McLEAN, Va. — In an anonymous industrial park, CIA analysts who jokingly call themselves the "ninja librarians" are mining the mass of information people publish about themselves overseas, tracking everything from common public opinion to revolutions.
The group's effort gives the White House a daily snapshot of the world built from tweets, newspaper articles and Facebook updates.
The agency's Open Source Center sometimes looks at 5 million tweets a day. The analysts are also checking out TV news channels, local radio stations, Internet chat rooms — anything overseas that people can access and contribute to openly.
The Associated Press got an apparently unprecedented view of the center's operations, including a tour of the main facility. The AP agreed not to reveal its exact location and to withhold the identities of some who work there because much of the center's work is secret.
From Arabic to Mandarin, from an angry tweet to a thoughtful blog, the analysts gather the information, often in a native tongue. They cross-reference it with a local newspaper or a clandestinely intercepted phone conversation. From there, they build a picture sought by the highest levels at the White House. There might be a real-time peek, for example, at the mood of a region after the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, or perhaps a prediction of which Mideast nation seems ripe for revolt.
Yes, they saw the uprising in Egypt coming; they just didn't know exactly when revolution might hit, says the center's director, Doug Naquin.
The center already had "predicted that social media in places like Egypt could be a game-changer and a threat to the regime," he said in an interview.
The CIA facility was set up in response to a recommendation by the 9/11 Commission, its first priority to focus on counterterrorism and counterproliferation. Its predecessor organization had its staff heavily cut in the 1990s — something the CIA's management has vowed to keep from happening again, with new budget reductions looming across the national security spectrum.
The center's several hundred analysts — the actual number is classified — track a broad range of subjects, including Chinese Internet access and the mood on the street in Pakistan.
While most analysts are based in Virginia, they also are scattered throughout U.S. embassies worldwide to get a step closer to their subjects.
The center's analysis ends up in President Barack Obama's daily intelligence briefing in one form or another almost every day. The material is often used to answer questions Obama poses to his inner circle of intelligence advisers when they give him the morning rundown of threats and trouble spots.
"The OSC's focus is overseas, collecting against foreign intelligence issues," said CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood. "Looking at social media outlets overseas is just a small part of what this skilled organization does," she said. "There is no effort to collect on Americans."
The most successful open source analysts, Naquin said, are something like the heroine of the crime novel "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," a quirky, irreverent computer hacker who "knows how to find stuff other people don't know exists."
An analyst with a master's degree in library science and multiple languages, especially one who grew up speaking another language, makes "a powerful open source officer," Naquin said.
The center had started focusing on social media after watching the Twitter-sphere rock the Iranian regime during the Green Revolution of 2009, when thousands protested the results of the elections that kept Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power. "Farsi was the third largest presence in social media blogs at the time on the Web," Naquin said.
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