Hey, Let's Play Ball
The insular world of intelligence reaches out for a few new ideas
At a modest office building just outside Boston last July, senior U.S. intelligence officials quietly set in motion an unusual experiment. For four weeks, a handpicked group of 20 outside experts brainstormed, argued, and chewed the fat with 20 top analysts from the CIA and eight other intelligence agencies. Their mission: to understand why people join terrorist organizations and other groups engaged in antisocial activity. The issues went to some of the most basic questions confronting Washington's intelligence mandarins: What's driving the spread of extremism around the globe, and how can it be stopped?
Dubbed the Summer Hard Problems workshop, or SHARP, the program is modeled after a highly successful project by the code-breaking National Security Agency, which for years has brought in top mathematicians to tackle cutting-edge issues in encryption. SHARP similarly threw together leading specialists, but from the social sciences: experts in anthropology, social psychology, insurgency, and Islamic thought, among other fields. But for all the esoteric talk about jihadism, group dynamics, and social networks, the SHARP participants had a second mission: to change the way U.S. intelligence agencies do their job, by opening the notoriously insular espionage community to the rest of the world.
SHARP is the brainchild of the 18-month-old Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is charged with overseeing and reforming the nation's sprawling $44 billion intelligence community. Key to that effort is an organized attack on the kind of "groupthink" that resulted in U.S. intelligence agencies getting dead wrong, among other things, nearly every facet of Saddam Hussein's banned weapons programs. Reformers at the DNI and other agencies hope to answer critics who call the nation's spy agencies obsolete-a bunch of big bureaucracies so addicted to secrecy that they can't cope in the Internet age. "This culture of secrecy in an information-rich world is totally anachronistic," says Phil Williams, an international security expert at the University of Pittsburgh who often consults with intelligence agencies.
Wiki-spies? To help change the way the nation's espionage agencies do business, senior DNI officials are pushing an effort unlike any seen since the height of the Vietnam War, nearly 40 years ago. The SHARP workshop is but one of a wide array of outreach projects now underway, involving millions of dollars in contracts, fellowships, conferences-even wikis and blogs-directed at scholars and other outside experts. DNI officials are mindful of the past, when Vietnam War-era funding drew loud protests on campus, amid charges that the CIA had skewed academic research on Asian studies and secretly backed groups like the National Student Association. The new effort has also begun to stir controversy, but for those who respond, the rewards can be considerable, including contracts, lucrative stipends, and a chance to influence analysis at the CIA and 15 other intelligence agencies. The scope is broad: A classified DNI survey this year yielded 240 pages of outreach efforts involving virtually every U.S. agency that generates intelligence information. Those interested (and invited) enter a world of exclusive conferences, workshops, studies, sabbaticals, and scholarships. Participants include not only academics but experts at think tanks, international groups, foundations, and businesses, as well as medical doctors and scientists. "The intelligence community will never be big enough, will never have enough analysts," says Thomas Fingar, the DNI's chief of analysis. "There's an absolute need to go outside."