By CLIVE THOMPSON The New York Times December 3, 2006
When Matthew Burton arrived at the Defense Intelligence Agency in January 2003, he was excited about getting to his computer. Burton, who was then 22, had long been interested in international relations: he had studied Russian politics and interned at the U.S. consulate in Ukraine, helping to speed refugee applications of politically persecuted Ukrainians. But he was also a big high-tech geek fluent in Web-page engineering, and he spent hours every day chatting online with friends and updating his own blog. When he was hired by the D.I.A., he told me recently, his mind boggled at the futuristic, secret spy technology he would get to play with: search engines that can read minds, he figured. Desktop video conferencing with colleagues around the world. If the everyday Internet was so awesome, just imagine how much better the spy tools would be.
But when he got to his cubicle, his high-tech dreams collapsed. "The reality," he later wrote ruefully, "was a colossal letdown."
The spy agencies were saddled with technology that might have seemed cutting edge in 1995. When he went onto Intelink -- the spy agencies' secure internal computer network -- the search engines were a pale shadow of Google, flooding him with thousands of useless results. If Burton wanted to find an expert to answer a question, the personnel directories were of no help. Worse, instant messaging with colleagues, his favorite way to hack out a problem, was impossible: every three-letter agency -- from the Central Intelligence Agency to the National Security Agency to army commands -- used different discussion groups and chat applications that couldn't connect to one another. In a community of secret agents supposedly devoted to quickly amassing information, nobody had even a simple blog -- that ubiquitous tool for broadly distributing your thoughts.
Something had gone horribly awry, Burton realized. Theoretically, the intelligence world ought to revolve around information sharing. If F.B.I. agents discover that Al Qaeda fund-raising is going on in Brooklyn, C.I.A. agents in Europe ought to be able to know that instantly. The Internet flourished under the credo that information wants to be free; the agencies, however, had created their online networks specifically to keep secrets safe, locked away so only a few could see them. This control over the flow of information, as the 9/11 Commission noted in its final report, was a crucial reason American intelligence agencies failed to prevent those attacks. All the clues were there -- Al Qaeda associates studying aviation in Arizona, the flight student Zacarias Moussaoui arrested in Minnesota, surveillance of a Qaeda plotting session in Malaysia -- but none of the agents knew about the existence of the other evidence. The report concluded that the agencies failed to "connect the dots."
By way of contrast, every night when Burton went home, he was reminded of how good the everyday Internet had become at connecting dots. "Web 2.0" technologies that encourage people to share information -- blogs, photo-posting sites like Flickr or the reader-generated encyclopedia Wikipedia -- often made it easier to collaborate with others. When the Orange Revolution erupted in Ukraine in late 2004, Burton went to Technorati, a search engine that scours the "blogosphere," to find the most authoritative blog postings on the subject. Within minutes, he had found sites with insightful commentary from American expatriates who were talking to locals in Kiev and on-the-fly debates among political analysts over what it meant. Because he and his fellow spies were stuck with outdated technology, they had no comparable way to cooperate -- to find colleagues with common interests and brainstorm online.
Burton, who has since left the D.I.A., is not alone in his concern. Indeed, throughout the intelligence community, spies are beginning to wonder why their technology has fallen so far behind -- and talk among themselves about how to catch up. Some of the country's most senior intelligence thinkers have joined the discussion, and surprisingly, many of them believe the answer may lie in the interactive tools the world's teenagers are using to pass around YouTube videos and bicker online about their favorite bands. Billions of dollars' worth of ultrasecret data networks couldn't help spies piece together the clues to the worst terrorist plot ever. So perhaps, they argue, it' s time to try something radically different. Could blogs and wikis prevent the next 9/11?