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Published:April 9th, 2009 11:43 EST
Intellipedia: Where James Bond Meets The Wiki Community

Intellipedia: Where James Bond Meets The Wiki Community

By Christopher HIllenbrand

Intelligence analysts have long envisioned the perfect interface for spy agencies to use in coordinating and sharing intelligence data around the world in a timely and effective manner. But few were willing to tread on uncharted territory to accomplish that goal.

Incepted in 2006 to a group of critical officials within the CIA, Intellipedia has blossomed into a discreetly edited Wiki database comprised of 900,000 pages of classified information collected by U.S. Intelligence, its sister agencies, and associated intelligence agencies around the world. The brainchild modeled off of the highly successful online archive Wikipedia, now boasts close to 100,000 user accounts and oversees about 5,000 page edits daily.

The idea behind the Internet database, catering to the intelligence community, stemmed from a thesis published by CIA analyst D. Calvin Andrus in 1994 entitled: "The Wiki and the Blog: Towards a Complex Adaptive Intelligence Community". Andrus wrote about how U.S. Intelligence agencies were unwilling to change their antiquated methods in gathering strictly concrete data, i.e. how many missile installations does Russia have? But, as he described in his essay, the intelligence service was forced to update its protocol by 21st Century standards in assessing more challenging threats facing the country and the rest of the world after September 11th. He argued that intelligence should be analyzed from a completely different hierarchical approach. Where pencil pushers once directed the final assessment, now, intelligence should be based in "bottom-up collaboration" where agents on the ground have the first say in how to judge a problem, like ant colonies and financial markets as Andrus suggested.

When the notion for the site was originally proposed by CIA officers Sean Dennehy and Don Burke, their superiors couldn`t see the efficacy behind such an ambition. But when Central Intelligence was absorbed under the recent Office of the Director of National Intelligence, officials seemed more open-minded over the idea, though opponents still voiced doubts over the new-fangled technology. Analysts, in particular, who were used to the dated proprietary databases maintained by each individual organization, were reasonably skeptical.

Intelligence officers and field agents brought up one glaring concern over the network: security from hackers. So in time, as developers created the interface, Intellipedia was incorporated into Intelink, a series of pre-existing security networks that connect all 16 U.S. spy organizations as well as the federal government together.

And in the past three years, Intellipedia has grown exponentially. The site now oversees content from three different levels of clearance: unclassified, secret, and top secret. The `top secret` tier of confidentiality contains 439,387 pages of personnel-sensitive data in addition to 57,248 user accounts. Volunteers with backgrounds in intelligence and foreign affairs monitor the site, with ghost users known as `shepherds` supervising the safety of the network. Besides its namesake, Intellipedia also resembles Wikipedia in that news and tips are posted on the site within moments after the fact. But unlike the public site, contributors are clearly identified with real legal names instead of dubious user-names that are common on civilian sites.

And its results have been immediate. Information about everything, from the effects of chlorine used in making incendiary devices to terrorist acts, has become more readily accessible to officials in Langley and satellite stations worldwide.

Concerning the data retrieved about chlorine, Tom Fingar, head of the National Intelligence Council from 2005-2008, said: "Twenty-three people at 18 or 19 locations around the world chimed in on this thing, and we got a perfectly serviceable set of instructions in two days. Nobody called a meeting, there was no elaborate `gotta go back and check with Mom to see if this is the view of my organization.`"

In fact, the amounts of information generated by the network far exceeded the CIA`s expectations, causing the agency to program more servers to handle the staggering influx of edited entries.

Intellipedia hasn`t become the only quintessential part of spying for the U.S. though. CIA officials profess that the site is only square one in the analytical process. Information gathered by operatives is then scrutinized by analysts, and if the data is verified and a decision is handed down, the report is then written down as National Intelligence Estimates. Officers made the mistake of utilizing the wiki for drawing up NIE`s when the information wasn`t able to be revised to specifications issued by analysts.

In an interview with Time magazine, Greg Treverton, a source privy to intelligence matters for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said that Intellipedia isn`t flawed in aiding in filing NIE`s, but that the intelligence services depend far too much on the reports.

Treverton affirmed: "There`s much too much concentration on finished intelligence. Intelligence analysis should be a sense-making exercise, a process of working on problems and trying to get sharper at them. Intellipedia is ideal for that:if you slice it at any given time, you are saying, `Here is the best state of understanding at the moment.`"