In what experts say is a welcome nod to common sense, the CIA, having spent billions over the years on undercover agents, phone taps and the like, plans to create a large wing in the spookhouse dedicated to sorting through various forms of data that are not secret--such as research articles, religious tracts, websites, even phone books--but yet could be vital to national security. Senior intelligence officials tell TIME that CIA Director Porter Goss plans to launch by Oct. 1 an "open source" unit that will greatly expand on the work of the respected but cash-strapped office that currently translates foreign-language broadcasts and documents like declarations by extremist clerics. The budget, which could be in the ballpark of $100 million, is to be carefully monitored by John Negroponte, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), who discussed the new division with Goss in a meeting late last month. "We will want this to be a separate, identifiable line in the CIA program so we know precisely what this center has in terms of investment, and we don't want money moved from it without [Negroponte's] approval," said a senior official in the DNI's office.
Critics have charged in the past that despite the proven value of open-source information, the government has tended to give more prominence to reports gained through cloak-and-dagger efforts. One glaring example: the CIA failed in 1998 to predict a nuclear test in India, even though the country's Prime Minister had campaigned on a platform promising a robust atomic-weapons program.
"If it doesn't have the SECRET stamp on it, it really isn't treated very seriously," says Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit. The idea of an open-source unit didn't gain traction until a White House commission recommended creating one last spring. Utilizing it will require "cultural and attitudinal changes," says the senior DNI official. Sure, watching TV and listening to the radio may not sound terribly sexy, but, says Scheuer, "there's no better way to find out what Osama bin Laden's going to do than to read what he says." --By Timothy J. Burger