public mood.
"There's not much difference between working with a disgruntled military officer as a clandestine agent and reading what a disgruntled military officer posts on a blog," Mr. Naquin said.
The center's Web site has a page cataloging the 93 public appearances this year of Mr. Kim by date, location and companions. It archives his statements and video going back a decade, and devotes a section to his health. The mercurial autocrat's nuclear ambitions make any hints about his intentions and future of intense interest to United States policymakers.
Similar pages track Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose savvy use of the news media makes them natural open-source targets. Even as Mr. Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, has eluded capture, his group has issued daily Web reports on its attacks, often with video. Some of the posted information, albeit unvetted, would be a coup for any secret agent. On Friday, for instance, a Web communiqué described in detail the hotel bombings in Jordan, giving the nationality, gender and noms de guerre of the attackers.
© Copyright 2005, The New York Times Company