Jewish World Review Nov. 25, 2005/ 23 Mar-Cheshvan
Pastepot princesses are important, too
Who was Valerie Plame?
The jokes mocking the media myth that she was Mata Hari or Belle Boyd, a sultry princess of espionage whose "covert" identity was blown by Scooter Libby if not Karl Rove (or the shampoo girl at a beauty shop in a strip mall in Silver Spring), may miss the point.
You may have noticed that the high-decibel media frenzy, with all the manufactured hysteria over a story that nobody but the Washington media elites and other Bush-bashers are paying attention to, has subsided considerably since it now appears that Scooter is not the "villain," such as the villain may be and maybe Valerie Plame and her husband, the eminent former ambassador to Lower Slobbovia, aren't very important, anyway.
Nobody is quite sure what she and the ambassador actually did, beyond getting their names and pictures in the glossies, but some intelligence operatives are concerned that she has given the important grunt work of intelligence-collecting a bad name.
So what if our gal Val was merely the princess of the pastepot, clipping newspapers and magazines and compiling scrapbooks from which "open-source intelligence" was extracted? The CIA has a name for this OSINT, for "open-source intelligence."
OSINT, the agency jargon for "mostly newspaper clippings," can be important stuff, often the most important stuff that goes into the intelligence briefings on which presidents base their decisions and congressmen base their carping. OSINT only gets about 1 percent of the CIA's budget, and the really glamorous agencies in the agency's alphabet soup are IMINT (for overhead imagery intelligence), SIGNIT (signals, or communications, intelligence), HUMINT (human intelligence) and sometimes even BSINT (bullsauce intelligence). A succession of presidents would tell you that a lot of what they get, sometimes even most of what they get, is BSINT.
Richard Nixon famously belittled the CIA with his frustrated question to aides: "What use are they? They've got 40,000 people over there reading newspapers." The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose common sense made him something of a freak in the U.S. Senate, once suggested getting rid of the CIA as the first step in needed reform of intelligence-collecting.
Nevertheless, says one common-sensical CIA analyst, newspaper clippings and other open sources often make the best intelligence. "Judging from their words," writes Stephen C. Mercado, in an article in the journal Studies in Intelligence, "too many policy-makers and intelligence officers mistake secrecy for intelligence." George Tenet, a recent director of the CIA, often defined the job of his intelligence agency as "stealing secrets." CIA recruiting brochures tempt the best and the brightest (so called) with promises of assignments to the scene of "world-shaping events." You certainly couldn't reveal to prospects that a lot of the intelligence is bought for merely a quarter for the liveliest newspaper in town.
It's often better to let newspapers vet the raw material. A young man of my acquaintance, the son of a former U.S. ambassador to an important European capital, once gave me as a character reference for a government job requiring a high-level security clearance. An intelligence investigator called me for a brief interview. "We note that this applicant once lived outside the United States for four consecutive years," he said. He gave me the dates. I made a quick calculation that they were the years when the young man was between 1 and 4 years old. The investigator frowned and went away, shaking his head.
An officer of the Office of Strategic Services recalls that during his briefing of an admiral during World War II he referred to a new weapon, the B-29 Superfortress. The admiral demanded to know how the OSS officer had obtained such "highly classified" information. The briefing officer had to tell him that he had learned of the new bomber through monitored Japanese radio broadcasts.
"Not only are open sources at times indistinguishable from secrets," writes Mr. Mercado, "but OSINT often surpasses classified information in value for following and analyzing intelligence issues." Its value is higher in terms of speed, quantity, quality, clarity, ease of use and it's cheaper. The taxpayers owe Valerie Plame thanks, after all.
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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.
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