United States officials say they have created their own version of the Wikipedia online encyclopedia for intelligence agents, in a bid to encourage US spy agencies to share information and transcend bureaucratic rivalries.
Launched in April, Intellipedia allows analysts and officials from a range of agencies to add and edit content on intelligence topics in a collaborative manner through a classified internal web.
The office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) says the project will help revolutionise the prevailing culture of the US intelligence community, widely blamed for failing to ”connect the dots” before the attacks of September 11 2001.
”It’s a new way of thinking,” said Michael Wertheimer, DNI’s chief technology officer in analysis.
The project was greeted initially with ”a lot of resistance,” said Wertheimer, because it runs counter to past practise that sought to limit the pooling of information.
”There were a lot of analysts who said, ‘I’m never going to use this, this is a waste of time,”’ he told reporters this week.
The brainchild of a tech-savvy younger generation of spies, Intellipedia has grown to include 3 600 users and more than 28 000 pages of content, according to DNI.
Unlike Wikipedia, which is totally open and based on anonymous contributions, all edits on Intellipedia are attributed and the content is accessible only to those with security clearances.
The tool was being used to prepare the State Department’s annual country reports on terrorism and for a definitive intelligence report, known as a ”national intelligence estimate,” on Nigeria.
Officials said they planned to expand access to their counterparts in Australia, Britain and Canada and that an unclassified assessment of threats posed by infectious diseases would be open to a larger group of users, including China.
They said the system should produce more thorough and balanced intelligence assessments because the collaborative approach allows more analysts to be involved and retains a permanent record of each contribution — including dissenting points of view.
”This tool allows us to have those different various points of view without having to mash it all together in a page a half and have a consensus view that might not represent the views of all the organisations,” said Don Burke of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Congress reorganised the spy agencies under a single chief and ordered them to cooperate after an official investigation revealed that they had failed to share crucial information about the September 11th hijackers.
Officials said the collaborative approach of Intellipedia, which allows a much larger number of contributors, would have been extremely useful in assessing Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programme.
Former CIA director George Tenet and other spy chiefs have been accused of playing down dissenting opinions and providing skewed intelligence reports before the Iraq war, asserting Saddam Hussein had large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction — which were never found.
But opening up an analysis to a much wider group of users also carried greater risks of a security lapse.
”We’re taking a risk,” Wertheimer said.
”There’s a risk you put an NIE [national intelligence estimate] up on a Intellipedia where you have tens of thousands of users who really don’t have a need to know to see it, you risk that it will show up in the media, that it’ll be leaked.”
Despite the security concerns, Intellipedia represented a useful way around the more than 30 separate, incompatible computer networks that bog down communication between spy agencies, said James Lewis of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank.
Undertaken less than six years since Wikipedia itself was launched, the project was adopted unusually quickly by a set of government agencies often known for moving too slowly, he said.
”For the intelligence community, this is warp speed,” Lewis said, adding that the spy agencies were likely ahead of other US government departments in their embrace of Wiki software.
While intelligence agencies had made progress in pooling information, dramatic reform was still required to improve the way espionage was carried out, Lewis told AFP.
”It’s a good step but there’s a need to go further,” Lewis said. – Sapa-AFP