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CIA adopting Web 2.0 tools despite resistance

by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) June 12, 2009
The CIA is adopting Web 2.0 tools such as blogs and collaborative wikis, but not without a struggle in an agency with an ingrained culture of secrecy, CIA officers said Friday.

"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 on secure government intranets and is used by 16 US intelligence agencies, was started as a pilot project in 2005 and 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."

A number of colleagues with a "fair amount of seniority" are active users, however, who 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.

A desire to compartamentalize information was another problem, he said.

"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.

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

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

"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 recalled that because of the slow nature of communications, back then the Battle of New Orleans between British and American forces was fought in January 1815 although 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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