Press Box

Sell Knight Ridder to the CIA

Or, how spooks are like (and unlike) reporters.

Now that a major Knight Ridder Inc. stockholder has put the company into play, I suggest the Central Intelligence Agency purchase the 32-newspaper chain. Now, I anticipate the predictable protests from readers that a press controlled or owned by the government is but a propaganda organ, and the objections of Knight Ridder foreign correspondents made skittish by the prospect of becoming the targets of kidnappers and assassins. But the acquisition complements the Open Source Center founded last month to “track and manage unclassified data” from CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. The new operation will gather and analyze such unclassified information as Web sites, blogs, mosque sermons, databases, and even T-shirt slogans. The center will absorb the CIA’s existing open-source holding, the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, set up in the 1940s to translate foreign publications and broadcasts for the agency.

Knight Ridder employees don’t have that much to fear. The company has a stellar reputation because—unlike the CIA—it has never toppled a foreign government, attempted to poison a foreign leader, or doped an unsuspecting U.S. citizen with LSD to see how he would react. As long as the agency keeps its newspaper operations separate from its clandestine work, we shouldn’t expect to lose more than five or six reporters to hostile forces each year. It sounds bad, but under current market conditions, it’s a better deal than a buyout.

The intelligence establishment’s creation of the Open Source Center confirms what many reporters already know: Findings based on unclassified information are often superior to findings based on classified information. But in purchasing Knight Ridder, the CIA would take that admission one step further by acknowledging how much more spies can learn from journalists, who traditionally gather most of their data from open sources.

For instance, had President George W. Bush read the Knight Ridder Washington bureau’s reporting on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction rather than listened to Director of Central Intelligence George “Slam Dunk” Tenet’s briefings on the subject, the United States might have been spared a war. To be sure, Knight Ridder relied extensively on confidential sources with access to classified information. But as the New York Review of Books’ Michael Massing writes, the KR guys were able to piece together a more accurate picture of Iraq’s capabilities based on public information and interviews with midlevel and career sources than all the president’s men, who drew on testimonials from administration stars, political appointees, and the intelligence establishment.

Openness has a way of dislodging the truth from its hiding spaces. Journalists, along with scientists and academics, are subject to aggressive, public critiques from both inside and outside their professions, so they move quicker to correct errors.

Meanwhile, intelligence agencies exempt themselves from the scrutiny of the outside world, believing the classified information they possess is too valuable to be shared. They wall out each other, too. In a recent example, one part of the bureaucracy testified with authority that the purchase of aluminum tubes proved Iraq’s nuclear weapon ambitions. At the same time, a fellow bureaucrat, sealed off from the conversation, could have easily persuaded his colleagues that the assertion overflowed with bunk. Frequent Slatecontributor Tim Naftali notes another key difference between journalists and spooks who collect information: Most journalists must prove their findings to editors before publication, while spooks and those who run them generally outrank the desk-bound analysts.

Yet journalists and academics routinely trump the spymasters with sources and methods worthy of imitation. In 1983, Andrew Cockburn’s book The Threat revealed the Soviet army as a puffer fish about to pop. The Coming Soviet Crash, by scholar Judy Shelton, predicted the bankruptcy of the Russian system in 1989. Working largely from public sources and unencumbered by constraining security clearances, both writers outdid the agency.

Go ahead and accuse me of cherry-picking examples to make my case. I know the CIA can’t boast about its secret triumphs when confronted with its publicized failures (to predict WMD in the first Gulf War; to predict India’s atomic test; and to predict North Korea’s ballistic missile test, for example). I’m also neglecting to cite any book that did a worse job at intelligence collection and analysis than the CIA. Still, I think a pattern emerges that favors the open sources, open methods, open findings, and open critiques of journalism over the closed world of intelligence.

Results argue in favor of open-source methods, but so, too, do technological changes. The sheer surge in the volume of information around the world makes it impossible for any government or business to capture and analyze it. Once upon a time, only the spymasters controlled the exotic tools—supercomputers, satellite communications, miniaturized transmitters (uh, cell phones), global maps, secure encryption, etc. Those devices are now affordable commodities, making independent, open-source centers like the National Security Archive, John Pike’s, and Russ Kick’s The Memory Hole, to name a few, possible.

In the old order, spymasters cordoned off such data in a secret space where they wrestled with the inventory. Google and other public tools make anybody with a computer and cell phone a potential “spy” (i.e., reporter) who has one leg up on his Langley comrade. The reporter can leverage his findings with thousands, millions, or billions of interested individuals for appraisal, while the CIA officer can’t leverage a network any larger than the thimbleful of folks inside the government who have proper clearance.

Even during the Cold War, 85 percent of information in espionage reports was public domain. “Today, in light of the greater openness of governments around the world, that figure is more like 90 to 95 percent,” writes Loch K. Johnson in the September 2000 issue of Foreign Policy. That means that on some days, there’s more secret information in a Washington Post story by Dana Priest than in a top-secret report. (The only realm in which spooks continue to dominate is in “sigint”—the interception and decoding of transmitted phone messages, cable and radio transmissions, etc.)

New York Times reporterScott Shane conveys in a recent story the center’s early findings that Farsi ranks in the top five of the most popular languages in Blogistan. That tells you something politically valuable about Iran. The center also surmised that the hemlines observed in Iranian blog photos provide a measure of the public’s obedience to authority. If that’s the government’s idea of an intelligence breakthrough, surely they’d get a better value with the purchase of Knight Ridder.

The fatal flaw in the government’s open-source plan is this: They’ve decided to close the operation to everybody but authorized government employees and contractors. This makes it prey to the same forces of politicization that foul the CIA’s data quest. As open-source missionary Robert D. Steele writes, the danger of keeping secrets is that they can be “ignored and manipulated,” as he believes they were in the Iraq war, to serve the government. Until the shop disseminates its findings for public review—in a daily printed newspaper for which they charge 50 cents, perhaps?—its founders might want to rename it the Open and Closed Source Center.


Did I forget to mention State Department folks as fellow journalistic travelers? I think I did. Except for when they swoon for the country they’ve been assigned to, they’re parajournalists, too. Also, watch as David Corn swoons  for the National Security Archive on its 20th birthday, which is today. Swoon or shoot me a moon at (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Photographs, on the other hand, will be considered open-source material and handled and disseminated accordingly.)