Could CIA blogs prevent next 9/11?
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Sunday December 3, 2006
A "new generation of Web-savvy spies" taking cues from bloggers and Wikipedia users might just be able to "prevent the next 9/11," according to "some of the country’s most senior intelligence thinkers," but "political will and institutional culture" is holding them back, reports an article in Sunday's New York Times magazine.
Clive Thompson writes that "throughout the intelligence community, spies are beginning to wonder why their technology has fallen so far behind — and talk among themselves about how to catch up," and "many of them believe the answer may lie in the interactive tools the world’s teenagers are using to pass around YouTube videos and bicker online about their favorite bands."
Intelink, the secure internal computer network for United States spy agencies, may be "too secure," as even the 9/11 Commission pointed out that agencies failed to "connect the dots" regarding terrorism "clues."
"Billions of dollars’ worth of ultrasecret data networks couldn’t help spies piece together the clues to the worst terrorist plot ever," Thompson writes. "So perhaps, they argue, it’s time to try something radically different. Could blogs and wikis prevent the next 9/11?"
Excerpts from article:
So why hasn’t Intelink given young analysts instant access to all secrets from every agency? Because each agency’s databases, and the messages flowing through their internal pipelines, are not automatically put onto Intelink. Agency supervisors must actively decide what data they will publish on the network — and their levels of openness vary....
Spies, Andrus theorized, could take advantage of these rapid, self-organizing effects. If analysts and agents were encouraged to post personal blogs and wikis on Intelink — linking to their favorite analyst reports or the news bulletins they considered important — then mob intelligence would take over. In the traditional cold-war spy bureaucracy, an analyst’s report lived or died by the whims of the hierarchy. If he was in the right place on the totem pole, his report on Soviet missiles could be pushed up higher; if a supervisor chose to ignore it, the report essentially vanished. Blogs and wikis, in contrast, work democratically. Pieces of intel would receive attention merely because other analysts found them interesting. This grass-roots process, Andrus argued, suited the modern intelligence challenge of sifting through thousands of disparate clues: if a fact or observation struck a chord with enough analysts, it would snowball into popularity, no matter what their supervisors thought.
With Andrus and Burton’s vision in mind, you can almost imagine how 9/11 might have played out differently. In Phoenix, the F.B.I. agent Kenneth Williams might have blogged his memo noting that Al Qaeda members were engaging in flight-training activity. The agents observing a Qaeda planning conference in Malaysia could have mentioned the attendance of a Saudi named Khalid al-Midhar; another agent might have added that he held a multi-entry American visa. The F.B.I. agents who snared Zacarias Moussaoui in Minnesota might have written about their arrest of a flight student with violent tendencies. Other agents and analysts who were regular readers of these blogs would have found the material interesting, linked to it, pointed out connections or perhaps entered snippets of it into a wiki page discussing this new trend of young men from the Middle East enrolling in pilot training.
When I raised the idea of collaborative tools like blogs and wikis, Spalding and Russ Travers, one of the center’s deputy directors, were skeptical. The whole reason the center works, they said, is that experts have a top-down view that is essential to picking the important information out of the surrounding chatter. The grass roots, they’ve found, are good at collecting threats but not necessarily at analyzing them. If a lot of low-level analysts are pointing to the same inaccurate posting, that doesn’t make it any less wrong.“
FULL TIMES ARTICLE AT THIS LINK