Intelligence: Cyber-Spying for Dummies

Congressional experts fear that Defense intelligence agencies are not making wide enough—and smart enough—use of the vast pool of "open source" information now available in cyberspace. The House Armed Services Committee, in a report approved last week on the House floor, worried that clumsy attempts by Pentagon agents to download useful intelligence from the Web could compromise U.S. spy operations by putting potential enemies on notice that U.S. intelligence is interested in them.

Last week the Federation of American Scientists made public a U.S. Army field manual, stamped FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY, outlining procedures for open-source intelligence collection by Army units. The manual says Army agents "must use Government computers to access the Internet" unless they have special authorization to do otherwise. One U.S. official, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said that, in an effort to track people behind Web sites giving detailed instructions on how to build sophisticated IEDs, counterterrorism experts two years ago asked Pentagon brass for permission to log on to the Web sites using fake identities. The official said the plan was abandoned when lawyers and policymakers insisted that the counterterrorism officials log on using computers with telltale ".gov" or ".mil" domains—a ruling that would have tipped off potential bad guys.

A Capitol Hill official who also asked for anonymity said that congressional overseers were concerned that using U.S. IP addresses to search the Net could "complicate [the] ability to go deep into Web sites to extract information." One way for the Pentagon to get around such restrictions would be to hire private contractors, but this raises questions about protecting the rights of Americans. A Pentagon spokesman told NEWSWEEK: "We've seen an increased appreciation within the Department of Defense regarding the value of open-source intelligence."