One the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission was that a center be established to monitor foreign media and more specifically:
Internet, databases, press, radio, television, video, geospatial data, photos and commercial imagery.
The Open Source Center (OSC) is under the direction of the ODNI and the CIA. Of course the US has long had foreign media monitoring, namely through the CIA’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) est. 1941. The OSC was announced in 2005 and absorbed the FBIS (see Chap. 12 of Richelson, The US Intelligence Community, and OSC resources of the Federation of American Scientists). It does not release its reports to the public.
This week the OSC talked to the AP and gave a little more information about itself. You have to be careful with these planned profiles or leaks, because they are one-sided and largely self-congratulatory (the OSC apparently calls itself the “Vengeful Librarians” for example, a clear appeal to machismo).
The subsequent reporting of the story was a bit sensationalist, claiming to newly reveal that the OSC monitors blogs, when they have said they do as long ago as 2005. Recall also that the US accused Anwar al-Awlaki (whom it just assassinated by drone) of posting messages on YouTube. So presumably it’s monitoring and studying that source.
We should also expect that the US intelligence community has capability to place information–and even disinformation–into open sources as well as to monitor them. (The OSC operates a news outlet capability for other branches of government, called World News Connection.) Coincidentally, such a disinformation project, at Columbia University under the direction of Prof. Salvatore Stolfo, and funded by Darpa, was recently highlighted by Wired’s Danger Room blog. (These efforts can be understood as part of the post-WikiLeaks concern with the “Insider Threat.”)
Nevertheless, there was some info to be had from the OSC chat with AP, the first ever such conversation. It monitors Twitter at the rate of 5 million tweets per day (presumably automatedly). Its location is secret (though the AP filed from Mclean, VA). Doug Naquin, former head of FBIS, is still its Director. (The AP withheld the identity of the Deputy Director.) Social media became a big issue for them (and others) following the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009 (see also Richelson, p. 327).
There’s an interesting comment or two about geographic information:
After bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in May, the CIA followed Twitter to give the White House a snapshot of world public opinion.
Since tweets can’t necessarily be pegged to a geographic location, the analysts broke down reaction by languages. The result: The majority of Urdu tweets, the language of Pakistan, and Chinese tweets, were negative. China is a close ally of Pakistan’s. Pakistani officials protested the raid as an affront to their nation’s sovereignty, a sore point that continues to complicate U.S.-Pakistani relations.
The OSC also tests its social media monitoring against polling to see which is more accurate. They also cross-reference across individual tweeters during a fast-moving situation. So we learn an incremental bit more, but still very little.