As fallout over the firing of Fox New anchor Tucker Carlson and CNN’s Don Lemon continues to percolate, I recall the Cold War techniques to decode the news used by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA was never solely about spies meeting in dark alleys. Consider the technical side—from spy planes to listening devices—where I spent the majority of my 30-year career.

But to learn how to decode the news, you have to look at OSINT. That’s shorthand for intelligence gleaned from openly available sources.

First, some background

Open source intelligence collection and analysis got its start in 1941 before Pearl Harbor when the Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service was created to monitor Axis short-wave radio transmissions and analyze implications.

The new organization, known unofficially as “the Screwball Division,” recruited top linguists, engineers and social scientists. An early headquarters was TEMPO Y, one of the war-time temporary buildings erected on the Mall in Washington DC.

After the war, the renamed Foreign Broadcast Information Service–later the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service (FBIS)–was folded into the newly-formed CIA in 1947.

During the Cold War, FBIS primarily focused on state-controlled media in the Soviet Union, East Europe, China, North Korea, Cuba, and other “closed” countries. Its flagship product was the Daily Report, a daily collection of critical translations for each country or region. A news magazine called Trends, came out weekly.

A media analyst for FBIS

Early in my CIA career, I got the chance to write for Trends about messages hidden in state-controlled Chinese media.

During the Cold War, critical messages were hidden in plain sight in the news coming out of communist countries. News for the domestic audience could be different (remember, there was little other information getting to folks inside the country) than what was broadcast to the foreign audience.

If you dug into the content, and knew who mattered in their media organizations—the state-controlled media equivalents of Don and Tucker–you could essentially decode the message.

If certain buzzwords appeared in an official briefing or news outlet known to be a leadership mouthpiece, it carried certain significance. On the other hand, it they were published in something further from the seat of power, say in a Chinese-owned Hong Kong newspaper prior to the takeover, it was more likely to be testing the waters.

Some of those buzzwords are still around. If a Chinese media outlet refers to “sovereignty,” they’re talking about Taiwan with an implicit warning that no one declare it independent or try to defend it.

Carmen Amato at FBIS event, late 1980s

Talking OSINT at a DoD event in the late 1980s, a time also known as the Era of Big Glasses.

Beijing’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, recently told US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns that US-China relations needed to “stabilize” after a series of Washington’s “erroneous words and deeds.”

“The agenda of dialogue and cooperation agreed by the two sides has been disrupted, and the relationship between the two countries has once again encountered cold ice.”

If I was an FBIS media analyst now, I’d be frantically combing the archives to find the last time a senior Chinese official referred to “cold ice.” What actions did the Chinese take in the wake of those words? An economic move? Military?

US policymakers should anticipate a similar action now.

Related: My CIA “Coup Kit”

Cold War remake

OSINT methodology is more than code words, but also about intentional or selective media behavior.

In the past few years, Western media outlets have adopted characteristics of closed media that we studied so rigorously. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, Breitbart, the New York Times, Epoch Times etc, etc, cater to certain agendas, repeat specific terminology, self-define “newsworthy” to refrain from reporting certain stories, and so on.

Look for these indicators

  • Media reports are slanted or shaded a certain way,
  • Context or pivotal details are left out (how much and for how long),
  • Headlines are vaguely misleading (i.e. clickbait),
  • Facts that do not align with the article’s intended slant are buried at the bottom or in long and dull paragraphs,
  • Phrasing of the intended message is lively, impactful and emotional; rival concepts are portrayed as dull, dangerous or otherwise unappealing,
  • Minor news stories are piled on to obscure/deflect attention from potentially troublesome reporting,
  • Multiple news outlets use the same exact terminology to report/downplay/heighten an event.
  • Absence of reporting—if certain media outlets completely fail to report on a story or offer only a partial report.
  • Imagery is selected to shape opinions—for example, certain politicians are consistently shown as grim by one news outlet and smiling by another.


Your decoder ring

You can effectively “decode” the news by using 5 critical thinking techniques:

  • Go beyond information silos.

Search for a breadth of perspectives on a single topic. Read across party and political lines. Seek out sources you normally would not.

  • Find what’s hidden.

Hunt for contradictions. Compare past and present. Look for repetition of specific words and phrases. Probably not coincidental.

  • Beware of shiny objects.

Is important real news hidden behind distracting entertainment? Released at midnight on Friday after the weekly news cycle is over? Buried at the bottom?

  • Question vague language & statistics.

Don’t be suckered by vague claims like 35% better! Better than what? How was that number achieved?

  • Recognize Problem, Agitate, Solve.

This blog/marketing formula is everywhere. As media slides into infotainment and is ad revenue-dependent, look for news reports to use this formula, too.

Last thoughts

No Cold War methodology can beat the best technique of all.

Slow down. Be open-minded. Ask hard questions.

Is this true? How do I absolutely know that? What if I’m wrong? Whose agenda benefits from this piece of information and the way it is presented?

The first day that I walked into CIA Headquarters, I was greeted by a quote etched into the lobby wall: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

Still relevant today.

Note: Yes, that’s my old FBIS mug sitting on my desk.

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