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Wiki and the Intel Analyst

INTELLIPEDIA, the federal intelligence community’s version of Wikipedia, is transforming the way analysts view, share, and dissect data, according to Michael Wertheimer, assistant deputy director of national intelligence at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), who works on Intellipedia.

Launched two years ago, Intellipedia operates with the same free MediaWiki software created for Wikipedia—and it is based on the same user-generated- content model, which emphasizes unregulated information sharing.

“What’s so important about it is that it challenges the culture around intelligence. It’s like, now, instead of being the person who hordes the most information, who keeps the most information secret, you make information more powerful by sharing it amongst a bunch of people,” says Eric Garland, of Competitive Futures, Inc., in Washington, D.C. Garland, a futurist, spoke to the issue at a recent ASIS International conference on terrorism threats and trends.

In the past, information might not have been made public until it was put into some sort of report or other intelligence product. With Intellipedia, information from one analyst can be viewed essentially in real-time and other users can start drawing from it immediately.

Wertheimer agrees that in the intelligence community, “more broad sharing of information, more collaboration, is coming. It’s here in some places, and where it’s not, I think the discussion now is more about when and how than whether.”

All 16 federal intelligence agencies are represented on Intellipedia. As of April 1 of this year, there were 50,530 article pages and there had been more than 1.6 million edits. The edits are all attributable and users must be registered. Although there are other wikis that are accessible only within the agencies, Intellipedia content is viewed across agencies.

Analysts attend a two-week Intellipedia sabbatical for specific training on how to build and edit pages and use the site.

Certain sensitive and classified information is not cleared to be posted on Intellipedia. Other than that, Wertheimer says, participants have been free to use the site.

The information on Intellipedia, like that on Wikipedia, generally does not go through a formal vetting process. Wertheimer says that aspect of this project has been the source of resistance for some analysts.

“Intelligence products here, before we release them to any customer, go through a very careful review for accuracy, sourcing, and so on,” says Wertheimer. He adds that there is a legitimate fear among those who developed that review process that Intellipedia information will be acted on as though it has been vetted and verified. He says his office tries to make it clear to all users that, while the information is sourced, it has not gone through a formal review.

Some critics have raised concerns that the wiki model, or community-based process, makes for weaker final intelligence products that might contain faulty information precisely because the information is not vetted.

But proponents of the Wikipedia model point out that the idea is for the community to be collaborative, with any mistake posted by one member of the community likely to be detected and corrected by some other member of the community.

The result may even be an improvement over the old method, where vetting did not prevent mistakes, says Garland. “People think that as soon as you put something in hardcover or you put it in written format, that somehow it’s imbued with this holy, sacred quality that means it’s more true… People put [bad] information in hardcover every day,” says Garland.

Wertheimer says he has seen some agencies using Intellipedia in unexpected ways and that it’s already proven helpful.

For example, he says it was a “force multiplier” during a recent crisis in Africa, where the intelligence community has relatively fewer analysts than in other areas, as people were inputting any drop of information gathered.

“We’re making up for the ability to have lots of analysts working a problem, to only having a few analysts, relatively speaking,” he says, adding, “It had all the analysts working together in a common space, which we never did before.”

One challenge that Wertheimer has encountered in implementing Intellipedia is the debate over whether the posting of information and the sharing of sources will hamper the intelligence process. He says the group has also been “negotiating what can go on there versus what is too risky to put on there,” since some users fear that certain information is too sensitive to be posted.

As an example, Wertheimer cites an article that described how to construct a nuclear bomb. A community member reported it to the security department, which insisted it was too sensitive to leave up.

Turns out, the article was a word for word copy of a description on the public site Wikipedia.

Wertheimer also notes that Intellipedia is not where the final intelligence products and judgments will be found. Instead, it provides a space where debate and information sharing can occur. He describes it as a place “where the food is being made, and you’ve got the cauldron, and you’re putting the ingredients in the soup, but you’re not ready to serve it yet.”