Opening Up and Supporting USG Open Source Translations on China Etc.

Among the recommendations of the 2019 Annual Report to Congress of the U.S.-CHINA ECONOMIC AND SECURITY REVIEW COMMISSION is a call for the US government to devote more resources to translation and analysis of Chinese-language open source materials. The CIA’s Open Source Center once provided extensive translations from Chinese language open source materials to US government customers and to a less extent to the academic community at large. Budget cuts since about 2010 have considerably reduced its activities and ended sharing some materials with the academic community and others.


[that] Congress direct the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to restore the unclassified Open Source Enterprise website to all of its original functions for U.S. government employees. Access to the Open Source Enterprise should also be expanded by making appropriate materials available to U.S. academic and research institutions


The Federation of American Scientists highlighted this recommendation in a December 2, 2019 posting on its “Secrecy News“:

Congress should require the Director of National Intelligence to make open source intelligence more widely available, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission recommended in its latest annual report.

Open source intelligence refers to information of intelligence value that is openly published and can be freely gathered without resort to clandestine methods. Such material, and the analysis based on it, can usually be produced on an unclassified basis.

But in practice, it is often tightly held. The U.S.-China Commission, which was created by statute in 2000, noted that the U.S. intelligence community had recently curtailed access to open source intelligence reporting even within the government.

Last June, the former web portal was “decommissioned.” Its contents were transferred to classified or restricted networks that are mostly inaccessible to those outside the intelligence community.

Rand Study: “Defining Second Generation Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) for the Defense Enterprise” by Heather J. WilliamsIlana Blum

In 2018, RAND published an unclassified study of open source as an intelligence discipline. The report is online at

My Experience with the Open Source Center

I used and contributed to the Open Source Center website. The OSC invited some academics and intelligence officers (as an FSO assigned to INR, that is what I was for a time) to contribute blogs to the Open Source Center website. I was the China Bookworm blogger while working as a Foreign Service Officer assigned to the US State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research in 2004 – 2007.  Back then, some valuable Chinese books and memoir excerpts were selected and published on the Open Source Center’s website      After about 2009/2010 the OSC seemed to have begun to gradually fade away, changing its name in 2015 to Open Source Enterprise.   The value of open source translations and analysis seems to have been forgotten. This problem wasn’t confined to the CIA and its Open Source Center. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) under its director Michael Flynn also cut back on open source work at about the same time.

What governments tell themselves and the discussions in their policy communities are very often more interesting that what they tell the foreigners. 

This is especially true for countries like the PRC which carefully calibrate the story they tell to their own people and to foreigners through censorship and intimidation (what one might call post-publication censorship to ‘encourager les autres”) .  The situation is so extreme in the PRC that there exist several layers at different layers at different levels of confidentiality of reference news 参考消息 and news analysis to report what is going on in China and the world so that the Party won’t be blind-sided by its own censorship.

Much reference news confidential material is written by Xinhua correspondents along with translations from the foreign press. He Qinglian‘s book The Fog of Censorship a free PDF download from Human Rights in China  is a good reference on the PRC media system and censorship in China.

What the Chinese Communist Party says and what the Party stops saying to itself and to the Chinese public at large can be very interesting and worth translation, reporting and analysis.

During my ten years working as an FSO assigned to US Embassy Beijing and to the US Consulate General in Chengdu, I often found interesting books that containing material that censors probably wouldn’t have allowed if they had only continued past the first twenty of thirty conventionally boring pages.  For example in the late 1990s, in one 700 page book of essays on Chinese environmental issues by Chinese academics published by a Hubei Publishing House, I found around page 520 a statement by the then president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences that “If we build the Three Gorges Dam, future generations of Chinese will never forgive us.” The first thirty pages of the collection were fairly boring. Then the book became much more interesting!

 Some Chinese provincial presses can be more interested in publishing good (and profitable books) even if it means taking a chance at offending the censors. Though the pressure they feel must be increasing now under Chinese Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping.   Some say even the confidential internal reference news is now failing in its mission to provide more accurate information to Chinese leaders. 

Analysis of Chinese-Language Press Outside of China Would Help Understand PRC Penetration Efforts

Translations and analysis of the Chinese-language press outside of China can be interesting too. For example, while working in China I often found articles about China in Singapore’s Chinese language Lianhe Zaobao (联合早报) useful. 

These days China is putting great effort into influencing the Chinese-language press outside of China. This maybe an effort to prevent infection from democratic ideas and criticism of the Party blowing back into China and infecting people there. Perhaps it is a kind of ideological self-defense effort. The Communist Party’s United Front Work Department is putting great effort into influencing the Chinese media overseas, greater attention on that would be helpful as well.  See my note on He Qinglian’s recent book

Obstacle: Excessive Worry About Spying by Open Source Translators: Compartmentalization is the Answer

Then there is the question of security clearances for translators many of whom would likely be foreign-born.  In general, if a person of uncertain loyalties does a good job translating Chinese-language material, I wouldn’t worry about it. The issue really is appropriate compartmentalization of the translation locales and farming out of some work to translators.  If done properly, a spy (as long as they aren’t doing selection) would not do any significant damage.  Conceivably the Party could put pressure on relatives of the translators, something counter-intel people would need to watch. Even so, the translation human resources we deny ourselves are too great compared to the security we gain.  

The CIA Foreign Broadcast Information Center (later transformed into the Open Source Center) was traumatized by the case of Larry Wu-tai Chin who provided secret information to the PRC during his thirty year long career as a translator there. Not having personal knowledge of how FBIS worked back then, I’ll have to speculate.

I expect that in the Open Source Center, the selection function would be as important as the translation function.  For selection, you would need people  with a high security clearance reading the traffic and going to meetings to understand what requirements are and be aware enough to identify material in the sources that should be flagged as something higher ups need to know.  Those people I imagine would guide the translators (who might not need a very high clearance) who would also be participating in selection to some extent.given the flood of material that would need to be gotten through. 

   I wonder where Larry Wu-tai Chin fit on the selector/translator spectrum. 

Appropriate compartmentalization could have prevented China from getting access to sensitive information. Then again, we shouldn’t focus on Chinese-American US citizens or shy away from giving them high level security clearances. Many of the spies of the 1940s and 50s had ideological motivations. It seems that the motivation for spying for a now-dead religion (such as communism in China) is money. Most spies these days, including Chin, are in it for the money (just as Chin was in his day). Very many spies have no ethnic link with the country they spy for.

The lens of our perception have become distorted. We sometimes ignore the great benefit that recent immigrants to the US and sometimes their children, with their familiarity with foreign languages and understanding of foreign cultures can provide us.

My argument is that we should not demand high level clearances for people doing non sensitive or less sensitive work. High-level security clearances take a long time since they require detailed background investigations. Part of the issue, I suppose is that if a spy is found, there would be headlines “spy found in CIA office”.  Our fear of foreign spies does result in our denying ourselves invaluable human resources.  In that sense, the spies are winning since dimming our understanding by using our own fear is a considerably achievement in itself. 

Just as Terror wins when it distorts our response, so too does excessive fear of spies hurt our translation efforts. Compartmentalization is the answer.

Terror wins when it scares us to death and leads us to make unproductive, panicky responses. Similarly, excessive fear of spies denies us excellent translators who are either of uncertain loyalty or are discouraged from applying due to lengthy and complicated security clearance processes. Compartmentalization of translators working on open source materials away from national security sensitive information would make it possible to hire many translators who have family ties in China or other foreign countries which produce the open source materials of interest. Terrorism and the national post traumatic stress dysfunctionalities it produces throughout society (how terrorism wins) that we badly misallocate resources as the US did post 9/11.

Obstacle: Poor Pay for Translators in the US

Another problem is that translation work pays poorly in the USA.  My impression is that translation pays better in Western Europe.  Perhaps this is a result of so much of the world’s interesting material being published in English that we become lazy and complacent about the considerable material that never gets translated. 

Getting Our Priorities Right: Easier Said Then Done

It costs money. Improving open source collection, analysis and dissemination will be expensive. I suspect that the benefits its will bring will exceed a marginally better antenna on some spy satellite. Investments in the software of translation capacity and analysis here will be just or more worthwhile than some of the hardware investments that we already do perhaps because they are more tangible, or even because they have a strong constituency in the fabled military-industrial complex.

This is a matter of US government priorities and budgeting. This should be a non-partisan issue in the US, but these days who knows.

About 高大伟 David Cowhig

After retirement translated,with wife Jessie, Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and have been studying things 格物致知. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
This entry was posted in Media 媒体, Politics 政治 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.