Semi-Secret: How U.S Intelligence Agencies Share Information

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The New York Times Magazine has an article called “Open Source Spying” that is worth a read. In short, the intelligence community has started to use blogs and wikis to enhance their work. The article sums up, “The premise of spy-blogging is that a million connected amateurs will always be smarter than a few experts collected in an elite star chamber.” One person involved with the project noted something that has drawn my interest of late: the nature of secret information may have changed. He observes that previously the intelligence game revolved around high cost acquisition of information and retaining it in secret on the premise that the more secret and secure it was, the more future valuable information one would acquire “But that’s now appropriate for a small and shrinking percentage of information.” Enter blogs and wikis and what might be called the world of semi-secrets.

The article details the way in which some members of the intelligence community used public blogs to get the fastest information on the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine as an example of the power of the Internet as an information tool. But that point is probably not so surprising. The most interesting part of the article details the way in which the intelligence community apparently uses private wikis and blogs to cure information gaps. The previous system that kept walls between agencies and that was blamed for a lack of understanding regarding the 9/11 attacks was only part of the problem. Even within an agency, reports or ideas could die on a desk because of hierarchy. To address these problems the intelligence world is using some link methodology a la Google and launching Intellipedia, “a wiki that any intelligence employee with classified clearance could read and contribute to,” and given birth to what I am calling the world of semi-secrets. In other words even in a partially closed system, the advantages of open information flow are being embraced such that what might have been a closely held secret is more valuable as a shared or semi-secret. Here’s one compelling tidbit on how the intelligence community has seen success with a more open approach to information:

Intellipedia proved itself just a couple of months ago, when a small two-seater plane crashed into a Manhattan building. An analyst created a page within 20 minutes, and over the next two hours it was edited 80 times by employees of nine different spy agencies, as news trickled out. Together, they rapidly concluded the crash was not a terrorist act. “In the intelligence community, there are so many ‘Stay off the grass’ signs,” Rasmussen [a knowledge engineer at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency who contributes to the project daily] said. “But here, you’re free to do what you want, and it works.”

The article notes that wikis are prone to error but this one does not allow anonymous posting so credibility is on the line as a potential control. But wait. Don’t order yet. A blog is running as well.

Again the amount of information the writer saw was limited. But the example of scientists quickly sharing information about avian flu and its threats suggests that, as its creators intend, the blog will allow better and more varied exchanges of information. Nonetheless the article notes that truly sensitive information such as where an enemy’s bomb facility is located will not be on the system and indeed often never was put on databases regardless of whether they were connected to other agencies.

Nonetheless, if there ever was a compelling quote about the value of open systems and the importance of paying attention to the facts and information around us this may be it:

Today’s spies exist in an age of constant information exchange, in which everyday citizens swap news, dial up satellite pictures of their houses and collaborate on distant Web sites with strangers. As John Arquilla told me, if the spies do not join the rest of the world, they risk growing to resemble the rigid, unchanging bureaucracy that they once confronted during the cold war. “Fifteen years ago we were fighting the Soviet Union,” he said. “Who knew it would be replicated today in the intelligence community?”

Indeed, we might say as much about our government in general and perhaps about why should constantly challenge ourselves by engaging in the free exchange of ideas.

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