All the King’s Horses…

All the King’s Horses…

Worry about the CIA’s new Open Source Center, which aims to piece together all sorts of unclassified information to create a broad picture of where trouble is likely to arise.


In November it was reported that the CIA has given birth to something called the Open Source Center. It sounds like Total Information Awareness revamped, only rebranded to sound less Big Brotherish.

The center is designed to gather all kinds of unclassified information and piece together a broad web of information that will give a better sense of where trouble is likely to arise. The International Herald Tribune says that the new center will “absorb the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, a branch of the CIA that has already expanded beyond its historical duty of translating foreign broadcasts and periodicals to study Web sites and more obscure sources like T-shirt slogans in countries of interest,” as well as sermons in mosques and local newspapers in rural China.

This is an ambitious project, if an unsurprising one in an era when computers and nanotechnology make such globalized fishing expeditions possible. The Dutch government is already embarking upon a similar project of tracking all its citizens “from cradle to grave.” They plan to feed the data into a computer, which would flag certain people for intervention from a young age. Crime prevention, they say. The specialization of education, of welfare benefits. The greater good and all that. We’ll see, I suppose. But against that backdrop, I worry that the model of information-assemblage we are pursuing in the United States is for the lesser good.

There’s an interesting piece in the December issue of the Yale Law Journal by a scholar named David Pozen, titled “The Mosaic Theory, National Security and the Freedom of Information Act.” The “mosaic theory,” according to Pozen, “refers to the notion that a compilation of unclassified items of information may, in the aggregate, tend to disclose a sensitive or classified fact.” Pozen explores the extent to which the Bush Administration has used this theory to justify increased restrictions on disclosure of information under the Freedom of Information Act. Things–any things, little things, things unnamed, things you could only imagine, things that go bump in the night!–might point the way to some larger plot, picture, plan, conspiracy, cabal, anarchic concatenation.

It is not that the government shouldn’t be collecting such information–it is the essence of what “intelligence” is supposed to do. The problem is that all this is occurring at a time when the President seems to think that the process of such collection is subject to no review whatsoever, and when courts seem to be abdicating their review function by rubber-stamping whatever does come before them.

In case after case, the Administration has asserted that it can’t release even previously unclassified data because they might be part of a mosaic–innocent in and of themselves but able to be fitted together toward some unspecified evil end. As Pozen observes, however, it’s part of the human mind to fit things together, to puzzle things out. The invocation of a “mosaic” metaphor to suppress what might be connected to some amorphous other [nnnnnnn]could be used to justify keeping anything at all secret.

This process is something like putting Humpty Dumpty together after the fall. Culling broad patterns from disconnected tidbits drawn from such disparate and out-of-context sources as haberdashery and random websites and village gossip sheets is, at some level, a bit like taking a Rorschach test–an inkblot pattern. A healthy process of review is the balance of power that keeps the executive from becoming totalistic in its surveillance power, the all-seeing, all-digesting Panopticon.

Again, it is not that the CIA doesn’t have the power to collect and analyze information, but there must be some independent body also reviewing what the agency does with it, some review of who draws what conclusions from which pieces of the puzzle. It makes a difference who is collecting, who is reading, who is making policy based on it. It makes a difference where the data are stored–the military? the Education Department? From phone taps to Google searches, the bottom line of the CIA these days is to confront, confine, eliminate.

Given the track record, I frankly fear the paranoia of those who are most likely to be the enforcers of whatever the Open Sourced seers haruspicate from the dot-com entrails. Twitchy, traumatized veterans of too many wars will see what they fear most, imagine the terrors of their last encounters. We could soon be “taking down” T-shirt factories all over the globe, I suppose.

We need the calm restraint of independent review not only for those worst-case scenarios but also for the simple mistakes–of judgment, perception, inflection, self-interest. It is disconcerting, for example, to see how James Hansen, NASA’s top climatologist, was told to refrain from publicly discussing the science of global warming. Was this to keep us safe from terrorism? Or, as George Deutsch, a NASA public affairs officer, asserts, “to make the President look good”? We must be concerned about so broad and unchecked a power to silence.

I worry that too many of the good old boys and girls running things at the top seem to be people who simply couldn’t read the big picture if it were broadcast on a wall-sized flat-screen TV. The ones who thought Martin Luther King Jr. was a threat to national security. Who promised weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Who were taken completely off guard by the Palestinian elections. Who golfed with Jack Abramoff. Who didn’t see Katrina coming till five days after it hit. Who are tone-deaf to human nature.

These are the people who couldn’t see that invading Iraq would be destabilizing, who envisioned pre-emptive war as a “cakewalk,” who looked at that great mosaic in the sky and told themselves our soldiers would be showered with flowers, sweetmeats and song. Who decry disagreement as treason, who hail mission accomplished.n

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