Breaking: CIA Tells Us Something We Already Knew

For at least a decade, there has been a running joke in the world of intelligence contractors that perhaps 90% of what the CIA does could be done for 1/10 the cost and 10x the effective accuracy by private, open-source agencies. The superiority of open source analysis is not really in question, though there are some topics, namely about specific military capability and intent, that kind of by design require classification.

Take North Korea. The CIA is set to publicly confirm ties between North Korea and Syria over the development of nuclear technologies, definitely including power generation and probably including weapons production. This, however, is something that has been spread across the news wires since at least 2004.

Why 2004? Almost exactly four years ago on April 22, 2004, two trains traveling through the northern city of Ryongchon collided, and the explosion killed dozens and injured thousands. Satellite photos showed an enormous area of devastation around the impact site.

At the time, niche right-wing newspapers were discussing the presence of Syrians at the explosion site, or that the explosion delayed the shipment of missile components or WMD material to Syria, or variations on the same story. In the years since, the connection slowly dropped off everyone’s radar until the Osirak-style Israeli raid on a suspected Syrian nuclear site in late 2007. There were naturally some skeptics, despite Israel’s claim to have seized “nuclear materials” at the site.

Of course, with all such things, there was too much reliance on rumor and speculation, and way too little on-the-scene reporting by journalists (most of whom rely on official government sources for most of their stories and do very little investigation).

This is not really a surprise, in other words. Anyone who is shocked North Korea was actively selling dangerous weapons has never seriously studied the country (there is a good reason they’re labeled one of the world’s top weapons traffickers and proliferators). Anyone who is familiar at all with the twisted mindset of intelligence analysts—some of whom have told me they don’t read the news because “open source in unreliable” and don’t watch Al-Jazeera because it is “an enemy broadcast”—will not find any of this new or even particularly interesting. Which of course raises the question: why does it even matter now? This is old information, in the public arena for years. That the CIA has only now caught up, at least publicly, is not too surprising. The only interesting aspect to this is how thorough they were, if they can justify their enormous collection budget (and, not coincidentally, how much of their reporting actually did rely on things like the Open Source Center).

So will the CIA’s revelation confirm or refute the many theories that have been passing back and forth for a good four+ years about the ties between Syrian and North Korea? That remains to be seen. What I think is more interesting is both how this yet again demonstrates a critical way Big Media punts its responsibility to investigate things; how, despite that shortcoming, open sources can bring one a relatively clear picture of the state of the world; and how out-of-sync with the modern media environment our intelligence agencies appear to be. That is the buried lede here, one the LA Times could have highlighted if they knew what they were talking about.

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3 Responses to “Breaking: CIA Tells Us Something We Already Knew”

  1. on 23 Apr 2008 at 7:40 pm MichaelW

    “CIA Tells Us Something We Already Knew”

    I blame Josh. [/snark]

  2. on 23 Apr 2008 at 10:47 pm Joshua Foust

    Oh haw :-) I was making a slightly bigger point, kiddo.

  3. on 23 Apr 2008 at 11:10 pm peter jackson

    During the run-up to the creation of der Homeland Security Department, a group of Republicans in Congress proposed eliminating the CIA altogether in the reorg. With every passing year since 9/11 I’ve grown more sentimental about the idea. Too bad really.

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