For Intelligence Officers, A Wiki Way to Connect Dots

Supporters of Iranian reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi protest the results of the presidential election in June. The U.S. intelligence community tracked the disputed election on Intellipedia, a collaborative online repository.
Supporters of Iranian reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi protest the results of the presidential election in June. The U.S. intelligence community tracked the disputed election on Intellipedia, a collaborative online repository. (Associated Press)
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By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 27, 2009

Intellipedia, the intelligence community's version of Wikipedia, hummed in the aftermath of the Iranian presidential election in June, with personnel at myriad government agencies updating a page dedicated to tracking the disputed results.

Similarly, a page established in November immediately after the terrorist attack in Mumbai provided intelligence analysts with a better understandinsg of the scope of the incident, as well as a forum to speculate on possible perpetrators.

"There were a number of things posted that were ahead of what was being reported in the press," said Sean Dennehy, a CIA officer who helped establish the site.

Intellipedia is a collaborative online intelligence repository, and it runs counter to traditional reluctance in the intelligence community to the sharing of classified information. Indeed, it still meets with formidable resistance from many quarters of the 16 agencies that have access to the system.

But the site, which is available only to users with proper government clearance, has grown markedly since its formal launch in 2006 and now averages more than 15,000 edits per day. It's home to 900,000 pages and 100,000 user accounts.

"About everything that happens of significance, there's an Intellipedia page on," Dennehy said.

Intellipedia sprung from a 2004 paper by CIA employee Calvin Andrus titled "The Wiki and the Blog: Toward a Complex Adaptive Intelligence Community."

Dennehy listened to a presentation by Andrus and recalled the skepticism among colleagues about adapting Wikipedia to the intelligence community. He shared their skepticism. "But something he said interested me enough to look into it further," Dennehy said.

Context was also a factor. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, intelligence agencies had come under intense criticism for failing to pull together disparate strands of information pointing to the possibility of a major incident.

"We were all doing it in stovepipes," Dennehy said.

Dennehy described 9/11 not so much as a catalyst but as a selling point to explain how Intellipedia could help collate information. "Cal used 9/11 as a backdrop," said Dennehy. "It was really more about what was happening on the Web."

In 2005, Dennehy was given the job of leading the effort and persuading the intelligence community to use it, a task likened to "promoting vegetarianism in Texas" by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group devoted to improving the federal government.


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