The Future of Intelligence, Part 1

About six months after 9/11, I came across a book by Gregory Treverton, who served as the Vice Chair of the National Intelligence Council under Bill Clinton. The book, Reshaping National Intelligence for the Age of Information, was published shortly before 9/11, and its insights into the state of national intelligence were both revealing and prescient. It’s a remarkable book, and it got me thinking more deeply about the incredible cultural and organizational challenges of national intelligence. Not coincidentally, around the same time, I was starting to synthesize my ideas on collaboration, a process that resulted in my founding of Blue Oxen Associates.    (L7T)

Things are starting to come full circle. Over the past year, I’ve found myself engaged in conversation with a number of people in the intelligence community, and it culminated in a two day workshop with the CIA this past week. It’s been somewhat of a surreal experience, given that I’ve spent much of the past four years working side-by-side with progressive and Open Source activists, many of whom consider the government an antagonist at best, an enemy at worst. Moreover, my one previous brush with government work — a project with the FAA — left me with a less than favorable view of how our federal agencies work. The culture there is stifling, especially in comparison to the Bay Area. There is a stated desire to learn and to improve, but there is very little real commitment. Those who actually want to do something are trapped under a blanket of repressive indifference, and those who manage to do something anyway are usually completely marginalized by their superiors and even their peers.    (L7U)

All that said, the fundamental challenges regarding intelligence are dear to my heart, and I find myself paying a bit more attention when these conversations and opportunities present themselves. I firmly believe that deep knowledge about collaboration is spread across a number of domains, and the only way to acquire this knowledge is to engage with each of those different communities. This especially holds true with intelligence, where the knowledge product itself is sensemaking and actionable knowledge.    (L7V)

I am also a patriot. That word has attained somewhat of a negative connotation over the past five years, which is not necessarily a bad thing, because it has forced us to deeply reexamine our values. I’ve gone through this process myself, and I’ve walked away even more sure of my feelings. I’d like to make both this country and the world a better place. Those two goals are not orthogonal.    (L7W)

Last year, I met Darniet Jennings, an intelligence researcher, at WikiSym. We’ve had a number of interesting conversations since, and he participated in our first “Tools for Catalyzing Collaboration” workshop. About six months ago, he referred me to a paper written by Calvin Andrus entitled, “The Wiki and the Blog: Toward a Complex Adaptive Intelligence Community.” Andrus, who is with the CIA, wrote this paper last year, and it has since become the de facto reference on the role of Social Software in intelligence.    (L7X)

I’ve found the majority of these kinds of whitepapers shallow and uninteresting. Andrus’s paper is anything but. Rather than offer some simplistic portrayal of these tools while repeating the same tiresome anecdotes and misconceptions over why they’re useful, Andrus frames the conversation in terms of systems theory. He cites Ludwig von Bertalanffy and Jane Jacobs, and he praises decentralization, localization, and emergence. The depth of his paper comes from this framing, which establishes the correct higher-level goals and philosophy behind these tools and which surfaces the intelligence community’s real challenges. The paper has flaws, but they are minor.    (L7Y)

The fact that such a paper exists and that it has been embraced by the intelligence community makes me hopeful, but that hope is tempered by Treverton. Andrus writes about the importance of empowering local, bottoms-up action, and he cites Tip O’Neill‘s famous maxim, “All politics is local politics.” For those who might perceive of the intelligence community as being overly centralized, this seems to be a refreshing viewpoint.    (L7Z)

However, Treverton suggests that this view is not foreign to the intelligence community at all. In fact, he writes that “intelligence analysts tend toward the long view and to take the world as a given.” Treverton then cites the very same O’Neill quote, writing, “Because they [intelligence analysts] are so immersed in the local, they are by profession believers in the adage attributed to former U.S. Congressman Tip O’Neill that ‘all politics is local politics'” (181). In contrast, policy makers tend to care less about the long view. Transforming national intelligence is not enough. We need to transform the relationship between intelligence and policy.    (L80)

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