Intellipedia: A New Spy-Agency Tool

U.S. spy agencies have a new tool. Intellipedia allows thousands of people with relevant experience to create a constantly updated online resource document. But even though it takes a top-secret security clearance to use it, some observers fear security leaks.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Let's say I want to be a spy. What do I need? Hmm. Invisible ink, micro cameras hidden inside fake pens, a fake passport? Well, American spies now have a new tool. It's called Intellipedia. It works like the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, except that it's for people with top security clearances.

As NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports, Intellipedia has the potential to revolutionize the way U.S. intelligence tackles targets from al-Qaida to North Korea.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: The idea for a top secret version of Wikipedia grew out of the fact that roughly half of U.S. intelligence analysts are at the very beginning of their careers. The 9/11 attacks resulted in more money for the CIA and other spy agencies, and that's meant lots of new hires.

These people are often in their 20s. They use Wikipedia all the time. And, says Michael Wertheimer, the intelligence community's chief technical officer, they figured why not use it for their intelligence work.

Mr. MICHAEL WERTHEIMER (Chief Technology Officer, National Intelligence): This is how they do their work. They're asking for this. No senior leader said, boy, we ought to have an Intellipedia. It was their initiative, and all we did was make it possible for them to try it.

KELLY: So far, about 3,600 intelligence officials have signed up to use the site. Anyone with an account can read and edit items. But unlike Wikipedia, you can tell who edited a page and what they changed.

Senior analysts are using the program to compile a new National Intelligence Estimate on Nigeria. But perhaps the most promising future use is when a crisis hits. In a briefing for reporters, the CIA's Sean Dennehy(ph) pointed to the moment earlier this month when New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle crashed his plane into an apartment building.

Mr. SEAN DENNEHY (CIA): At the point where the plane crashed, we really weren't sure if this was an intelligence-related issue or not. So we had nine different agencies and about 20 different users from different agencies jump in and start creating this article just in case it was terrorist related.

KELLY: Over the next two hours, Intellipedia was updated 80 times. That said, Intellipedia still has a ways to go before it might replace existing methods of sharing intelligence. Michael Wertheimer concedes he worries about the possibility of secrets leaking, particularly with so many people potentially able to see high-level documents, such as National Intelligence Estimates.

Mr. WERTHEIMER: There's a risk that you put an NIE up on Intellipedia, where you've got tens of thousands of users who really don't have a need to know, to see it, you risk that it's going to show up in the press; it'll be leaked.

KELLY: For that reason, as well as concerns about outside efforts to hack into the server, the most sensitive human and satellite intelligence is being kept off the system.

And many older analysts aren't quite as enthusiastic about the technology as their younger colleagues. Fred Hasani(ph), a senior intelligence official who's helped develop Intellipedia, told reporters he's had to get creative in encouraging people to try it.

Mr. FRED HASANI (Senior Intelligence Official): So we do even silly things. Like when somebody contributes a lot, we send them a shovel that says I dig Intellipedia. It's wiki-wiki, baby. And we usually send it to their superior or their commanding officer, and it gets given to them as a at-a-boy for having gardened in the Intellipedia.

KELLY: Well it may or may not be thanks to the shovels, but Intellipedia does seem to be catching on. Between 20 to 100 new users are signing up every day.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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