Wikis and Blogs, Oh My!

The intelligence community is catching up with technology.


Back in the late 1990s, as computers found their way into most middle-class homes and E-mails began spreading like kudzu, many intelligence analysts lacked basic Internet access. Security managers fretted that going online left their agencies' computers vulnerable to hostile hackers. "We were so backward it's now hard to believe," says one veteran. Frustrated analysts often did research after hours, using their home computers to surf the Web and E-mail colleagues around the globe.

Today, the intelligence community is finally catching up. Only "a few pockets" remain of employees without Internet access, officials say-mostly confined, ironically, to the tech-savvy but security-obsessed National Security Agency (which runs the nation's electronic eavesdropping overseas).

In an age when information sharing is the name of the game, intelligence agencies have also embraced the latest off-the-shelf technology to get their work out to others. "We are using wikis, we are using blogs, we are using chat, we are using instant messaging," says Eric Haseltine, the chief scientist for the Director of National Intelligence. Given the sheer volume of information flooding into the community each day, he adds, "We have to be very creative in coming up with better stuff." Among the tools on drawing boards is a kind of supersmart search engine called Intelligence Value Estimation. Drawn up by a secret NSA office, the Knowledge Discovery Group, the IVE would anticipate research requests, using artificial intelligence to guide analysts to information similar to other documents they've worked on.

Intellipedia. Many of the hottest online tools now in use turn out to be ideal for sharing intelligence, officials say. Two years ago, the CIA launched its own wiki. (A wiki is an online site that allows users to collectively add and edit content, like Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia.) Dubbed simply the CIA Wiki, it now boasts some 10,000 classified pages. In January, the DNI followed with a communitywide wiki, dubbed the Intellipedia. The DNI's National Intelligence Council-which produces the government's weighty National Intelligence Estimates on key topics-has just launched an experiment to produce the first NIE by wiki. The subject: Nigeria. Top experts on the oil-rich African nation are working together on the Intellipedia to help chart its future. "I don't know if it's going to work," says Thomas Fingar, the chief of analysis for the DNI. "It might; might not."

Blogs have also caught on among specialists across the intelligence community. Encouraged by the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence, home to the agency's corps of analysts, CIA officials in the past year have signed up for some 200 group blogs and 1,500 individual blogs. After all the early excitement, however, the number of active blogs is now down to about 125. And as on the outside, the intelligence blogosphere is not without controversy. In July, a CIA contractor was summarily dismissed after posting her views that U.S. interrogation techniques violated the Geneva Conventions.

Government censors aside, intelligence blogs sound surprisingly similar to their more public cousins on the Internet. Classified blogs, complains one insider, range from "incredibly stupid" to "a few good ones" that are widely read.