World News Connection disconnected
21 Jan 2014|

UnpluggedThe last day of 2013 marked more than the close of the year: it signalled the end of one of the most important global sources of publicly-accessible intelligence.

Through a low-key notice, the United States government announced that World News Connection (WNC) would be closed down on 31 December. WNC was the public database for transcribed and translated newspaper and electronic media materials gathered globally by the Director of National Intelligence Open Source Center (OSC) of the US Government. The OSC restricts itself to publicly-sourced materials—open-source intelligence (OSINT)—and the materials collected are distributed throughout US government agencies and to major agencies of key allies, including Australia. The OSC also produces a wide variety of analytical reports based on these materials. However, its most prominent public face was World News Connection, subscribed to by university libraries, think tanks and other institutions, and used by a multitude of analysts and scholars around the world.

The OSC has a long and prestigious history. Emerging from the US Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service which was tasked with monitoring Axis radio broadcasts during WWII, the organisation morphed in 1947 into the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS)—an open source intelligence component of the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology. In collaboration with the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Monitoring Service, FBIS monitored radio and other media around the globe through 20 bureaus. It also absorbed the Joint Publication Research Service (JPRS), which monitored and translated military-related tracts. Those materials selected and translated were, to the great credit of the participating governments, also made available publicly through FBIS Daily Reports, JPRS reports and the BBC’s Summary of World Broadcasts. These materials thereby came to constitute the major source of primary materials for non-government analysts, scholars and journalists around the globe through the entire Cold War period. The value of the resource for researchers globally since the end of the Cold War has also been very clearly demonstrated (PDF).

In November 2005, the duties of FBIS were taken over by the newly-created OSC, and, for the last eight years, WNC have provided the materials sourced and translated from thousands of news sources around the world to libraries, research institutes and think-tanks through commercial providers. While the reports to the mid-1990s will continue to be available through commercial providers, and will forever constitute key historical materials for researchers, the demise of WNC means that the provision of contemporary materials to non-government constituencies will now cease. Materials from half the world’s countries will now not be available in the consolidated, searchable and archived form which WNC provided. Strangely, the other half of this global monitoring system—BBC Monitoring—will continue to provide to the public the materials which they source and translate from global media.

To what should we ascribe this change in US policy? The National Technical Information Service, which distributed WNC, assigns the closedown to the following reasons:

Several developments have combined to necessitate cancelling WNC, including increasing costs, increased competition from alternate sources, and incompatibility with mission limitations of the compiler of the data, while advances in technology make the information in WNC more readily available from the original source.

And yet, the additional costs of providing the public feed are miniscule and are partly met by subscriptions; there’s no alternative source which provides the materials and database which WNC did; while ‘incompatibility with mission limitations of the compiler of the data’, appears to simply suggest that US government OSINT shouldn’t be made available outside government circles. The rationale conveniently ignores the fact that WNC provided in English translation much material which would never otherwise be available to analysts and scholars around the world who work in English.

Following the announcement that the WNC would be closed, a wide range of scholarly organisations across the United States came together to suggest that the action violates President Obama’s Open Government Plan (PDF) and to urge its reversal. Many other advocates have voiced their support for the maintenance of the service, and Elizabeth Murray, an erstwhile member of the US National Intelligence Council who worked with OSC for 20 years, has pointed out how the decision to close WNC goes against many American interests.

What does this mean for Australia? Through essential reliance on US and British collection and dissemination of global OSINT since WWII, Australia has only limited capacity to gather and disseminate such materials for the broader interests of Australian society. Thus we’re at the mercy of actions such as this by the Americans, whereby non-government parties are now excluded from the most important global source of OSINT, and so from access to many primary materials on global affairs. Australian government agencies will continue to receive OSC materials but the remainder of society will be deprived of that resource. That will necessarily reduce the capacity of Australian society generally to understand and analyse global events and trends, and will inevitably mean a reduction in the quality and quantity of extra-governmental analysis, of public discussion and of informed commentary on global issues. This can only harm an open society.

As such, this should be an issue of national concern, and the Australian government should use its good offices with the Americans to encourage the reversal of this decision. The issue might be fruitfully discussed at this week’s meeting in Washington on the US–Australia Alliance, or later through more formal avenues. Australia, like the rest of the world, needs World News Connection.

Geoff Wade is a visiting fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. Image courtesy of Flickr user nige_mar.