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Dank an Falk Lueke für den Hinweis.


December 3, 2006

Open-Source Spying


When Matthew Burton arrived at the Defense Intelligence Agency
in January 2003, he was excited about getting to his computer. Burton,
who was then 22, had long been interested in international relations: he
had studied Russian politics and interned at the U.S. consulate in
Ukraine, helping to speed refugee applications of politically persecuted
Ukrainians. But he was also a big high-tech geek fluent in Web-page
engineering, and he spent hours every day chatting online with friends
and updating his own blog. When he was hired by the D.I.A., he told me
recently, his mind boggled at the futuristic, secret spy technology he
would get to play with: search engines that can read minds, he figured.
Desktop video conferencing with colleagues around the world. If the
everyday Internet was so awesome, just imagine how much better the spy
tools would be.

But when he got to his cubicle, his high-tech dreams collapsed. “The
reality,” he later wrote ruefully, “was a colossal letdown.”

The spy agencies were saddled with technology that might have seemed
cutting edge in 1995. When he went onto Intelink — the spy agencies’
secure internal computer network — the search engines were a pale shadow
of Google, flooding him with thousands of useless results. If Burton
wanted to find an expert to answer a question, the personnel directories
were of no help. Worse, instant messaging with colleagues, his favorite
way to hack out a problem, was impossible: every three-letter agency —
from the Central Intelligence Agency
to the National Security Agency
to army commands — used different discussion groups and chat
applications that couldn’t connect to one another. In a community of
secret agents supposedly devoted to quickly amassing information, nobody
had even a simple blog — that ubiquitous tool for broadly distributing
your thoughts.

Something had gone horribly awry, Burton realized. Theoretically, the
intelligence world ought to revolve around information sharing. If
agents discover that Al Qaeda
fund-raising is going on in Brooklyn, C.I.A. agents in Europe ought to
be able to know that instantly. The Internet flourished under the credo
that information wants to be free; the agencies, however, had created
their online networks specifically to keep secrets safe, locked away so
only a few could see them. This control over the flow of information, as
the 9/11 Commission noted in its final report, was a crucial reason
American intelligence agencies failed to prevent those attacks. All the
clues were there — Al Qaeda associates studying aviation in Arizona, the
flight student Zacarias Moussaoui
arrested in Minnesota, surveillance of a Qaeda plotting session in
Malaysia — but none of the agents knew about the existence of the other
evidence. The report concluded that the agencies failed to “connect the

By way of contrast, every night when Burton went home, he was reminded
of how good the everyday Internet had become at connecting dots. “Web
2.0” technologies that encourage people to share information — blogs,
photo-posting sites like Flickr or the reader-generated encyclopedia
Wikipedia — often made it easier to collaborate with others. When the
Orange Revolution erupted in Ukraine in late 2004, Burton went to
Technorati, a search engine that scours the “blogosphere,” to find the
most authoritative blog postings on the subject. Within minutes, he had
found sites with insightful commentary from American expatriates who
were talking to locals in Kiev and on-the-fly debates among political
analysts over what it meant. Because he and his fellow spies were stuck
with outdated technology, they had no comparable way to cooperate — to
find colleagues with common interests and brainstorm online.

Burton, who has since left the D.I.A., is not alone in his concern.
Indeed, throughout the intelligence community, spies are beginning to
wonder why their technology has fallen so far behind — and talk among
themselves about how to catch up. Some of the country’s most senior
intelligence thinkers have joined the discussion, and surprisingly, many
of them believe the answer may lie in the interactive tools the world’s
teenagers are using to pass around YouTube videos and bicker online
about their favorite bands. Billions of dollars’ worth of ultrasecret
data networks couldn’t help spies piece together the clues to the worst
terrorist plot ever. So perhaps, they argue, it’ s time to try something
radically different. Could blogs and wikis prevent the next 9/11?

The job of an analyst used to be much more stable — even sedate. In the
’70s and ’80s, during the cold war, an intelligence analyst would show
up for work at the C.I.A.’s headquarters in Langley, Va., or at the
National Security Agency compound in Fort Meade, Md., and face a mess of
paper. All day long, tips, memos and reports from field agents would
arrive: cables from a covert-ops spy in Moscow describing a secret
Soviet meeting, or perhaps fresh pictures of a missile silo. An
analyst’s job was to take these raw pieces of intelligence and find
patterns in the noise. In a crisis, his superiors might need a quick
explanation of current events to pass on to their agency heads or to
Congress. But mostly he was expected to perform long-term “strategic
analysis” — to detect entirely new threats that were still forming.

And during the cold war, threats formed slowly. The Soviet Union was a
ponderous bureaucracy that moved at the glacial speed of the five-year
plan. Analysts studied the emergence of new tanks and missiles, pieces
of hardware that took years to develop. One year, an analyst might
report that the keel for a Soviet nuclear submarine had been laid; a few
years later, a follow-up report would describe the submarine’s
completion; even more years later, a final report would detail the sea
trials. Writing reports was thus a leisurely affair, taking weeks or
months; thousands of copies were printed up and distributed via
interoffice mail. If an analyst’s report impressed his superiors, they’d
pass it on to their superiors, and they to theirs — until, if the
analyst was very lucky, it landed eventually in the president’s inner
circle. But this sort of career achievement was rare. Of the thousands
of analyst reports produced each year, the majority sat quietly
gathering dust on agency shelves, unread by anyone.

Analysts also did not worry about anything other than their corners of
the world. Russia experts focused on Russia, Nicaragua ones on
Nicaragua. Even after the cold war ended, the major spy agencies divided
up the world: the F.B.I. analyzed domestic crime, the C.I.A. collected
intelligence internationally and military spy agencies, like the
National Security Agency and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency,
evaluated threats to the national defense. If an analyst requested
information from another agency, that request traveled through elaborate
formal channels. The walls between the agencies were partly a matter of
law. The charters of the C.I.A. and the defense intelligence agencies
prohibited them from spying on American citizens, under the logic that
the intrusive tactics needed to investigate foreign threats would
violate constitutional rights if applied at home. The F.B.I. even had an
internal separation: agents investigating terrorist activity would not
share information with those investigating crimes, worried that secrets
gleaned from tailing Al Qaeda operatives might wind up publicly exposed
in a criminal trial.

Then on Sept. 12, 2001, analysts showed up at their desks and faced a
radically altered job. Islamist terrorists, as 9/11 proved, behaved
utterly unlike the Soviet Union. They were rapid-moving, transnational
and cellular. A corner-store burglar in L.A. might turn out to be a
Qaeda sympathizer raising money for a plot being organized overseas. An
imam in suburban Detroit could be recruiting local youths to send to the
Sudan for paramilitary training. Al Qaeda operatives organized their
plots in a hivelike fashion, with collaborators from Afghanistan to
London using e-mail, instant messaging and Yahoo groups; rarely did a
single mastermind run the show. To disrupt these new plots, some
intelligence officials concluded, American agents and analysts would
need to cooperate just as fluidly — trading tips quickly among agents
and agencies. Following the usual chain of command could be fatal. “To
fight a network like Al Qaeda, you need to behave like a network,” John
Arquilla, the influential professor of defense at the Naval Postgraduate
School, told me.

It was a fine vision. But analysts were saddled with technology that was
designed in the cold war. They now at least had computers, and
intelligence arrived as electronic messages instead of paper memos. But
their computers still communicated almost exclusively with people inside
their agencies. When the intelligence services were computerized in the
’90s, they had digitally replicated their cold-war divisions — each one
building a multimillion-dollar system that allowed the agency to share
information internally but not readily with anyone outside.

The computer systems were designed to be “air gapped.” The F.B.I.
terminals were connected to one another — but not to the computers at
any other agency, and vice versa. Messages written on the C.I.A.’s
network (which they still quaintly called “cables”) were purely
internal. To get a message to the F.B.I. required a special
communication called a “telegraphic dissemination.” Each agency had
databases to amass intelligence, but because of the air gap, other
agencies could not easily search them. The divisions were partly because
of turf battles and partly because of legal restrictions — but they were
also technological. Mike Scheuer, an adviser to the C.I.A.’s bin Laden
unit until 2004, told me he had been frustrated by the inability of the
systems to interpenetrate. “About 80 percent of C.I.A.-F.B.I.
difficulties came from the fact that we couldn’t communicate with one
another,” he said. Scheuer told me he would often send a document
electronically to the F.B.I., then call to make sure the agents got it.
“And they’d say, ‘We can’t find it, can you fax it?’ And then we’d call,
and they’d say, ‘Well, the system said it came in, but we still can’t
find it — so could you courier it over?’ ” “

These systems have served us very well for five decades,” Dale Meyerrose
told me when I spoke with him recently. But now, he said, they’re
getting in the way. “The 16 intelligence organizations of the U.S. are
without peer. They are the best in the world. The trick is, are they
collectively the best?”

Last year, Meyerrose, a retired Air Force major general, was named the
chief information officer — the head computer guy, as it were — for the
office of the director of national intelligence. Established by Congress
in 2004, the D.N.I.’s office has a controversial mandate: it is supposed
to report threats to the president and persuade the intelligence
agencies to cooperate more closely. Both tasks were formerly the role of
the C.I.A. director, but since the C.I.A. director had no budgetary
power over the other agencies, they rarely heeded his calls to pass
along their secrets. So the new elevated position of
national-intelligence director was created; ever since, it has been
filled by John Negroponte
Last December, Negroponte hired Meyerrose and gave him the daunting task
of developing mechanisms to allow the various agencies’ aging and
incompatible systems to swap data. Right away, Meyerrose ordered some
sweeping changes. In the past, each agency chose its own outside
contractor to build customized software — creating proprietary systems,
each of which stored data in totally different file formats. From now
on, Meyerrose said, each agency would have to build new systems using
cheaper, off-the-shelf software so they all would be compatible. But
bureaucratic obstacles were just a part of the problem Meyerrose faced.
He was also up against something deeper in the DNA of the intelligence
services. “We’ve had this ‘need to know’ culture for years,” Meyerrose
said. “Well, we need to move to a ‘need to share’ philosophy.”

There was already one digital pipeline that joined the agencies (though
it had its own limitations): Intelink, which connects most offices in
each intelligence agency. It was created in 1994 after C.I.A. officials
saw how the Web was rapidly transforming the way private-sector
companies shared information. Intelink allows any agency to publish a
Web page, or put a document or a database online, secure in the
knowledge that while other agents and analysts can access it, the
outside world cannot.

So why hasn’t Intelink given young analysts instant access to all
secrets from every agency? Because each agency’s databases, and the
messages flowing through their internal pipelines, are not automatically
put onto Intelink. Agency supervisors must actively decide what data
they will publish on the network — and their levels of openness vary.
Some departments have created slick, professional sites packed full of
daily alerts and searchable collections of their reports going back
years. Others have put up little more than a “splash page” announcing
they exist. Operational information — like details of a current covert
action — is rarely posted, usually because supervisors fear that a leak
could jeopardize a delicate mission.

Nonetheless, Intelink has grown to the point that it contains thousands
of agency sites and several hundred databases. Analysts at the various
agencies generate 50,000 official reports a year, many of which are
posted to the network. The volume of material online is such that
analysts now face a new problem: data overload. Even if they suspect
good information might exist on Intelink, it is often impossible to find
it. The system is poorly indexed, and its internal search tools perform
like the pre-Google search engines of the ’90s.“

One of my daily searches is for words like ‘Afghanistan’ or ‘Taliban
” I was told by one young military analyst who specializes in threats
from weapons of mass destruction. (He requested anonymity because he
isn’t authorized to speak to reporters.) “So I’m looking for reports
from field agents saying stuff like, ‘I’m out here, and here’s what I
saw,’ ” he continued. “But I get to my desk and I’ve got, like,
thousands a day — mountains of information, and no way to organize it.”

Adding to the information glut, there’s an increasingly large amount of
data to read outside of Intelink. Intelligence analysts are finding it
more important to keep up with “open source” information — nonclassified
material published in full public view, like newspapers, jihadist blogs
and discussion boards in foreign countries. This adds ever more calories
to the daily info diet. The W.M.D. analyst I spoke to regularly reads
the blog of Juan Cole, a University of Michigan
professor known for omnivorous linking to, and acerbic analysis of, news
from the Middle East. “He’s not someone spies would normally pay
attention to, but now he’s out there — and he’s a subject-matter expert,
right?” the analyst said.

Intelligence hoarding presented one set of problems, but pouring it into
a common ocean, Meyerrose realized soon after moving into his office, is
not the answer either. “Intelligence is about looking for needles in
haystacks, and we can’t just keep putting more hay on the stack,” he
said. What the agencies needed was a way to take the thousands of
disparate, unorganized pieces of intel they generate every day and
somehow divine which are the most important.

Intelligence heads wanted to try to find some new answers to this
problem. So the C.I.A. set up a competition, later taken over by the
D.N.I., called the Galileo Awards: any employee at any intelligence
agency could submit an essay describing a new idea to improve
information sharing, and the best ones would win a prize. The first
essay selected was by Calvin Andrus, chief technology officer of the
Center for Mission Innovation at the C.I.A. In his essay, “The Wiki and
the Blog: Toward a Complex Adaptive Intelligence Community,” Andrus
posed a deceptively simple question: How did the Internet become so
useful in helping people find information?

Andrus argued that the real power of the Internet comes from the boom in
self-publishing: everyday people surging online to impart their thoughts
and views. He was particularly intrigued by Wikipedia, the
“reader-authored” encyclopedia, where anyone can edit an entry or create
a new one without seeking permission from Wikipedia’s owners. This
open-door policy, as Andrus noted, allows Wikipedia to cover new
subjects quickly. The day of the London terrorist bombings, Andrus
visited Wikipedia and noticed that barely minutes after the attacks,
someone had posted a page describing them. Over the next hour, other
contributors — some physically in London, with access to on-the-spot
details — began adding more information and correcting inaccurate news
reports. “You could just sit there and hit refresh, refresh, refresh,
and get a sort of ticker-tape experience,” Andrus told me. What most
impressed Andrus was Wikipedia’s self-governing nature. No central
editor decreed what subjects would be covered. Individuals simply wrote
pages on subjects that interested them — and then like-minded readers
would add new facts or fix errors. Blogs, Andrus noted, had the same
effect: they leveraged the wisdom of the crowd. When a blogger finds an
interesting tidbit of news, he posts a link to it, along with a bit of
commentary. Then other bloggers find that link and, if they agree it’s
an interesting news item, post their own links pointing to it. This
produces a cascade effect. Whatever the first blogger pointed toward can
quickly amass so many links pointing in its direction that it rockets to
worldwide notoriety in a matter of hours.

Spies, Andrus theorized, could take advantage of these rapid,
self-organizing effects. If analysts and agents were encouraged to post
personal blogs and wikis on Intelink — linking to their favorite analyst
reports or the news bulletins they considered important — then mob
intelligence would take over. In the traditional cold-war spy
bureaucracy, an analyst’s report lived or died by the whims of the
hierarchy. If he was in the right place on the totem pole, his report on
Soviet missiles could be pushed up higher; if a supervisor chose to
ignore it, the report essentially vanished. Blogs and wikis, in
contrast, work democratically. Pieces of intel would receive attention
merely because other analysts found them interesting. This grass-roots
process, Andrus argued, suited the modern intelligence challenge of
sifting through thousands of disparate clues: if a fact or observation
struck a chord with enough analysts, it would snowball into popularity,
no matter what their supervisors thought.

A profusion of spy blogs and wikis would have another, perhaps even more
beneficial impact. It would drastically improve the search engines of
Intelink. In a paper that won an honorable mention in the Galileo
Awards, Matthew Burton — the young former D.I.A. analyst — made this
case. He pointed out that the best Internet search engines, including
Google, all use “link analysis” to measure the authority of documents.
When you type the search “Afghanistan” into Google, it finds every page
that includes that word. Then it ranks the pages in part by how many
links point to the page — based on the idea that if many bloggers and
sites have linked to a page, it must be more useful than others. To do
its job well, Google relies on the links that millions of individuals
post online every day.

This, Burton pointed out, is precisely the problem with Intelink. It has
no links, no social information to help sort out which intel is
significant and which isn’t. When an analyst’s report is posted online,
it does not include links to other reports, even ones it cites. There’s
no easy way for agents to link to a report or post a comment about it.
Searching Intelink thus resembles searching the Internet before blogs
and Google came along — a lot of disconnected information, hard to sort
through. If spies were encouraged to blog on Intelink, Burton reasoned,
their profuse linking could mend that situation. “

Imagine having tools that could spot emerging patterns for you and guide
you to documents that might be the missing pieces of evidence you’re
looking for,” Burton wrote in his Galileo paper. “Analytical puzzles,
like terror plots, are often too piecemeal for individual brains to put
together. Having our documents aware of each other would be like hooking
several brains up in a line, so that each one knows what the others
know, making the puzzle much easier to solve.”

With Andrus and Burton’s vision in mind, you can almost imagine how 9/11
might have played out differently. In Phoenix, the F.B.I. agent Kenneth
Williams might have blogged his memo noting that Al Qaeda members were
engaging in flight-training activity. The agents observing a Qaeda
planning conference in Malaysia could have mentioned the attendance of a
Saudi named Khalid al-Midhar; another agent might have added that he
held a multi-entry American visa. The F.B.I. agents who snared Zacarias
Moussaoui in Minnesota might have written about their arrest of a flight
student with violent tendencies. Other agents and analysts who were
regular readers of these blogs would have found the material
interesting, linked to it, pointed out connections or perhaps entered
snippets of it into a wiki page discussing this new trend of young men
from the Middle East enrolling in pilot training.

As those four original clues collected more links pointing toward them,
they would have amassed more and more authority in the Intelink search
engine. Any analysts doing searches for “Moussaoui” or “Al Qaeda” or
even “flight training” would have found them. Indeed, the original
agents would have been considerably more likely to learn of one
another’s existence and perhaps to piece together the topography of the
9/11 plot. No one was able to prevent 9/11 because nobody connected the
dots. But in a system like this, as Andrus’s theory goes, the dots are
inexorably drawn together. “Once the intelligence community has a robust
and mature wiki and blog knowledge-sharing Web space,” Andrus concluded
in his essay, “the nature of intelligence will change forever.”

At first glance, the idea might seem slightly crazy. Outfit the C.I.A.
and the F.B.I. with blogs and wikis? In the civilian world, after all,
these online tools have not always amassed the most stellar reputations.
There are many valuable blogs and wikis, of course, but they are vastly
outnumbered by ones that exist to compile useless ephemera, celebrity
gossip and flatly unverifiable assertions. Nonetheless, Andrus’s ideas
struck a chord with many very senior members of the office of the
director of national intelligence. This fall, I met with two of them:
Thomas Fingar, the patrician head of analysis for the D.N.I., and Mike
Wertheimer, his chief technology officer, whose badge clip sports a
button that reads “geek.” If it is Meyerrose’s job to coax spy hardware
to cooperate, it is Fingar’s job to do the same for analysts.

Fingar and Wertheimer are now testing whether a wiki could indeed help
analysts do their job. In the fall of 2005, they joined forces with
C.I.A. wiki experts to build a prototype of something called
Intellipedia, a wiki that any intelligence employee with classified
clearance could read and contribute to. To kick-start the content,
C.I.A. analysts seeded it with hundreds of articles from nonclassified
documents like the C.I.A. World Fact Book. In April, they sent out
e-mail to other analysts inviting them to contribute, and sat back to
see what happened.

By this fall, more than 3,600 members of the intelligence services had
contributed a total of 28,000 pages. Chris Rasmussen, a 31-year-old
“knowledge management” engineer at the National Geospatial-Intelligence
Agency, spends part of every day writing or editing pages. Rasmussen is
part of the younger generation in the intelligence establishment that is
completely comfortable online; he regularly logs into a sprawling,
50-person chat room with other Intellipedians, and he also blogs about
his daily work for all other spies to read. He told me the usefulness of
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 said. “But here, you’re free to do what you want, and
it works.”

By the late summer, Fingar decided the Intellipedia experiment was
sufficiently successful that he would embark on an even more
high-profile project: using Intellipedia to produce a “national
intelligence estimate” for Nigeria. An N.I.E. is an authoritative
snapshot of what the intelligence community thinks about a particular
state — and a guide for foreign and military policy. Nigeria, Fingar
said, is a complex country, with issues ranging from energy to Islamic
radicalism to polio outbreaks to a coming election. Intellipedia’s
Nigeria page will harness the smarts of the dozen or so analysts who
specialize in the country. But it will also, Fingar hopes, attract
contributions from other intelligence employees who have expertise
Fingar isn’t yet aware of — an analyst who served in the Peace Corps
in Nigeria, or a staff member who has recently traveled there. In the
traditional method of producing an intelligence estimate, Fingar said,
he would call every agency and ask to borrow their Africa expert for a
week or two of meetings. “And they’d say: ‘Well, I only got one guy who
can spell Nigeria, and he’s traveling. So you lose.’ ” In contrast, a
wiki will “change the rules of who can play,” Fingar said, since
far-flung analysts and agents around the world could contribute, day or

Yet Intellipedia also courts the many dangers of wikis — including the
possibility of error. What’s to stop analysts from posting assertions
that turn out to be false? Fingar admits this will undoubtedly happen.
But if there are enough people looking at an entry, he says, there will
always be someone to catch any grave mistakes. Rasmussen notes that
though there is often strong disagreement and debate on Intellipedia, it
has not yet succumbed to the sort of vandalism that often plagues
Wikipedia pages, including the posting of outright lies. This is partly
because, unlike with Wikipedia, Intellipedia contributors are not
anonymous. Whatever an analyst writes on Intellipedia can be traced to
him. “If you demonstrate you’ve got something to contribute, hey, the
expectation is you’re a valued member,” Fingar said. “You demonstrate
you’re an idiot, that becomes known, too.”

While the C.I.A. and Fingar’s office set up their wiki, Meyerrose’s
office was dabbling in the other half of Andrus’s equation. In July, his
staff decided to create a test blog to collect intelligence. It would
focus on spotting and predicting possible avian-flu outbreaks and
function as part of a larger portal on the subject to collect
information from hundreds of sources around the world, inside and
outside of the intelligence agencies. Avian flu, Meyerrose reasoned, is
a national-security problem uniquely suited to an online-community
effort, because information about the danger is found all over the
world. An agent in Southeast Asia might be the first to hear news of
dangerous farming practices; a medical expert in Chicago could write a
crucial paper on transmission that was never noticed by analysts.

In August, one of Meyerrose’s assistants sat me down to show me a very
brief glimpse of the results. In the months that it has been
operational, the portal has amassed 38,000 “active” participants, though
not everyone posts information. In one corner was the active-discussion
area — the group blog where the participants could post their latest
thoughts about avian flu and others could reply and debate. I noticed a
posting, written by a university academic, on whether the H5N1 virus
could actually be transmitted to humans, which had provoked a dozen
comments. “See, these people would never have been talking before, and
we certainly wouldn’t have heard about it if they did,” the assistant
said. By September, the site had become so loaded with information and
discussion that Rear Adm. Arthur Lawrence, a top official in the health
department, told Meyerrose it had become the government’s most crucial
resource on avian flu.

The blog seemed like an awfully modest thing to me. But Meyerrose
insists that the future of spying will be revolutionized as much by
these small-bore projects as by billion-dollar high-tech systems.
Indeed, he says that overly ambitious projects often result in expensive
disasters, the way the F.B.I.’s $170 million attempt to overhaul its
case-handling software died in 2005 after the software became so complex
that the F.B.I. despaired of ever fixing the bugs and shelved it. In
contrast, the blog software took only a day or two to get running. “We
need to think big, start small and scale fast,” Meyerrose said.

Moving quickly, in fact, is crucial to building up the sort of critical
mass necessary to make blogs and wikis succeed. Back in 2003, a
Department of Defense agency decided to train its analysts in the use of
blog software, in hopes that they would begin posting about their work,
read one another’s blogs and engage in productive conversations. But the
agency’s officials trained only small groups of perhaps five analysts a
month. After they finished their training, those analysts would go
online, excited, and start their blogs. But they’d quickly realize no
one else was reading their posts aside from the four other people they’d
gone through the training with. They’d get bored and quit blogging, just
as the next trainees came online.

There was never a tipping point — “never a moment when two people who
never knew each other could begin discussing something,” as Clay Shirky,
a professor at New York University
who was hired to consult on the project, explained to me. For the
intelligence agencies to benefit from “social software,” he said, they
need to persuade thousands of employees to begin blogging and creating
wikis all at once. And that requires a cultural sea change: persuading
analysts, who for years have survived by holding their cards tightly to
their chests, to begin openly showing their hands online.

Is it possible to reconcile the needs of secrecy with such a radically
open model for sharing? Certainly, there would be merit in a system that
lets analysts quickly locate like-minded colleagues around the world to
brainstorm new ideas about how the Iraqi insurgency will evolve. But the
intelligence agencies also engage in covert operations that ferret out
truly incendiary secrets: the locations of Iranian nuclear facilities,
say, or the name of a Qaeda leader in Pakistan. Is this the sort of
information that is safe to share widely in an online network?

Many in the intelligence agencies suspect not. Indeed, they often refuse
to input sensitive intel into their own private, secure databases; they
do not trust even their own colleagues, inside their own agencies, to
keep their secrets safe. When the F.B.I. unveiled an automated
case-support system in 1995, agents were supposed to begin entering all
information from their continuing cases into it, so that other F.B.I.
agents could benefit from the collected pool of tips. But many agents
didn’t. They worried that a hard-won source might be accidentally
exposed by an F.B.I. agent halfway across the country. Worse, what would
happen if a hacker or criminal found access to the system?

These are legitimate concerns. After the F.B.I. agent Robert Hanssen
was arrested for selling the identities of undercover agents to Russia,
it turned out he had found their names by trawling through records on
the case-support system. As a result, many F.B.I. agents opted to keep
their records on paper instead of trusting the database — even,
occasionally, storing files in shoeboxes shoved under their desks. “When
you have a source, you go to extraordinary lengths to protect their
identities,” I. C. Smith, a 25-year veteran of the bureau, told me. “So
agents never trusted the system, and rightly so.”

Worse, data errors that allow information to leak can often go
undetected. Five years ago, Zalmai Azmi — currently the chief
information officer of the F.B.I. — was working at the Department of
Justice on a data-sharing project with an intelligence agency. He
requested data that the agency was supposed to have scrubbed clean of
all classified info. Yet when it arrived, it contained secret
information. What had gone wrong? The agency had passed it through
filters that removed any document marked “secret” — but many documents
were stamped “SECRET,” in uppercase, and the filter didn’t catch the
difference. The next time Azmi requested documents, he found yet more
secret documents inadvertently leaked. This time it was because the
documents had “S E C R E T” typed with a space between each letter, and
the filter wasn’t programmed to catch that either.

A spy blogosphere, even carefully secured against intruders, might be
fundamentally incompatible with the goal of keeping secrets. And the
converse is also true: blogs and wikis are unlikely to thrive in an
environment where people are guarded about sharing information. Social
software doesn’t work if people aren’t social.

Virtually all proponents of improved spy sharing are aware of this
friction, and they have few answers. Meyerrose has already strained at
boundaries that make other spies deeply uneasy. During the summer, he
set up a completely open chat board on the Internet and invited anyone
interested to participate in a two-week-long discussion of how to
improve the spy agencies’ policies for acquiring new technology.

The chat room was unencrypted and unsecured, so anyone could drop in and
read the postings or mouth off. That way, Meyerrose figured, he’d be
more likely to get drop-ins by engineers from small, scrappy start-up
software firms who might have brilliant ideas but no other way to get an
audience with intelligence chiefs. The chat room provoked howls of
outrage. “People were like, ‘Hold it, can’t the Chinese and North
Koreans listen in?’ ” Meyerrose told me. “And, sure, they could. But we
weren’t going to be discussing state secrets. And the benefits of
openness outweigh the risks.”

For something like Intellipedia, though, which trafficks in genuinely
serious intelligence, hard decisions had to be made about what risks
were acceptable. Fingar says that deeply sensitive intel would never be
allowed onto Intellipedia — particularly if it was operational
information about a mission, like a planned raid on a terrorist
compound. Indeed, Meyerrose’s office is building three completely
separate versions of Intellipedia for each of the three levels of
secrecy: Top Secret, Secret and Unclassified. Each will be placed on a
data network configured so that only people with the correct level of
clearance can see them — and these networks are tightly controlled, so
sensitive information typed into the Top Secret Intellipedia cannot
accidentally leak into the Unclassified one.

But will this make the Intellipedia less useful? There are a few million
government employees who could look at the relatively unsecret
Intellipedia. In contrast, only a few thousand intelligence officials
qualify for a Top Secret clearance, and thus will be allowed into the
elite version. This presents a secrecy paradox. The Unclassified
Intellipedia will have the biggest readership and thus will grow the
most rapidly; but if it’s devoid of truly sensitive secrets, will it be
of any use?

Fingar says yes, for an interesting reason: top-secret information is
becoming less useful than it used to be. “The intelligence business was
initially, if not inherently, about secrets — running risks and
expending a lot of money to acquire secrets,” he said, with the idea
that “if you limit how many people see it, it will be more secure, and
you will be able to get more of it. But that’s now appropriate for a
small and shrinking percentage of information.” The time is past for
analysts to act like “monastic scholars in a cave someplace,” he added,
laboring for weeks or months in isolation to produce a report.

Fingar says that more value can be generated by analysts sharing bits of
“open source” information — the nonclassified material in the broad
world, like foreign newspapers, newsletters and blogs. It used to be
that on-the-ground spies were the only ones who knew what was going on
in a foreign country. But now the average citizen sitting in her living
room can peer into the debates, news and lives of people in Iran. “If
you want to know what the terrorists’ long-term plans are, the best
thing is to read their propaganda — the stuff out there on the
Internet,” the W.M.D. analyst told me. “I mean, it’s not secret. They’re
telling us.”

Fingar and Andrus and other intelligence thinkers do not play down the
importance of covert ops or high-tech satellite surveillance in
intercepting specific jihadist plots. But in a world that is awash in
information, it is possible, they say, that the meaning of intelligence
is shifting. Beat cops in Indiana might be as likely to uncover evidence
of a terror plot as undercover C.I.A. agents in Pakistan. Fiery sermons
printed on pamphlets in the U.K. might be the most valuable tool in
figuring out who’s raising money for a possible future London bombing.
The most valuable spy system is one that can quickly assemble disparate
pieces that are already lying around — information gathered by doctors,
aid workers, police officers or security guards at corporations.

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;
that Wikipedia will always move more quickly than the Encyclopaedia
Britannica; that the country’s thousand-odd political bloggers will
always spot news trends more quickly than slow-moving journalists in the
mainstream media. Yet one of the most successful new terrorism-busting
spy organizations since 9/11 does in fact function like a star chamber.
The National Counterterrorism Center was established by Congress in 2004
and charged with spotting the most important terrorism threats as they
emerge. The counterterrorism center is made up of representatives from
every intelligence agency — C.I.A., F.B.I., N.S.A. and others — who work
together under one roof. Each analyst has access to details particular
to his or her agency, and they simply share information face to face.
The analysts check their personal networks for the most dire daily
threats and bring them to the group. In three meetings a day, the
officials assess all the intel that has risen to their attention — and
they jointly decide what the nation’s most serious threats are. “We call
it carbon-based integration,” said William Spalding, the center’s chief
information officer.

When I raised the idea of collaborative tools like blogs and wikis,
Spalding and Russ Travers, one of the center’s deputy directors, were
skeptical. The whole reason the center works, they said, is that experts
have a top-down view that is essential to picking the important
information out of the surrounding chatter. The grass roots, they’ve
found, are good at collecting threats but not necessarily at analyzing
them. If a lot of low-level analysts are pointing to the same inaccurate
posting, that doesn’t make it any less wrong.“

The key is to have very smart people culling” the daily tips, Travers
told me. In October, for example, nervous rumors that a football stadium
in the United States would be subject to a nuclear attack flooded the
National Counterterrorism Center; analysts there immediately suspected
it was spurious. “The terrorist problem has the worst signal-to-noise
ratio,” Travers said. Without the knowledge that comes from long
experience, he added, a fledgling analyst or spy cannot know what is
important or not. The counterterrorism center, he said, should decide
which threats warrant attention. “That’s our job,” he said.

The Spying 2.0 vision has thus created a curious culture battle in
intelligence circles. Many of the officials at the very top, like
Fingar, Meyerrose and their colleagues at the office of the director of
national intelligence, are intrigued by the potential of a freewheeling,
smart-mobbing intelligence community. The newest, youngest analysts are
in favor of it, too. The resistance comes from the “iron majors” —
career officers who occupy the enormous middle bureaucracy of the spy
agencies. They might find the idea of an empowered grass roots to be
foolhardy; they might also worry that it threatens their turf.

And the critics might turn out to be right. As Clay Shirky of N.Y.U.
points out, most wikis and blogs flop. A wiki might never reach a
critical mass of contributors and remain anemic until eventually
everyone drifts away; many bloggers never attract any attention and,
discouraged, eventually stop posting. Wikipedia passed the critical-mass
plateau a year ago, but it is a rarity. “The normal case for social
software is failure,” Shirky said. And because Intellipedia is now a
high-profile experiment with many skeptics, its failure could
permanently doom these sorts of collaborative spy endeavors.

There is also the practical question of running a huge civil-service
agency where you have to assess the performance of your staff. It might
be difficult to measure contributions to a wiki; if a brilliant piece of
analysis emerges from the mob, who gets credit for it? “A C.I.A.
officer’s career is advanced by producing reports,” notes David
Weinberger, a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for the Internet and
Society, who consulted briefly with the C.I.A. on its social software.
“His ability is judged by those reports. And that gets in the way of
developing knowledge socially, where it becomes very difficult to know
who added or revised what.”

In addition, civil libertarians are alarmed by the idea of spies
casually passing sensitive information around from one agency to
another. “I don’t want the N.S.A. passing on information about innocent
Americans to local cops in San Diego,” Weinberger said. “Those laws
exist for good reasons.”

In many ways, the new generation of Web-savvy spies frames the same
troubling questions as the Patriot Act, which sought to break down the
barriers preventing military spy agencies from conducting operations
inside the United States, on American citizens, and then sharing that
information with domestic groups. On a sheerly practical level, it makes
sense to get rid of all barriers: why not let the N.S.A. wiretap
American conversations? Vice President Cheney has argued forcefully that
these historical barriers between agencies hobble the American military
and intelligence forces; the Patriot Act was designed in part to
eliminate them. Terrorist groups like Al Qaeda heed no such boundaries,
which is precisely why they can move so quickly and nimbly.

Then again, there’s a limit to how much the United States ought to
emulate Al Qaeda’s modus operandi. “The problems the spies face are
serious; I sympathize with that,” Shirky told me. “But they shouldn’t be
wiping up every bit of information about every American citizen.” The
Pentagon’s infamous Total Information Awareness program, which came to
light in 2002, was intended to scoop up information on citizens from a
variety of sources — commercial purchase databases, government records —
and mine it for suggestive terrorism connections. But to many Americans,
this sort of dot-connecting activity seemed like an outrageous violation
of privacy, and soon after it was exposed, the program was killed. James
X. Dempsey, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology,
maintains that the laws on spying and privacy need new clarity. The
historic morass of legislation, including the Patriot Act, has become
too confusing, he says; both spies and the public are unsure what walls
exist. While Dempsey agrees that agencies should probably be allowed to
swap more information than they currently do, he says that revamped
rules must also respect privacy — “otherwise, we’ll keep on producing
programs that violate people’s sense of what’s right, and they’ll keep
getting shut down.”

For all the complaints about hardware, the challenges are only in part
about technology. They are also about political will and institutional
culture — and whether the spy agencies can be persuaded to change. Some
former intelligence officials have expressed skepticism about whether
Meyerrose and Fingar and their national-intelligence colleagues have the
clout and power to persuade the agencies to adopt this new paradigm.
Though D.N.I. officials say they have direct procurement authority over
technology for all the agencies, there’s no evidence yet that Meyerrose
will be able to make a serious impact on the eight spy agencies in the
Department of Defense, which has its own annual $38 billion intelligence
budget — the lion’s share of all the money the government spends on
spying. When I spoke to Wilson P. Dizard III, a writer with Government
Computer News who has covered federal technology issues for two decades,
he said, “You have all these little barons at N.S.A. and C.I.A. and
whatever, and a lot of people think they’re not going to do what the
D.N.I. says, if push comes to shove.”

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?”

Clive Thompson, a contributing writer, last wrote for the magazine about
Google’s business dealings in China.

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