RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Secrets - they're the currency of spies around the world. But the rise of social media, hashtags, forums, blogs, online news sites, has revealed a new kind of secret - those hiding in plain sight. The CIA calls all this information open-source material, and it's changing the way America's top spy agency does business.
We got a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the CIA's Open Source Center. It operates on the down-low, even though they deal with public material. We aren't allowed to tell you where the Open Source Center is. All we can say is that it's housed in an unmarked and unremarkable office building, just off a nondescript, busy street.
My producer and I are asked to leave our phones in the car. We're ushered inside to a small room, where half a dozen analysts are working at cubicles, their eyes fixed to computer screens. There's a bank of television monitors on the wall, projecting news from around the world - which gives is kind of a newsroom feel.
GLEN: Right now, we're in the content-management center.
MARTIN: The managing editor is Glen(ph) - he gives no last name. Glen points out a poster on the back wall made to look like a 1950s comic book. And in one corner, it reads:
GLEN: There's no escaping the information highway.
MARTIN: Social media have forced the CIA into the fast lane, and transformed the Open Source Center. Its predecessor organization was basically a U.S. government translation service. Analysts translated foreign radio broadcasts or newspapers that sometimes took weeks to come by ship. Today, CIA analysts are still translating, but they're also responsible for figuring out what it all mean. And they're under more pressure now to identify potential crises when all they have to go on is a tweet or a status update. Doug Naquin is the director of the Open Source Center.
Give us a sense of volume. How much information is coming in that these folks are trying to analyze?
DOUG NAQUIN: You know, I could say it in terabytes, but I think the best way to describe it without being flip would be, just massive.
MARTIN: He won't define massive. But other intelligence officials say since 9/11, it's been like trying to drink from a fire hose. And the political revolutions erupting around the Middle East have turned that fire hose into a flood.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS, SCREAMS)
MARTIN: Lawmakers on Capitol Hill blame the CIA for missing the Arab Spring - specifically, the democratic uprising in Egypt. Doug Naquin says his analysts knew something was brewing in the country.
NAQUIN: I want to clarify: We didn't predict. What we said - it was going to be a game-changer, and did pose a threat to the regime.
MARTIN: When was this?
NAQUIN: This was in April 2009.
MARTIN: Naquin's team wrote up reports on some kind of social unrest fueled by social media, but those reports were overlooked. That was in part, he says, because the CIA - and the intelligence community as a whole - weren't taking social media seriously.
NAQUIN: I remember, there was a lot of resistance - or skepticism is the best word to say. Well, it's just chatter, it's no value, etc. And we said - there was enough people here said - no, there's something there.
MARTIN: But figuring out what that something is, that is the hard part. Naquin says his office isn't trying to uncover secrets so much as they're trying to put together what he calls a country's narrative.
NAQUIN: You know, what are the underlying beliefs? So in the United States, for example, one of our master narratives is the American dream. It's the same in other countries.
MARTIN: And building those narratives for foreign countries means tracking almost anything.
NAQUIN: What's trending - is it the Justin Bieber concert?
MARTIN: Yep, the CIA uses Justin Bieber as a kind of social barometer.
NAQUIN: Well, it says to me that their attention is not terribly focused on other issues that, you know, we may consider more serious. But I kind of raise it as a frivolous point, but if Justin is number one and the water situation is number four or five, it'll give you a sense of the mindset of a certain part of the population.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Very good. Good morning, everyone.
MARTIN: We were given access to a regular morning meeting, where the CIA analysts talk about what they're monitoring - although we were told in advance that the meeting would be sanitized. In other words, no sensitive stuff in front of the reporters.
NAQUIN: Bring it over to Middle East.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let me start with Iran. The story that's dominating the media in Iran across the...
MARTIN: These analysts take what they learn through open-source material, and put it into classified reports used by the CIA and other government agencies. I'm allowed to take a look at one of these reports - this one, on how the Arab world responded to the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden. But it's hard to see how this is more specialized than what a graduate student could research and write as a senior thesis. Doug Naquin has heard this critique before.
NAQUIN: It's very easy to say oh, well, this is what I found in Google, and this is what they're saying, so this must be true. And that's, I think, one of the biggest changes of the past five years - people realize this is much more than just doing a Google search.
MARTIN: Analysts are responsible for monitoring everything that comes out of a specific country, but they're also tracking political movements and terrorist groups. Beth - that's what the CIA wants us to call her - spends her day looking at terrorist-related websites and monitoring Twitter feeds, Facebook pages that raise red flags.
BETH: In order for these really reclusive groups to communicate with their supporters, they have to do it in an open forum - oftentimes, using the Internet where, you know, they can reach supporters around the world. And, you know, the more open they have to be, the easier it is for people like us to find it.
MARTIN: So social media can kind of out terrorist sympathizers. The challenge for the CIA is figuring out exactly who and where they are. That's complicated because the Internet makes it easy for users to hide themselves; to literally, create digital identities using shadow IP addresses. So someone could be tweeting in Arabic under a Yemen email address, but it could be a U.S. citizen sitting in his house in Ohio. Problem with that: It's illegal for the CIA to monitor Americans on American soil. Again, Doug Naquin:
NAQUIN: You can't tell where individual posts come from.
MARTIN: So, if you are pursuing someone and at some point in that analysis you realize that person is sitting in the United States, how does that change what you're doing?
NAQUIN: Yeah. Well, first of all, I can't get into those types of questions in too much detail. But if there's any - let me put it broadly - if there's any situation where we came across anything that involved U.S. persons, we would either stop, or we would turn it over to one of our partners on the domestic side.
MARTIN: But the line between what kind of monitoring is legal, and what's not, could get more complicated as the technology evolves. Naquin says he's anticipating a future when our household appliances are all wired up to our iPhones and email accounts.
NAQUIN: The Internet is going from connecting people to connecting two things. People's thoughts that would never make it outside their homes, now are available to everybody on the Internet.
MARTIN: If you're an open-source analyst for the CIA, that just means more information and hopefully, more valuable intelligence. But if you're living in a country ruled by a government with a penchant for domestic spying, it's potentially a big brother nightmare.