A Wikipedia Of Secrets

By Frank Ahrens
Sunday, November 5, 2006

Imagine if, in August 2001, the U.S. intelligence agencies had dumped all of their information into one secure, online resource where it was searchable and accessible to anyone who had the proper clearance.

Who knows if the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 could have been averted? But one thing is clear in the documentation and reporting that has come out in the past five years: Intelligence agencies then were not talking to each other enough, owing to divisional rivalries, lack of trust and the bunkering of intel operations in their own "silos."

Now the intelligence agencies are trying to remedy those problems with something they call Intellipedia, a model based on the popular online, user-generated encyclopedia Wikipedia.

U.S. intelligence czar John D. Negroponte discussed the database in Washington last week, saying it would allow analysts to collaborate, adding and editing intelligence to create a resource for all 16 U.S. agencies that have access to the top-secret version of Intellipedia.

Since its introduction in April, the classified version of Intellipedia has grown to 28,000 pages and 3,600 registered users, the government said. There are other versions of the database for "secret" and "sensitive but unclassified" intelligence.

U.S. officials said last week that Intellipedia is currently being used to prepare a report on Nigeria.

In theory, Intellipedia, like Wikipedia, is a great idea: Citizen editors, or in this case, intelligence assets, enter their information unfiltered onto the great database. Then it becomes easily searchable by any user. For instance, if the agency preparing the report on Nigeria punches in that country's name, it could find intelligence that an asset has entered from the field in Africa, or data entered by an analyst in a cubicle in Langley.

There are other possible uses, as well, the agencies said, such as quickly spreading information about pandemic potential from nation to nation.

Of course, Intellipedia probably has its downsides, just like as Wikipedia does. Knowing only what the government tells us about Intellipedia, we don't know how tight the peer review is. On Wikipedia, administrators will lock users out of an entry if it is being vandalized, typically by partisans, such as the Wikipedia entry on Israel during its war with Hezbollah.

One can only assume the top-secret version of Intellipedia has the same administrative safeguards, or at least a more collegial attitude among its contributors. There is also the concern that intelligence will be politicized, such as happened in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

And not all intelligence is equal or equally sourced. One of Wikipedia's flaws is that there's no way of knowing if the entry on Chaucer has been authored by a Chaucer scholar or an English lit undergrad. Presumably, Intellipedia's authors have a similar range of expertise -- they're not all James Bond and Jack Ryan.

Authorities say they will offer access to Intellipedia to allies Canada, England and Australia.

And there is the threat of compromise by hostile hackers, who could plant disinformation designed to throw U.S. intelligence experts and enforcement authorities off track, especially before a planned attack.

Authorities have admitted as much.

"We're taking a risk," Michael Wertheimer, the intelligence community's chief technical officer, told Reuters. "There's a risk it's going to show up in the media, that it'll be leaked."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company