WASHINGTON – The national intelligence director is opening a center that will elevate a brand of information that's long been a stepchild in the U.S. spy community: secrets that don't have to be stolen.
Called the Open Source Center, the new operation will collect and study information that's publicly available around the world, including media reports, Internet postings and even T-shirts in Southeast Asia.
"Information stolen, just by the fact it was stolen, does not make it superior," the deputy national intelligence director, Gen. Michael Hayden, day at a briefing about the center.
Its director, Douglas Naquin, said the center will build upon the office he headed for the last three years — the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Information Service, which was established in 1941, before even the agency, to collect Axis broadcasts.
The new center comes in response to a recommendation from President Bush's commission on weapons of mass destruction to make it easier for intelligence officials and consumers to tap into "open-source" intelligence, or the many varieties of information the public — and spy agencies — can legally obtain. That universe has expanded greatly with the Internet, cable news and other media.
Naquin said some information falls into a category of "gray data" that is readily available but not widely known. His analysts, for instance, may obtain a paper on a conference in Asia or write a report on T-shirts collected in Indonesia.
Rather than being tucked deep into the CIA hierarchy, the new center will report to the CIA director and work with all 15 spy agencies and a number of other government agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services.
Mary Margaret Graham, the national intelligence director's deputy for collection, couldn't think of a question that's been answered with open-source information alone, but said she's watched the government's dependence on it increase.
For example, Graham said, if the avian flu issues arose five years ago, the reaction would have been to use clandestine resources to collect information. Now, almost every question from policy-makers can be answered with open source analysis, except for the intent of a bad actor.
"At the end of the day, if we do open source right ... I think we will then know where to spend our clandestine resources," Graham said.
Material in the open is both a blessing and a curse for spy agencies. They want to collect what's available, but don't want adversaries to know the United States' interests. And they get especially anxious when their own classified information slips into the public domain.
For instance, during a speech at a conference last week, Graham let it slip that the overall U.S. intelligence budget is $44 billion — a number that open-government advocates have sued unsuccessfully to get.
Until her disclosure, educated estimates put the intelligence budget at over $40 billion, without any official U.S. confirmation. When asked whether the disclosure was intentional or represented a change in policy, Graham said Tuesday, "We are going to not talk about that."