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Army intelligence buys intelligence like Netflix?

Everyone knows that the U.S. government collects and produces intelligence, using information from sensitive Tippy Top Secret sources to the lowliest "open source" material found readily on the Internet. When it comes to translations and unique databases -- from the scientific to the most intrusive personal information -- the intelligence community also has virtual carte blanche to tap the expertise of the private sector.

But how about Army intelligence, and not some unclassified library or open source entity, but an organization that itself works at all classification levels, buying commercial unclassified and regurgitated information? Information that Army intelligence itself -- or a myriad of other government agencies -- not only produces on its own, but that is readily available? Like a robot stuck walking into a wall because it cannot stop or no one has turned off the switch, this is exactly what's happening.

Pre-Internet (hard to imagine, we know) a company called Military Periscope in Gaithersburg, Md., pulled together information that was -- at the time -- hard to get: information on foreign military forces, obscure government documents, etc.

Fast forward to 2010. Experts say that the vast majority of the "intelligence" needed by the United States is available on the worldwide web. But that has not stopped Military Periscope from continuing to sell its subscription services to the U.S. government.

The Army's National Ground Intelligence Center in Charlottesville, Va., recently put out a solicitation to buy a host of subscription services, including U.S. Department of State Travel Advisories and the CIA World Fact Book from Military Periscope. It's also looking for updates on foreign militaries, peacekeeping missions, weapons databases and terrorist organizations "via monthly CD-ROM delivery."

The contracting officer at the Army's National Ground Intelligence Center, who asked that her name not be used because she "didn't know much" about the contract, described what the Army wanted this way: "We're buying a subscription. Just like you'd buy a subscription to Netflix."

Steve Aftergood, a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, where he works to reduce the scope of government secrecy, said the Army's NGIC contract "looks like it is payment for access to, and management of, a database of open source publications."

"It's a bit clumsy," he said. "The idea that it is necessary to pay someone to provide you with data that in many cases is freely available and is processed by the government and you're paying a private contractor to do that is going to raise an eyebrow."

"You're paying a third party to provide you what is already available for free from your own government," he said. "NGIC is a producer of intelligence, so why are they buying second-hand products from other agencies?

Still, he said, there could be a rational reason for it. "Maybe it serves NGIC to have a current collection of all these products on one CD that enables them to do focused searches instead of going out to a dozen or more different sites to pick and choose what they need," he said.

Military Periscope agreed. Maurizia Grossman, director of electronic services at Military Periscope, said the Army's NGIC is "buying an open-source information service."

"It is information they need because they don't have it," she said of the NGIC contract. "We're the aggregator of this information. We're the authoritative source of information they need for their intelligence, operations and training for their soldiers, sailors and airmen."

The 25-year-old Military Periscope is privately owned by United Communications Group. It tracks 160 nations around the world and 5,000 weapons systems. Military Periscope won't say how many customers it has, but it acknowledges that the Army, Navy and Air Force are among its biggest U.S. clients. The subscriptions cost between $5,000 and $500,000 a year, depending on the services.

The Army has its own explanation of why it needs Military Periscope's services. In an e-mail, Ron Young, an Army spokesman for INSCOM [U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command], said analysts use the information from Military Periscope "during their daily duties of producing and disseminating all-source integrated intelligence on foreign ground forces and related military technologies to ensure that U.S. forces have a decisive edge in current and future military operations."

Young also wrote, "We are unaware of the availability of these services through open source centers."

However, there is the Open Source Center, established by the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA. According to its web site, it "provides information on foreign political, military, economic, and technical issues beyond the usual media from an ever expanding universe of open sources." The Open Source Center scours the Internet, news media, geospatial data and commercial imagery to produce just what the U.S. government needs at the unclassified level. In fact, numerous military organizations such as the Foreign Military Studies Office and its parent TRADOC Intelligence Support Activity (TRISA) do the same task, tailored exactly to the Army.

The Army isn't the only Military Periscope subscriber. The Air Force at Langley in Virginia, at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama and the Defense Information Systems Agency in Columbus, Ohio, are also buying the Military Periscope service.

Oh, and the State Department's "Office of Verification Operations," which describes itself as the "the congressionally mandated U.S. Government (USG) historical archive of all negotiation records for arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament treaties and agreements." This is exactly the kind of office, if it needs intelligence support, that one would think would be getting everything it needs from the government itself. It paid $8,900 for 25 simultaneous users. How much the others paid isn't publicly divulged.

And Army intelligence? The contract was to have been awarded earlier this month, but it was extended until the week of Aug. 23.

By Dana Hedgpeth and William M. Arkin  |  August 20, 2010; 8:06 AM ET
 
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Comments

This is about as far of a reach of a "story" as I have ever read. Is this supposed to be a scandal? That a government agency wants to order some info on a CD that it can download on the internet? So if they subscribed to the Washington Post print edition, would you call that wasteful as well since all the same info is readily available online?

In reality, you're just missing the point. There is now so much info available online that a company like Military Periscope has had to change its model from info gathering to info sorting - so that agencies like the NGIC can do their analysis thing without having to waste time sorting through all the chaff from the web. I guarantee you they save money this way vs hiring 10 extra govies to to the same work. And oh, this is hardly something that only occurs in the defense world - you're just laser-focused on breaking some blockbuster story that isn't there. An objective observer (remember those) might see this as an American success story - a company that has gone from helping gov't agencies deal with having too little available info to helping them deal with having too much.

Hurry, I hear people are still purchasing CDs from Best Buy instead of downloading from iTunes! Scoop it!

Posted by: jesusHhong | August 20, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

" The subscriptions cost between $5,000 and $500,000 a year " " The subscriptions cost between $14 and $1,400 a day. "

It is just an outsourcing commodity with no drawbacks.

Neat.

Posted by: ouphes | August 20, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Does any of this primarily have to do with obtaining the copyright to original reporting so that it can be copied onto another system?

Posted by: staticvars | August 21, 2010 1:29 AM | Report abuse

Which still doesn't get us any closer to revealing the dark side of 9/11. A quick answer to some basic questions would be to give polygraph tests to key individuals from the Bush administration. First, ask these 'truthful' individuals if they have a problem taking the tests. Obviously, truthful individuals would have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Right? On the other hand, hesitation brings us back to another question. Who were these people really working for and what were their motives? Yet, Obama was elected on two basic platforms: accountability and transparency, neither of which have seen the light of day. Therefore, the original questions remain valid.

Posted by: neddelaney | August 22, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

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