On Tuesday, with Washington still fighting a Foley Internet hangover, the news wires reported that the U.S. intelligence community is using Intellipedia, a sort of top-secret wiki for spies and Feds. Aimed at improving inter-agency collaboration, the system was launched in April and now boasts over 3,600 users and 28,000 (highly classified) articles. But can a dash of Web 2.0 zeitgeist fix the intelligence business?
At a basic level, the new system makes sense. With 16 different agencies, shared goals and many areas of overlap, the intelligence community could likely profit from a comprehensive, communally updated information depository. Ideally, such a system would automate information collation and offer a pre-synthesized crock pot of high-test tattle. Preparing the National Intelligence Estimate would then become simply a matter of bulk-dumping the wiki’s contents to a file and whisking it to the president.
Moreover, thanks to that pesky Iraq WMD snafu, collaboration is very much in vogue. Any resource that purports to blend the input of multiple agencies — and thereby disperse blame across a suitably wide area — will be greeted with enthusiasm. Prima facie, then, Intellipedia seems like a unifying breath of fresh air for an enterprise long mired in bureaucratic tangles and red tape.
But is it? Consider its public twin, Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is a popular online encyclopedia open to revision by users worldwide. Anyone can open an account, and then create or edit articles. The site is a tremendous resource, though by nature it is never guaranteed authoritative. Because any user can edit another’s work, the words of a pre-eminent particle physics scholar, for instance, can in principle be freely modified by a bleary-eyed freshman on his third all-nighter. The most recent revision will stick.
Despite this apparent limitation, most Wikipedia articles are surprisingly robust. Malicious edits and fakery do occur, but users largely police themselves. Moderators delete bogus content and retire irrelevant pages, and most troublemakers can’t be bothered to corrupt random articles that their peers will never see anyway. The site succeeds because the majority of users publish the truth.
In the intelligence business, however, ample motive exists to tweak reality.
Consider the intense focus on Iraq in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Swapping the amorphous target of scattered cave-bound Islamic terrorists for an expedient scapegoat in Saddam Hussein would be unthinkable without solid evidence cementing their connection. Tasked with uncovering such a link, the intelligence community went to work. The result? A nation that had not collaborated with bin Laden nonetheless became the target of a major retaliatory war.
Presumably, an unbiased and cautious assessment of the facts would have mirrored the ultimate finding of the Sept. 11 commission in June 2004, which flatly rejected any link between Iraq and al-Qaida. And surely some honest analysts protested the initial findings but were silenced or sidelined to preserve the cause at hand.
Given this climate, I doubt Intellipedia will nurture or reward dissenting voices within the intelligence establishment anytime soon. If it doesn’t, we’ve just affixed a multi-agency rubber stamp to the work of the same warmongering misinformation artists who designed and implemented the Iraq war. Jolly good.
Even if we are satisfied with the motives of intelligence staff, the Intellipedia system still raises security concerns. Is it wise to publish sensitive documents en masse to a digital network, and then make them available to thousands of workers from assorted agencies?
The Transportation Security Authority and national laboratories can now access Intellipedia. There is talk of inviting Britain, Canada and Australia to contribute, and even of granting access to China, allegedly so doctors there can comment on avian flu. All this seems like a recipe for trouble. Then again, I’ve always secretly hoped to see airport baggage handlers and rural Chinese doctors weigh in on American strategic defense policy, so why not? Let the media leaks begin.
Interestingly, Intellipedia is just one facet of the intelligence community’s proud foray into the world of Web-based diversion. Eric Haseltine, chief scientist for the Director of National Intelligence, recently bragged: “We are using wikis, we are using blogs, we are using chat, we are using instant messaging.” Impressive haul, Eric: the Four Horsemen of Internet time-wasting, right there. Just add Facebook and you’ll have a full house. (How about a Mini-Feed for Gitmo inmates? You know, “The warden was tagged in a photo,” or “Prisoner X27 wrote on his wall.”)
The Feds are amassing a suite of procrastination tools that would make any high-schooler jealous. It is gratifying to note that Mark Foley’s very public loss to instant messenger-fueled temptation last month seemingly has not curbed government enthusiasm for fun Internet distraction.
In a sense, Intellipedia is a sobering reminder of just how ho-hum the intelligence community really is. We glamorize the business: Spies are patriotic charmers with high-tech gadgets, and analysts are devoted and omniscient eggheads with advanced computers and top-secret software. It’s deflating, then, when the CIA squeals over publicly available open-source hand-me-downs like a child on Christmas morning. Yeah, wikis are cool. We know. We use them.
Sigh. Does this mean there’s no laser watch?
Michael Seringhaus is a sixth-year graduate student in the Department of Molecular Biochemistry and Biophysics. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.