A Private War on Terror


I'm late to note it, but The New Yorker's Benjamin Wallace-Wells has written an interesting profile of Rita Katz and her SITE Institute. (The initials stand for Search for International Terrorist Entities. I assume that's a SETI joke.) Here's what her group does:

Traditionally, intelligence has been filtered through government agencies, such as the C.I.A. and the N.S.A., which gather raw data and analyze it, and the government decides who sees the product of their work and when. Katz…has made it her business to upset that monopoly. She and her researchers mine online sources for intelligence, which her staff translates and sends out by e-mail to a list of about a hundred subscribers.

Katz's client list includes people in the government who are presumably frustrated by how long it takes to get information through official channels; it also includes people in corporate security and in the media, who rarely get much useful material from the C.I.A. She has worked with prosecutors on more than a dozen terrorism investigations, and many American officers in Iraq rely on Katz's e-mails to, for example, brief their troops on the designs for explosives that are passed around terrorist Web sites.

Katz's organization isn't necessarily more accurate than the official intelligence outfits: It has been quick to spot terror plots even when they aren't there, and it helped assemble the case against Sami Omar al-Hussayen, a prominent victim of the Patriot Act. (Even more disturbing: Before she started her own outfit, Katz worked with the noted fruitcake Steven Emerson. I wish the profile had given more details about their falling out.) Wallace-Wells notes some parallels between Katz's milieu and "other self-appointed, at-the-barricades elites, like the neoconservatives, or the old American left, or, for that matter, an underground terrorist organization."

But for all that, SITE turns up genuinely useful information. Reading the New Yorker piece, I kept thinking of something Matt Welch wrote in Reason two years ago:

This January…a group of mostly lefty webloggers created an "Adopt-a-Journalist" movement, whereby individual campaign reporters would be tracked daily for signs of bias and sloppiness. Journalists who have a "watch blog" attached to their hides now include the aforementioned Nedra Pickler, her AP colleague Calvin Woodward, Reuters' Patricia Wilson, The New York Times' Jodi Wilgoren, and The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Cecil Connolly, among others. Commentary on these blogs ranges from the fair-minded to the cruel, but without the political motivation there probably wouldn't be any "watching" at all.

What's true of citizen-journalists applies equally to citizen-intelligence-analysts. (Indeed, I'm not sure where I'd draw the line between the two groups.) If it didn't have an axe to grind, SITE might not exist at all. Because it does, we have another source of potentially valuable information to weigh. I say let a hundred SITEs bloom, from a hundred different perspectives and with a hundred hobbyhorses to ride.

For more on open-source intelligence, go here and here.