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For Intelligence Officers, A Wiki Way to Connect Dots

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.

Cultural resistance to Intellipedia includes concerns that foreign intelligence agents could hack into the system. Many intelligence officers, particularly of the older generation, simply do not trust it.

"There isn't any one agency that is more or less prone to use it. It's really a product of individuals," said Don Burke, a fellow CIA officer who helps promote the Intellipedia initiative.

Burke said Intellipedia remains largely the province of early adopters. While some pages are robust and balanced, he added, "there are other pages that leave a lot to be desired, to put it bluntly."

A CIA officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of his work, said Intellipedia "makes it very real-time. You can move down the road fast and focus on catching bad guys. We can really bring our expertise right to the war without leaving our desks."

Intellipedia, which uses the same software as Wikipedia, operates on three levels: an unclassified version, a secret version and a top-secret version. Beyond that, there are "bread crumbs" that could lead a user with proper clearance to additional information offline, Burke said.

Burke said that beyond major incidents such as the Mumbai attack, the biggest advantage is in connecting users seeking information on small, obscure subjects, something he described as "a thousand small wins a day."

Burke and Dennehy have been chosen as finalists for the 2009 Service to America Medals, sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service. The recipients of the medals, which are awarded in eight areas of public service, will be announced next month.

Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, described Intellipedia as an important post-Sept. 11 reform, but one that did not involve a major bureaucratic shake-up, as with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

"It's the kind of work we need to see more out of government," Stier said. "They're connecting the dots without rearranging the deck chairs."

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