BOB GARFIELD: September 11th and the war in Iraq have exposed some of the flaws in U.S. intelligence gathering. Many argue that the solution lies in spending more on the traditional approach of spy versus spy. But now there's a movement to spread that intelligence around. First, the 911 Commission Report recommended creating an agency to better use open source intelligence -- that is, intelligence that is not classified as secret. And bills in both the House and Senate are pushing for the same thing. Why? Because open source intelligence, which is, roughly speaking, the sea of information we swim in all the time --news reports, academic studies, scientific research, all publicly accessible -- can tell us much of what we need to know. Charles Cameron has been tracking the rise of open source material as a member of the Rheingold Group, which specializes in the study of social networks. Cameron believes that anyone can be a spy in this brave, new open source world. Charles, welcome to the show.
CHARLES CAMERON: Thank you, indeed, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Proponents of open source intelligence have said that 80 percent of necessary government intelligence is, quote, "not secret, not on line, not in English and not being paid attention to in Washington." It's just sitting there, hidden in plain view?
CHARLES CAMERON: I wouldn't necessarily add the "not on line" part. But the idea is that a very, very great majority of the stuff that we need to know is stuff that can actually be learned without going through secrecy routes to get at it. People are realizing that in order to break out of the group think that is very easily achieved in tight organizations like the CIA, it's a wonderful idea to begin to emphasize open source intelligence and bring into the picture the people who are doing very similar work in academia and in the media.
BOB GARFIELD: Are you actually suggesting deputizing journalists to do intelligence work for the United States government?
CHARLES CAMERON: Well, on page 413 of the 911 Commission Report there was a little diagram. One of the things that was featured was the words "open source agency" -brackets --(new). And in that agency, it's entirely possible that journalists as well as some academics will be among the people who are very suited to do some of the analysis. I don't know what form it's going to take, but I think it's on the whole a hopeful sign, and it's a recognition, first of all, that secrecy isn't the grand mark of excellence; that, in fact, lots and lots of stuff is known and can be discovered. And that one doesn't have to have high classification data in order to do that.
BOB GARFIELD: I, myself, am almost 50 years old. I don't speak Arabic, and I can't keep a secret. [LAUGHTER] Are you suggesting that maybe there's a future for me at the CIA?
CHARLES CAMERON: I would be hoping that whatever is set up by the government in this regard would be something that doesn't require that you should have any kind of clearances in order to be involved in the business of thinking clearly and letting other people know. My feeling also is that there is important stuff that can be learned from open source information gathering that isn't necessarily in Arabic.
BOB GARFIELD: In some ways, isn't it easier to plant spies and steal secrets than to search for little needles in the vast haystack of open sources?
CHARLES CAMERON: We have very powerful software sorting through large quantities of data, but there's also the whole other very important issue of human intelligence, and the truth is that at the moment, a human mind that is bright and is able to see patterns is much more useful in some regards than the very best machine.
BOB GARFIELD: So much information that one sees in the daily mainstream press -- not even to mention the vast amount of information that one finds on the internet -- is quickly discredited. Is it not just a Herculean effort to try to make any sense out of this vast sea of information to actually get any practical use out of it?
CHARLES CAMERON: I don't think so, but I think it's a situation that's confronting us in any case. We don't really have the option of saying "Let's turn down the amount of world information to a twentieth of what it is today, and then I'll be able to handle things better." You need to be savvy. You need to recognize propaganda and psy-ops. You need to recognize the various ways in which simplistic or overly-complex or overly-suspicious or overly-naive readings get out there. But still, a bright mind, watching a useful display of information from many sources and feeding in to a collegial field but not being by any means the only voice in it can come up with useful insights which, if nothing else, just broaden the discourse in a way that, as I say, helps avoid this group think.
BOB GARFIELD: All right Charles. Well, thank you very much.
CHARLES CAMERON: Well, it was a pleasure to talk to you.
BOB GARFIELD: Charles Cameron is a games designer, policy analyst and reluctant futurist. He spoke to us from Glendale, California.