Exclusive: The U.S. intelligence community vacuums up vast amounts of data, but it has one agency, World News Connection, that gives back information to the public – except that the service is getting shut down at year’s end, notes ex-intelligence analyst Elizabeth Murray.
By Elizabeth Murray
This New Year’s Eve, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence will quietly deliver a devastating blow to the American public’s access to accurate, unbiased information that is unparalleled in quality and comprehensiveness by shutting off access to the World News Connection.
WNC is a valuable trove of U.S. government-sponsored media translations and analyses that has informed the work of American scholars, journalists, writers and historians for the past six decades. It is one of the few offices in the U.S. intelligence community that regularly shares information with the people, rather than simply extracting metadata about them.
Since 1941, the Open Source Center (OSC) – which was known by its earlier moniker, the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) until 2005 – has produced timely, mainly unclassified products based on foreign media that provide valuable strategic insights to the U.S. intelligence community, including military and diplomatic developments. Previously administered by the CIA, it now comes under the purview of the ODNI.
The Open Source Center has long made a substantial amount of this material available to public subscribers, such as university libraries, think tanks and other institutions – as the “World News Connection” via the National Technical Information Service (NTIS), a government information clearinghouse.
However, on Oct. 7, NTIS announced the termination of the WNC service as of Dec. 31, saying it lacked the authority to rescind the decision though without explaining the reasons for the shutdown. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has not been observed to comment either, though one might think that the ODNI and the entire U.S. intelligence community would be looking for ways to burnish their tarnished images rather than sullying them further by shutting down a valuable public service.
This past year, the revelations from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden shocked many Americans and others around the world with evidence about how intrusive U.S. electronic surveillance has become. Those disclosures also forced Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to admit to Congress that he had provided misleading testimony on the subject.
Informing the Public
The World News Connection has been one area in which the U.S. intelligence community serves to inform the public, not just the policymakers. The translations of foreign news articles and broadcasts can shed important light on the activities and motivations of governments and political movements around the world.
There is no shortage of support or demand for the Open Source Center’s high-quality products, both inside and outside the intelligence community. In 1997, when post-Cold War budget cuts threatened to curtail or eliminate OSC products altogether, the Open Source Center was deluged with letters of support attesting to its invaluable role in the academic, research, and intelligence fields. The campaign, championed by Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, succeeded in saving the OSC from draconian budget cuts.
During that campaign to save the Open Source Center, Dr. Gary Sick, an Iran expert who served on the National Security Council during the Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations, wrote that the World News Connection “informs us about other countries in ways that otherwise would be nearly impossible. …
“It costs virtually nothing in comparison with almost any other national security system. It is not as sexy as a bomber or a missile, but its contributions to national security can be attested to by generations of policy-makers. I was in the White House during the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis, and my respect for the power of this information was born at that time. I often found it more helpful than the reams of classified material that came across my desk at the NSC.”
The value of these open-source reports was underscored too by journalist Robert Parry, who recalled that in 1984 when he was piecing together the facts surrounding the CIA’s mining of Nicaraguan harbors, he had government sources describing a clash between CIA helicopter-borne special forces and the Sandinista military, but FBIS translations of Nicaraguan news reports proved crucial in fleshing out the story.
Nicaraguan radio broadcasts reported details of a clash but without knowing who the attackers were. By overlaying the intelligence source material and the FBIS translations, Parry was able to provide a more complete account as published by the Associated Press and available to the American public.
If the ODNI goes ahead with its decision to turn off the World News Connection, U.S. citizens will have lost — perhaps irreparably — a vital window into foreign media perceptions of U.S. policy, untainted by government- and corporate-controlled media.
That has dark implications for the public’s right to know, not to mention diminished international understanding and increased reliance on non-primary sources of information. Ironically, the ODNI’s move to end public access to the Open Source Center’s products also could have the effect of making whistleblowers even more valuable and necessary for an informed public.
At a time when the U.S. government is facing unprecedented public skepticism about its dual obsessions, secrecy (for itself) and surveillance (of everyone else,), DNI Clapper could help reverse those troubling patterns by reversing his decision to close World News Connection.
Elizabeth Murray served as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East in the National Intelligence Council before retiring after a 27-year career in the U.S. government – 20 of those years as an editor and media analyst in the Open Source Center (OSC). She is a member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).