Twenty years ago, when still a young college student reconsidering early plans to become a research biologist (a C- in organic chemistry helped that decision along considerably), I interned at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. In an age before Google and when Internet resources were few and far between, one of my jobs was to go to the University of Pennsylvania’s library and read through the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) and the Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS).
For five decades beginning in 1946, FBIS would translate important newspaper articles and television and radio broadcasts from around the globe. Its corollary, JPRS, would translate journal and magazine articles. The U.S. government would recoup some of the cost of the operation by selling subscriptions to think tanks and universities. On an almost daily basis, FBIS and JPRS would mail out booklets sorted by region. The subscriptions were priceless for anyone who for research purposes wanted to read what the Soviet, Chinese, North Korean, Pakistani, or Cuban media was saying.
The Clinton administration witnessed the rise of the lawyers at all levels of the U.S. government. Through his two terms and onward to the present, lawyers became the kings of policy, inserting themselves into almost every policy decision, no matter how mundane. Certainly, working within the law can be valuable, but often lawyers’ efforts to expand their domains would lead bureaucracies to lose focus on the metaphorical forest, and instead obsess about the trees.
Knowing one’s enemies is important. Whether in government or beyond, analysts and academics should study what enemies do, say, and try to understand how they think. Government lawyers, however, questioned whether FBIS and JPRS were violating the intellectual property of enemy regimes and their broadcasters by translating and disseminating reports.
FBIS and JPRS ended their run, but the CIA’s Open Source Center moved to fill the gap. While academics and government employees can access Open Source, the government is stingy with outside subscription and, regardless, the service is a shadow of its former self. Its idea of presenting articles is, too often, reprinting articles published in English and available on the Internet. While the Open Source Center publishes useful summaries, it translates very few articles in their entirety.
The situation is getting worse. Within the U.S. military, for example, certain outlets publish excerpts and analysis of important foreign news with the aim of educating officers and enlisted both regarding the nuances of foreign affairs and insight into crises which may not be covered on a day-to-day basis in The New York Times, Washington Post, Stars & Stripes, or The Early Bird. Foul cried the lawyers: Translating articles or even excerpting too much about what Koreans, Russians, Iranians, or Chinese say could violate their copyright laws. Never mind that no one had ever complained. Nor will playing nice stop Pyongyang from counterfeiting $100 bills, or stop Tehran bazaaris from knocking off American DVDs.
Within government, there are two types of lawyers: Those who see their jobs to obstruct policy and those who take the goals of policymakers and find ways to make them legal. Unfortunately, the U.S. government is increasingly saddled with the former, taking an already slow and inefficient process and making it slower and even more inefficient.
A strong defense budget is essential. It should go to state-of-the-art weapons programs, equipment for our troops, salaries for those who put themselves in harm’s way, and services for veterans who have sacrificed their health and well-being. Never was the U.S. military meant to be a jobs program for lawyers. The more Pentagon lawyers sit around worrying about North Korean intellectual property rights and the evils of translating Syrian newspapers, the more Leon Panetta should conclude that the military’s lawyers should be at the front of the line when the budget axe falls.