Collaborative Internet tools making inroads into intel agencies

Problems and skepticism still abound, but continued information sharing should win over doubters, says ODNI official.

A top official with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said on Tuesday that the intelligence community was moving inexorably toward embracing online collaboration tools, known as Web 2.0 applications, which hold the promise of improving U.S. intelligence efforts.

"The last frontier used to be the acquisition of information," said Michael Wertheimer, ODNI assistant deputy director for analysis. Now "the last frontier is collaboration. We're not getting incremental gains [in intelligence] on the amount of information we collect. It is the degree we can link up people and collaborate."

Before the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was created in 2004, the president's daily intelligence briefing was produced solely by the CIA. Now, it is a collaborative product of the 16 agencies that make up the intelligence community. State Department employees once sent vital information about foreign governments back to headquarters via cables and then later by e-mail, both of which were visible only within the agency. Now, those messages are published online so intelligence agencies also can view them, which greatly increases situational awareness, said Wertheimer, a vocal advocate for cross-agency communication and cooperation. He calls such steps toward greater collaboration "big wins."

Wertheimer, who spoke at the Web 2.0 and the Future of Government conference sponsored by consulting firm Deloitte and the National Academy of Public Administration on Tuesday in Washington, also outlined other efforts that analysts once viewed with suspicion. For example, all 16 intelligence agencies have agreed to follow standards of tradecraft that require alternative views, and the sources and logic that led to them must be codified and included in all intelligence assessments.

Last summer's hard problem session, a monthlong off-site gathering where analysts worked on especially difficult intelligence challenges, for the first time included state and local law enforcement officers, private specialists, psychologists, biologists and others along with intelligence community participants. They met to study how terrorist activities overseas might become a domestic law enforcement problem and how to handle them.

Wertheimer and others often argue that intelligence agencies have no choice but to become more open, collaborate and adopt Web 2.0 tools, such as wikis and blogs, now that 60 percent of their analysts have been hired within the last five years and are relatively young. The growth of the internal intelligence wiki, Intellipedia, which allows analysts across the community to post and edit each others' findings, has been phenomenal, he said.

But the zeal of some early adopters of such tools concerns him. "The bloggers worry less about the mission than about getting more bloggers. Intellipedia is more interested in getting more users than in contributing to the mission," Wertheimer said. "We're not yet nudging the early adopters to tinker with the iPhone to see how the adversary will use it to subvert the intelligence community."

Wertheimer also said many analysts still are skeptical about new technology and Web 2.0. Analysts distrust technology staffs, believing they deliver only tools and toys rather than greater capability. His answer to the problem, of course, is collaboration. "We need courses [that include] both of them," he said. "We need to integrate tools. . . . Neurons need to talk to other neurons."

In addition, fear and distrust are impediments on the agency level, he said, noting that ODNI's efforts to convince agencies to share information and people often founder on the ambiguous legislative authority with which the office was created. Each agency is content to discuss other agencies' problems with ODNI officials, but unwilling to examine its own problems, he said. And few willingly follow actions recommended by the director's office for fear that cooperation will lead to more requests for change. "There isn't a sense of common purpose," Wertheimer added.

Countercollaborative skirmishing will diminish, he said, "when we deliver the goods as multiple agencies and people notice."

Wertheimer is excited about this year's hard problem session, where analysts will familiarize themselves with virtual worlds and his boss, Thomas Fingar, deputy director of National Intelligence.

To allay the fears of denizens of synthetic worlds, Wertheimer said the ODNI legal and civil liberties protection offices are working through questions such as whether intelligence analysts can join Second Life or other worlds "just to play," and whether, if they do, they must identify themselves as federal employees.

Wertheimer said of the upcoming gathering, "We're going to have fun. We need to have more fun. It's fun to break codes. An analytic coup is fun. When you make things fun, people want to do more."