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Online intelligence library fosters collaboration among agencies

Jul. 6, 2011 - 11:28AM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments
Defense Intelligence Agency Deputy Director David Shedd said the federal government's online Library of National Intelligence is helping analysts build so-called "communities of interest."
Defense Intelligence Agency Deputy Director David Shedd said the federal government's online Library of National Intelligence is helping analysts build so-called "communities of interest." (Defense Intelligence Agency)

The federal government's online Library of National Intelligence is one of the most important and unheralded parts of its effort to encourage information sharing and collaboration, the Defense Intelligence Agency's deputy director said last week.

In a June 23 interview with Federal Times, David Shedd said the library doesn't just help an analyst find pieces of information compiled by other intelligence agencies on, for example, Kim Jong Il's health. It's helping that analyst network build so-called "communities of interest" made up of analysts from other agencies who are all studying the same subject.

"It's a major change," Shedd said. "First, culturally, it sends a very clear signal that [there is a] responsibility to provide those who have a mission need ... access to discovering that there's information on that. It establishes communities of interest that transcend the bounds of any one agency ... and you have almost a social networking begin to occur on the basis of common, known information."

The CIA began working on the library in early 2007, and within two years, all intelligence agencies were submitting their reports and other intelligence products to the online repository. For the first time, analysts can search the library for summaries so they can know what products are even out there. Those summaries are classified at the lowest possible level.

And if an analyst's request for a crucial report is denied, he can appeal that decision to an adjudication team. Former Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell set up the appeals process in 2009 when he signed a directive ordering intelligence agencies to improve their information sharing.

For decades, intelligence agencies have had a deep cultural bias against sharing information with one another. But after the government's inability to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks or properly assess Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities and other high-profile failures, intelligence agencies have acknowledged that they must do better at collaborating.

To achieve that, agencies have begun requiring officials to spend time working at other agencies before they can be considered for top jobs. They train their analysts to share data with one another. And they have created new information-sharing networks, such as the library and a Wikipedia-type program called Intellipedia.

But Shedd said the generational shift to a younger workforce as much as two-thirds of the DIA workforce has been hired since Sept. 11 is helping encourage more cooperation. Younger workers have much less patience for traditional bureaucratic barriers and expect information will be shared, he said. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are especially disinclined to pay attention to those barriers, he said, since they were ignored in combat zones.

"They are driving that change, in terms of breaking down those barriers," Shedd said. "They don't quite understand why they exist when they come back inside the Beltway."

Shedd said younger workers also embrace the need for "red-team" analysis, or looking at a problem from another angle and coming up with a dissenting view.

The Iraq WMD failure showed the importance of challenging conventional wisdom, he said. During the run-up to the Iraq war, the intelligence community ignored analysts who challenged the belief that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.

And younger employees are comfortable working in a virtual space with counterparts at other agencies and using open-source information from around the world, since many younger analysts grew up using social media and other forms of electronic communication.

"I see my job is, how do I enable them to do that securely?" Shedd said. "The ones I talk to are far less concerned with who gets the credit. It's an interesting phenomenon. The collaborative nature, of how they view the world, is different than in the past."

But managing the expectations of new intelligence employees in their 20s and 30s can be difficult. They are very smart, Shedd said, but many sometimes feel that their intelligence should trump their inexperience and they should earn quicker promotions.

Meanwhile, older intelligence employees sometimes resist efforts to change the way things are done and feel the need to double-check and micromanage younger employees' work and communication.

"It won't work," Shedd said. "There's too much data. There's too much social networking occurring."

Shedd said he is trying to resolve these tensions by encouraging older employees to mentor younger employees and pass on their decades of experience.

The intelligence community also needs to welcome back analysts and other employees who leave the government but later seek to return, he said. For years, getting rehired after leaving an intelligence job was nearly impossible.

But the younger generation is more restless and likely to bounce around in their careers, Shedd said. They're likely to gain new perspectives by working in academia or the private sector, and the intelligence community should learn to take advantage of that alternate experience. And if the intelligence community blackballs those prodigal children, it will completely lose the investment made in their training and development.

"I grew up in an environment, professionally, where there was a black mark" for leaving, Shedd said. "You left, you were disloyal. Plain and simple. We need to get past that. I have got to find a way to retap that talent further down, midcareer."

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