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Today’s News, Brought to You by Your Friends at the CIA

March 1, 2011

The Wall Street Journal, 28 Feb 2011: Now that the revolution is over, Egypt’s newly free press will make a fascinating read—if you happen to know Arabic. How the Libyan crisis plays in the newspapers of oil-rich Azerbaijan might be intriguing, too—if your Azeri is up to snuff.

If it isn’t—and if your Urdu is as rusty as your Mandarin—you might check out the biggest news service in the U.S. that almost nobody has ever heard of. It’s called World News Connection.

WNC delivers the news online from 1,750 newspapers, broadcasts and blogs in 130 countries. It employs a host of translators—human beings, not machines—who turn foreign arcana into fluent English every day. The production cost is surely huge—but it’s a secret. That’s because WNC’s staff is paid from the classified budget of the CIA.

This tweet, translated from Farsi, ran on WNC last year: “Iran says that CIA agents have been arrested ahead of the 11 February rallies.”

Who needs secret cables when the Central Intelligence Agency tosses out nuggets like that—plus tons of ore for data miners? Gary Price of the database guides INFOdocket.com and FullTextReports.com, calls WNC “just incredibly cool. It has stuff nobody can get any other way.”

Yet WNC is “one of the least known” of the many databases Mr. Price tracks—a fact painfully well known to John Hounsell. His job is retailing WNC to the public.

Mr. Hounsell, 61 years old, works in a Commerce Department outpost here in Virginia—a branch that pays for itself by selling government-generated information. The Commerce Department repackages the CIA’s content and sells it as WNC.

His desk radio played quietly one day as Mr. Hounsell opened WNC’s search page. A late news flash came up—Bedouins shooting at Egyptians—newly translated from Ma’an, a Palestinian website. “We get an hourly feed,” he said, “whatever’s not classified.”

Mr. Hounsell’s promotions tout WNC as “compiled by intelligence experts” and “not filtered by Western biases.” The Commerce Department gets its CIA feed for nothing (and the CIA gets nothing back), but sales are dismal: $500,000 a year on a pitiful 2.5 million hits. “We’re stagnant.” Mr. Hounsell said.

He has one hope: ProQuest, a database supermarket, soon will load World News Connection onto a “Google-like” site with plans to vault its distribution from about 300 college libraries to thousands of libraries and businesses around the world. (Individuals can buy it now for $300 a year, plus $4 a hit.) “We want to surface WNC, get it out there,” says ProQuest’s head marketer, Libby Trudell.

A look back at some of FBIS’s telling transmissions, as collected in a 1971 history of the service.

WNC does have an image problem, the same one borne by CIA grunts who watch Bosnian TV via satellite in Virginia instead of going on spy missions. Dull as it may seem, though, following the news from Uruguay or Togo has often proved informative over the years.

The first ever analysis by U.S. monitors reported: “Japanese radio intensifies still further its defiant, hostile tone.…” It was dated Dec. 6, 1941.

On Oct. 28, 1962, Radio Moscow broadcast this message from Nikita Khrushchev to President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis: “…we have ordered our officers to stop building bases, to dismantle the equipment, and send it back home.” On April 28, 1986, item 21 on Moscow Television began: “An accident has occurred at Chernobyl nuclear power station.…”

When the Cold War ended, it became less urgent for monitors to stockpile tea leaves for Kremlinologists to read. In 1993, Congress gutted the CIA’s monitoring service. It reversed itself after the spying lapses of 9/11 and Iraq. In 2005, the service reopened as the Open Source Center, and was housed in the CIA. Any aggregator would envy OSC’s website, but unlike WNC, it’s classified.

In his office, Mr. Hounsell allowed a peek: The home page had lots of pictures, a headline scroll, a most-popular list. Foreign TV news—with English subtitles—was streaming away. Passwords go to government workers and contractors on national-security duty. To everybody else, the Open Source Center is closed.

World News Connection is a way in. The CIA, according to one of its press officers, sends WNC 40,000 unclassified items a month. What it doesn’t send isn’t so clear. WNC gets nothing by jihadists, for example, yet it does get summaries of OSC’s pointed in-house analyses.

What the CIA keeps to itself interests some WNC junkies less than intelligence that hides in plain sight. Gary Sick studies Iran at Columbia University, a WNC subscriber, where he devours speeches by autocratic leaders. “They say what they think,” he says. What Prof. Sick can’t decipher is why WNC isn’t free: “They give it to everybody in the government. Why not give it to us taxpayers?”

Mr. Hounsell’s answer: copyright. The CIA circulates Vladimir Putin’s speeches inside the government, but WCN needs permission to sell them—and it has to pay royalties to agencies that publish them. Mr. Hounsell spends his days mailing letters (in English) to faraway newspapers or radio stations, pleading for clearance. If they don’t agree, WNC erases their content.

“Right now, I’m contacting new sources,” Mr. Hounsell said, opening a spreadsheet on his screen. It listed 757 letters that have so far gone unanswered. No reply from Essirage, in Nouakchott; from Komentari, in Kiev; from Dinamina, in Colombo. “A guy in Baluchistan got back,” Mr. Hounsell recalled. “He wrote, ‘Can you protect us?'”

When Mr. Hounsell covets a source, he’ll pick up the phone and call. He can say, “Does anybody there speak English?” in multiple languages. Those who sign get 25% of the income per hit. Krungthep Thurakit, in Bangkok, got more than 4,000 hits last quarter—and received a check for $323.

The copyright rule has an exception: a handful of “rogue states.” “We don’t pay them,” said Mr. Hounsell. “But if that’s brought to anybody’s attention, we’d have to pull their stuff.” To keep axis-of-evil raw material online at World News Connection, (including the latest speeches by a certain North African colonel), Mr. Hounsell has asked that their names remain an open secret.

 

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