Silicon Insider: The CIA Discovers the Blogosphere

Don't look now, but the Central Intelligence Agency is reading the nation's diaries …

You may have missed the recent story -- these days the mainstream media seems more arbitrary than ever about what news it deems important -- but it seems that the CIA has begun data mining the blogosphere in search of new trends, intelligence and early indicators of emerging international problems.

The story, as reported in The Washington Times by Bill Gertz, notes that the CIA's newly created Open Source Center -- even the name shows that the Company is getting pretty computer hip -- has "recently stepped up data collection and analysis based on bloggers worldwide and is developing new methods to gauge the reliability of the content," according to the Washington Times story.

The story goes on to say that the amount of the resulting "unclassified intelligence" reaching President Bush and other senior policy makers has dramatically increased in recent months. Though the center won't go into detail, it will say that the amount of blog-based reporting has gone up in the president's daily briefing.

As OSC Director Douglas J. Naquin told The Washington Times, "A lot of blogs now have become very big on the Internet, and we're getting a lot of rich information on blogs that are telling us a lot about social perspectives and everything from what the general feeling is to … people putting information on there that doesn't exist anywhere else."

As an example of this unique information, Naquin pointed to the fact the most information on avian flu outbreaks around the world come from open sources. And a Defense Department official told Gertz that the DOD has gained considerable knowledge of China's secret military buildup from Chinese bloggers.

Some of this material is even packaged in the form of "open source intelligence reports" and sold to a number of clients, including local police forces around the United States. And to make sure the material is both complete and reliable, the CIA has brought to bear, as only a government intelligence agency can, powerful computer networks to sift through the Web and gather information in real time. And it is apparently using increasingly sophisticated software to compare multiple sources and history to determine the reliability of its findings.

Bloggers May Find Guilty Pleasure

This is all pretty amazing stuff, and yet one more reminder of the growing primacy of the Web, and now the blogosphere, as the key conduit of news, opinion and culture in the 21st century. It is also amusing: One can only imagine what the president and his people think over their morning coffee as they read the rants and raves of bloggers like Juan Cole (It's an Israeli conspiracy!) and the Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler (Put the hippies in Guantanomo!). If they weren't convinced before that this country is ungovernable, these new CIA reports might just convince them.

One can also imagine how this news will go down in the deeper, danker, conspiracy-obsessed corners of the blogosphere. Imagine the secret thrill in knowing that the CIA itself might be reading your rambling essay on the secret cabal of the Bush family and Osama bin Laden to take over the oil industry and rule the world. Ha! You can add a whole new conspiracy to your vision of a secret society of Overlords as the Devil itself, the CIA, tracks every seditious word you write in preparation for the general roundup of clear thinkers when the Dark Night of Fascism descends at last on Amerikkka.

For myself, I'm impressed the CIA has been this astute in its understanding of the power of this new phenomenon -- and its increasingly central importance to modern society. That's especially true when you consider that some of our other great institutions -- notably some key figures in the traditional media -- still disparage bloggers as puffed-up amateurs. When even trailing indicators of social change like the CIA and the White House have come to appreciate the unique power of blogs, who can still deny the power of what über-blogger Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) calls an Army of Davids?

Will the CIA Really 'Get It?'

That said, and while I'm impressed by what the CIA is attempting, I must say that I'm still quite skeptical. My distrust of the CIA comes from an entirely different direction than the conspiracy buffs. I don't fear the Company because of its terrifying, hidden power, but because of its vast and influential incompetence.

I'll admit to some bias here. My father, if I've never mentioned it, was a spook for much of his career. He started out in the Army CIC, and then with the creation of the Air Force, joined the Office of Special Investigations. A counterintelligence expert, he had a number of postings in Germany (where I was born), in Morocco and, at the end of his career, in Washington, D.C., where he served as liaison between the OSI, Pentagon and CIA among other agencies.

Truth be told, my father despised the CIA as a bunch of cowboys who would rather charge into a critical intelligence situation with guns blazing than actually try to get their agents out alive and with critical information. More than once, my father told me, his or another intelligence agency would be deep into a carefully constructed and subtle mission when the CIA would get wind of it, show up and ham-fistedly screw everything up. His view of the agency as being as much a liability as an asset to the United States did not markedly change during his years in D.C. working directly with CIA headquarters.

My father died a year before the fall of the Soviet Union, but I know he would have shaken his head in disbelief that, right up until the end, the CIA was still reporting that the Soviet government was still strong and in command. After 40 years chartered to do essentially one thing -- track the health of the Soviet Union -- and after burning through billions of dollars in service of that goal … the CIA blew it. Nor would my dad be surprised to learn of the news in the last few days of a CIA leaker to the media. Just par for the course, my old man would have said.

So, while I'm cheered that the CIA is for once ahead of the curve -- well actually, in the middle, but close enough -- in recognizing the importance of the latest great high-tech social phenomenon, I have serious doubts that it will actually do the job right.

In fact, it makes me a little nervous. As someone who spends a lot of time surfing the blogosphere, I know just how weird and wacky it can get out there -- and how hard it can be sometimes to separate the truth from the carefully crafted crazy. At least the mainstream media is predictable in its slant and its omissions.

Given the history of the CIA's judgment and its ability to separate fact from rumor and outright falsehood, I shudder to think what is in those Open Source Reports to the president. And the notion that the agency has developed a computer program to winnow out "reliable" blogs makes me shudder even more: Didn't they have that for reports of Soviet wheat production? And Saddam Hussein's nuclear program?

Still, in all, this new initiative by the CIA is yet one more reminder that, whatever the troglodytes say, we are in the midst of the greatest communications revolution since the rise of newspapers, perhaps even since Gutenberg. The age of blogs has arrived.

Meanwhile, let's pray our elected leaders put down those briefing documents once in a while and actually surf the blogosphere on their own.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone, once called the Boswell of Silicon Valley, is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is best-known as the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public-television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.