A plan to cut funding for an obscure CIA program has roused the ire of a new group of Americans - and is proof that deficit-reduction efforts are reaching previously untouched regions of the federal budget.
Under the Central Intelligence Agency's plan, a 25 percent cut may be in store for a service that provides the government - and the public - with daily translations of newspaper, radio, and television reports from around the globe.
Scientists and academics are fuming over the proposed cut. They argue that paring the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) will do more than curtail one of the most popular and cost-effective research tools used by observers of world affairs. It could also hurt national security, they contend, by limiting information available to decisionmakers and by hampering analyses of United States foreign policy by independent experts.
"FBIS is an exemplar of an intelligence contribution to the public that should be broadly replicated, not curtailed," Jeremy Stone, president of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), said in a Jan. 3 letter to Anthony Lake, President Clinton's nominee to be the new CIA director.
The issue involves more than a flap over the future of an inconspicuous program valued by a relative handful of Americans. It also shows how segments of the population little affected so far by federal cuts could feel the pinch during the drive to balance the budget by 2002.
The FAS is so concerned over the proposed FBIS cuts that it has launched a fierce lobbying campaign to pressure the Clinton administration to rescind them. As part of the effort, FAS has started an Internet site where FBIS supporters can register their objections.
Worries over FBIS's future extend beyond the US. The British Broadcasting Corp. is also upset. Under an arrangement with the CIA, the BBC's foreign broadcast monitoring service exchanges material with FBIS. BBC officials fear loss of material if FBIS funding is cut.
But US officials say they have no choice but to restructure FBIS, given tighter resources and an explosion in independent media in former communist states. Options under consideration include reducing the number of Americans in overseas FBIS bureaus, and closing some bureaus and having local employees work from their homes.
Officials insist such changes will not diminish the quality of the service. In fact, they say, the CIA plans to employ new technologies that will allow more translations and improved timeliness.
"Changes in the way information is created and shared have provided unprecedented opportunities to rethink the way FBIS provides its services," says Mark Mansfield, a CIA spokesman. He denies reports that FBIS translations are to be canceled entirely.
The CIA has yet to reveal details of its plan to restructure FBIS, and Dr. Lake is expected to face questions on the issue when the Senate Intelligence Committee holds hearings on his confirmation Feb. 25.
FBIS was created during the cold war to monitor former Soviet-run media. FBIS bureaus now monitor more than 3,500 media outlets in 55 languages; employees select reports for translation. Like the overall CIA budget, the FBIS budget is classified. It is believed to be about $18 million, and the agency is reportedly considering a 25 percent cut.
Nongovernment users pay a $50 monthly subscription to obtain FBIS's daily translations over the Internet. A printed version had been available until last summer, when it was canceled in a cost-cutting move.
Gary Sick, a professor of Middle Eastern affairs at Columbia University in New York, is among those concerned about a cut in FBIS funding. He says he has been using the service for years. Its translations of Farsi-language speeches and news, he adds, were more valuable to him than classified intelligence when he was helping to handle the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis as a staffer on former President Carter's National Security Council.
"I found FBIS to be the most reliable, fastest, and meaningful source [of information], including classified material, that was available," recalls Dr. Sick. "With all the money being spent on satellites and other things, it was the most effective source I had to track what was going on in Iran."
"If they cut it back substantially ... it's going to leave a gaping hole that really can't be filled in any other way," he says.