Traditionally, intelligence agencies have relied on top-secret information to track changes in other countries. But wiretaps and secret intercepts didn't help U.S. officials predict the Arab Spring that has brought revolution across the Middle East and North Africa.
In hindsight, officials say there could have found some clues about what was about to happen if they had read open sources more closely. Now they are searching for systematic ways to do that.
Lt. Col. Reid Sawyer, a career intelligence officer, runs the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. This week, at a New York Fire Department training center, Sawyer stood before a classroom of 40 fire marshals, chiefs and firefighters who are taking an 11-week course in terrorism. The evening's topic: the evolution of al-Qaida.
"So, the question is when you are sitting in the firehouses how do you make sense of the threat that is before you?" Sawyer asked the class. "How do you understand when you are reading the newspapers what it means?"
The released WikiLeaks diplomatic documents include behind-the-scenes details about a failed weapons deal between Russia and Iran. Iran had planned to buy a Russian missile that would have been a powerful defense against a military strike on its nuclear facilities. But Russia abruptly halted the deal in September.