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Internet transforms culture of spying

With so much 'intelligence' available online, critics say CIA should downplay covert strategy.

By Justin BrownStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 6, 2000


When Russian tanks unexpectedly rolled into Kosovo last summer - preempting and embarrassing NATO troops - George Friedman said he was among the first Americans to know.

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Mr. Friedman, who runs a private intelligence company in Texas, received an e-mail almost immediately from one of his sources in Kosovo. "We knew before the government knew," he says.

While Friedman's scoop may have been inconsequential - the news was widely available minutes later - it underscores the rapidly changing world of intelligence gathering.

Local press reports, once smuggled across borders at great risk, are available on the Internet. High-resolution satellite images, once the domain of superpowers, can be purchased for about $2,000 a shot. And, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it takes little more than a passport and a plane ticket so see what were once the world's most forbidden cities.

"When you desire something," Mr. Friedman explains, "it's just as easy as asking someone who's over there, 'Hey, can you do me a favor?' "

But while the changing landscape of information gathering has helped businesses like Friedman's, it has cut both ways for America's 13 intelligence agencies, spearheaded by the CIA.

On one hand, new technology has allowed them to do the same job they have been doing for decades - with less money and less uncertainty. On the other hand, it has chipped away at their raison d'tre.

According to former CIA director James Woolsey, for example, about 95 percent of all economic intelligence comes from "open sources," or sources that are available to the public.

"Five percent is essentially secrets that we steal," he recently said at a press conference. "We steal secrets with espionage, with communications, with reconnaissance satellites."

Big espionage budgets

Given those figures, analysts say, it is becoming more and more difficult for the intelligence agencies to justify their methods and budgets. Intelligence agencies spend about $30 billion annually - roughly the same as they received at the peak of cold war spending and more than Russia's federal budget today.

And they do so at substantial danger - to the international reputation of the US, to ongoing diplomatic efforts, and, sometimes, to human life.

There are also problems in what the CIA does not do, analysts say. They are accused of not taking full advantage of open sources and criticized for refusing to admit that they need a paradigm change following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Today, there are a wide range of potentially threatening countries (no longer just the Soviet Union). There are also a wide range of intelligence consumers, from political officials to economic experts to US allies in NATO. So much information is available through new technologies that the greatest difficulty becomes sorting through fact and fiction.

According to Greg Treverton, a former high-level intelligence official under the first Clinton administration, CIA analysts often go to great lengths to produce reports that could have been gleaned from the Internet or from private-sector sources.

"In a world in which everyone is dependent on information processors, [the CIA] should think of themselves as the shapers and verifiers of all that information," says Mr. Treverton, now an analyst at Rand Corp.