Transforming Intelligence

I just came across two recent (2007) publications of the Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, which re-inforce the dire need of the U.S. intelligence community to step up to the challenge of completely changing the way it “does business” and stop deluding itself that simple business re-engineering and organizational restructuring will suffice to face and adequately respond to 21st century non-state actor threats.

The first paper, “Wearing Sunglasses in a Dark Room: How Our Obsession with Secrecy and Security Undermines Counterterrorism Efforts” by Christopher Preble discusses how the severe lack of linguistic and cultural skills of intelligence professionals has had, and continues to have, negative impacts both on intelligence collection and analysis. Preble outlines the paradox of the IC’s desperate need to hire people with knowledge of languages such as Farsi, Pashto, Korean, Mandarin, and a number of African dialects while refusing security clearences to many first generation American citizens and discriminating against individuals with friends and family in foreign countries, “the very people” he argues, “who are likely to be already proficient in a non-English language.”

This is essentially a Catch-22 situation. On the one hand, the difficulty of procuring security clearences for qualified individuals results in a significant lack of expertise in linguistic and cultural knowledge. On the other hand, the increasing amount of classified information requires that more people, and people with the right skills, be hired to process this information.

What to do then? How can the pool of qualified persons be expanded without compromising national security? Preble advocates expanding access to information. In other words, taking advantage of the linguistic, cultural, academic and other skills of people who are unlikely to pass a security check due to their foreign affiliations. Such “experts” can be instrumental in processing the vast amount of open source information derived from newspapers, magazines, television and radio broadcasting, and the internet – an onerous job, which the IC does not have the full capability of doing on its own.

The benefits of OSINT partnerships between the IC and the media, academia, independent think tanks, and NGOs far outweigh the security risks they pose. This is not to say that security checks on people applying for jobs in the IC should not be performed nor that sensitive information should be declassified. The argument is rather that classification processes should be re-evaluated and individuals without security clearences should be recruited to collect and analyze open source materials.

The second paper, “Transforming Intelligence through New Institutional Arrangements” by Dennis M. Gormley, continues much along the same lines. It focuses on the key challenges to improving the means of intelligence collection, analysis and collaboration, and what it would take to build truly agile human intelligence.

According to Gormley, the main shortcoming of the IC, which leads to both performance errors and politization of intelligence is the IC’s traditional approach to analysis. He advocates the need “to recognize complexity and variability of outcomes by using multiple alternative competing hypotheses” as well as moving away from the emphasis on producing current intelligence toward a better balanced combination of current and strategic analytical products.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the article is a discussion on creating an open source international intelligence network composed of intelligence professionals, academic institutions, NGOs, and other interested parties as a truly effective multinational response to terrorism. This is a novel idea, but some experiments are already under way. An excellent example of such a multinational initiative is the Trusted Information Network for Counterterrorism, organized and moderated by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC. This project, completed over a period of 12 months using online collaborative technology, included 15 non-intelligence experts from 4 continents, who were asked to produce an intelligence estimate on the roles, activities and impacts of jihadists in Europe and the implications for U.S. security. The highlights of the report can be found on the CSIS website. The full report is available for purchase. It is a fascinating read in that it offers a glimpse of how work processes in the intelligence field are changing. It has also given me a surge of inspiration to lead a similar initiative at the ISN in Zurich. As this is still in a process of planning, I will be posting more on this topic a a later stage.

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Collaborative Governance

Deriving  value from informal network knowledge pools instead of experts, is a trend that is likely to continue growing rapidly in 2008. Open source technology, social collaboration tools and a mindset change are quickly transforming the ways of traditional top-down communication, management and decision-making. Pioneer initiatives such as Wikipedia, My Space and Facebook, to name but a few, were quickly picked up by the intelligence community, international organizations, private sector multinationals, and NGOs as an alternative solution to internal knowledge management processes.

In the US, the intelligence community bravely embraced the idea of open distributed knowledge networks, and it has, since 2005, established an Open Source Center under the DNI office, set up a knowledge base intellipedia, allegedly used social networking sites in recruitment campaigns, and opened its doors to non-intelligence experts, i.e. the media, academia and NGOs in the first ever intelligence conference open to the general public. All this is done in an effort to collaborate and share knowledge that might prove indispensable in saving lives and avoiding major intelligence failures in a world where asymmetric threats and risks lurk around every corner.

The UN has followed suit and introduced its own wiki to help connect its thousands of employees stationed in different parts of the world.

Wikis and blogs are the hottest buzzwords among knowledge management, business intelligence and organizational development professionals because unlike other technologies that chiefly increase efficiency and productivity, they are succeeding in something far greater and bearing far larger consequences: mindset change – a change in how we think about work.

The Democracy Journal of ideas published in its new Winter 2008 issue an article, entitled “Wiki-Government” by law professor and director of the Institute for Information Law and Policy at New York Law School, Beth Simone Noveck. In this article, Noveck explores how open source technology can make government decision-making more expert and more democratic. She argues that “speaking truth to power” is best done not by individual experts in the traditional sense of the word, but by collaborative knowledge networks, composed of non-experts. The article touches on various themes by now more than familiar to knowledge worker professionals, such as scientific peer review as an alternative mechanism for oversight, transparency and quality control, the value-added to governments of non-professional expertise, the peer-to-patent experiment as a model for collaborative governance, and finally, digital institution building.

Opening up closed decision-making may raise some brows and prompt reservations of the kind “too many cooks spoil the soup”. It would be short-sighted, however, and unrealistic of governments to think and behave as though they could bypass a trend of this magnitude. In the current balance of power, governments no longer have the upper hand. It is smart business enterprises, non-state actors and (in)formal knowledge networks that set up both the change and the speed with which it happens. A failure to come to terms with this and embrace change would doom governments to bureaucratic mediocrity at best, and would eventually drain them of the intellectual capital they aspire to possess.