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Last updated on April 20, 2014 at 17:20 EDT

CIA Steps Into Using Web 2.0 Tools

June 13, 2009

CIA officers said Friday that the organization is adopting Web 2.0 tools like blogs and collaborative wikis, but not without struggles in an agency with an ingrained culture of secrecy.

“We’re still kind of in this early adoptive stage,” said Sean Dennehy, a CIA analyst and self-described “evangelist” for Intellipedia, the US intelligence community’s version of the popular user-curated online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

“There’s a lot of cultural issues we have to encounter with bringing this kind of open source ethos into the intelligence community,” Dennehy said during a panel discussion organized by the Washington office of Internet giant Google.

The Central Intelligence Agency analyst recalled Mahatma Gandhi’s quote: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

“We’ve been ignored, we’ve been laughed at, on occasion we’ve been fought and we haven’t won yet,” he said.

Dennehy said Intellipedia, which runs secure government intranets and is used by 16 US agencies, started as a pilot project in 2005 and was formally launched in April 2006.

“From that point to where we are here in 2009 it’s been a struggle,” he said. “Some people have (supported it) but there’s still a lot of other folks kind of sitting on the fence.”

Plenty of colleagues with a “fair amount of seniority” are active users, but they see Intellipedia as “a potential tool that is a gamechanger,” he added.

Dennehy said blogs and wikis were “a challenge to our culture because we grew up in this kind of ‘need to know’ culture and now we need a balance between ‘need to know’ and ‘need to share.’”

“Trying to implement these tools in the intelligence community is basically like telling people that their parents raised them wrong,” he said. “It is a huge cultural change.”

“We actually had people kind of go through Intellipedia in the early days taking notes down on which pages were wrong and then sending it up to their chain of command,” he said.

He said that a desire to compartmentalize information was another problem.

“Inevitably, every person, the first question we were asked is ‘How do I lock down a page?’ or ‘How do I lock down a page so that just my five colleagues can access that?’

“We said ‘Go somewhere else,’” Dennehy said. “Go send another email.”

“Because this is different and it’s going to undercut the power of these tools if we start introducing locks into a culture that’s already somewhat risk averse,” he explained.

Intellipedia was now averaging around 4,000 edits a day, Dennehy said.

A CIA innovation officers and 26-year veteran of the agency, Calvin Andrus, told the gathering that the collaborative immediate nature of a wiki made it a affective tool in an age with a need for instant communication.

“The wiki is a bunch of people writing in a collective way and it can change and adapt very quickly to the news,” Andrus said. “You don’t have to take yesterday’s news and publish it tomorrow.”

He said that the slow nature of communication caused British and American forces to keep fighting in January 1815 even though a peace treaty had been signed weeks earlier.

“In Iraq we’ve had an example where we learned, or we had some intelligence, that there were some bad guys in a restaurant and 15 minutes later bombs were dropping,” he said.

“We’re in a world where the number of policy decisions made per unit of time is increasing exponentially,” he said.

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