A consortium of major universities, with US Homeland Security Department funds, is developing software that would let the government monitor negative opinions of the US or its leaders in newspapers and other publications overseas.
The "sentiment analysis" is intended to identify potential threats to the nation, security officials said.
Researchers at institutions including Cornell, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Utah intend to test the system on hundreds of articles published in 2001 and 2002 on topics like President George. W. Bush's use of the term "axis of evil," the handling of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, the debate over global warming and the coup attempt against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
A US$2.4 million grant will finance the research over three years.
US officials have long relied on newspapers and other news sources to track events and opinions here and abroad, a goal that has included the routine translation of articles from many foreign publications and news services.
The new software would allow much more rapid and comprehensive monitoring of the global news media, as the Homeland Security Department and, perhaps, intelligence agencies look "to identify common patterns from numerous sources of information which might be indicative of potential threats to the nation," a statement by the department said.
It could take several years for such a monitoring system to be in place, said Joe Kielman, coordinator of the research effort. The monitoring would not extend to US news, Kielman said.
"We want to understand the rhetoric that is being published and how intense it is, such as the difference between dislike and excoriate," he said.
Even the basic research has raised concern among journalism advocates and privacy groups, as well as representatives of the foreign news media.
"It is just creepy and Orwellian," said Lucy Dalglish, a lawyer and former editor who is executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Andrei Sitov, Washington bureau chief of the Itar-Tass news agency of Russia, said he hoped that the objective did not go beyond simply identifying threats, to efforts to stifle criticism about a US president or administration.
"This is what makes your country great, the open society where people can criticize their own government," Sitov said.
The researchers, using an grant provided by a research group once affiliated with the CIA, have complied a database of hundreds of articles that it is being used to train a computer to recognize, rank and interpret statements.
The software would need to be able to distinguish between statements like, "This spaghetti is good," and "This spaghetti is not very good -- it's excellent," said Claire Cardie, a professor of computer science at Cornell.
Cardie ranked the second statement as a more intense positive opinion than the first.
The articles in the database include work from many US newspapers and news wire services, including the Miami Herald and the New York Times, as well as foreign sources like Agence France-Presse and the Dawn, a newspaper in Pakistan.
One article discusses how a rabid fox bit a grazing cow in Romania, hardly a threat to the US. Another item, an editorial in response to Bush's use in 2002 of "axis of evil" to describe Iraq, Iran and North Korea, said: "The US is the first nation to have developed nuclear weapons. Moreover, the US is the first and only nation ever to deploy such weapons."