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“This man Baxter…what do we know about him?” 

This is a story which has been going round the main stream media as well as the blogs and so on for a day or two.  What surprises me is not that it rolls about, but that almost everyone is reporting it verbatim, and no one seems to want to dig below the surface.

So I thought I might have a shot and see if things look differently afterwards.

The story, in short, is that a small section of the CIA which deals with what they call “Open Source Intelligence” which in English means Newspapers, blogs, TV, radio, Magazines etc, stuff you could read in a library basically, has been minded to give a journalist from Associated Press an interview. It’s is their own little conceit to term themselves “Vengeful Librarians”.  Bless.  Frankly the journo doing this has managed an exclusive about as deep as a car park puddle, and what is gleaned is hardly earth shattering.

It seems that the CIA feel the need to read this open source material (books, reports) that is being written in foreign countries and here is the shocking bit – they are employing people who can read foreign languages!  In America?  Well, you could have knocked me down with a Bulgarian carpet.  Who could have dreamt of such a thing?  The novelty, the sheer audacity, the brilliance of the idea. All day spent reading “Pig Breeders Monthly” or “Crofter’s Wives” to divine the mindset of the agricultural labourer in Northern Scotland vis a vis Independence and the knock on effect for American Oil Interests?

But hold on a minute, isn’t that what Embassies and Consulates are for?  In the old days the oligarch in chief would simply cast about and see if one of his old school chums had picked up a smattering of whatever Johnny Foreigner spoke in his benighted part of the world and poke the lad off for a couple of years or so in a rather well appointed house with staff and a decent wine list.  All that the Ambassador needed to do was read the local papers, pop out for a round of golf with some pals every other day, and endure an endless round of rubber chicken dinners with businessmen binding on about the price of cheese. Occasionally he might get to look after idiot tourists from the home country who get themselves locked up for being drunk, or pensioners who lost their passports.  Real excitement would be repatriating a dead body sometimes.  A letter back home once a week describing the situation would normally suffice to keep the pension going and that, basically, was about it.

Apparently not now.

Uncle Sam has hired Ninja Librarians to read these newspapers in these local languages instead, and cross reference them.  I love the bit about cross-referencing! Sounds so scientific and meaningful, cross referencing.  Then they make reports. Ooh I can hardly wait.   It seems they can judge the mood of the region this way.  The best example given was that Urdu speakers in Pakistan are not happy with the current direction of American foreign policy!  Really! No shit what a surprise!  Hilarious – that much I could get from speaking with the man in the Curry Take-away at the bottom of my street.  But, more importantly what they gather may be only helpful provided it’s in a language or dialect they can actually manage.  Even ordinary people use codes, slang, in jokes.  And to make life difficult English has several incomprehensible dialects.  Glaswegian can be difficult as is the patois of the immigrant London community even to native-born British born English speakers.  Just two of dozens of similar dialects I can think could give the Americans problems.  French has the same spread with its local variants, as anyone who has  been to Marseilles could confirm.  To show you what I mean play the clip below.

The Youtube piece is part of a series of Professor Stanley Baxter’s language classes on Glaswegian which may or may not be understandable.  Give it a couple of minutes to get going as its a bit dated in style but worth your patience.  And you think the vengeful librarians would have a clue what is going on here?

But it gets better. And, if possible much, much sillier.

So, if you have a Masters in Librarianship, and speak a foreign language as a native this could be for you.  They were a bit coy as to how many people they employ. “Many hundreds” they said.  Let’s just – as a little example – unpick this.  Let’s put the numbers at the top end oh say 1000.  Three shifts a day, seven days a week, brings the effective number of vengeful librarians at the VDU, after you abstract those on holiday; flexi; TOIL leave; maternity; sickness; meetings and training down to say a couple of hundred ploughing through the printed detritus of the one hundred and fifty odd countries of the world.  It’s just not credible.

They read Facebook and Twitter too- so it is alleged!  Five million tweets a day apparently are “sifted by the team”.  (Hotmail and phone tapping is dealt with by NSA) Is that fact given to scare us into thinking that Uncle Sam reads your daily musings on the lateness of the 7:35 from Stoke Poges, or your fury at the planned development of the last patch of greenery in your suburb?  Goodness I doubt most of us can keep up with the postings of our friends to actually want to troll round the web for a living!

No of course not.  They will use algorithms those little bits of software to dig out “key” words from this tsunami of inconsequence.  Thus if the tweet, blog or Facebook has words like “Obama”, “Kill” “POTUS” dates and times, and calls to the Gods of sand and sun, it may be pulled for the ninjas to read in person.  In reality it has no value in forecasting but can be useful backtracking after the event.

It’s a wonderful piece of propaganda by the US Government to make out that a few people tucked away in a shed in Virginia could possibly monitor, in any meaningful way, the overt open output of a globe.

And the media swallowed it whole.

Furthermore ……oh hang on there’s someone banging at the door…

Copyright David Macadam 2011