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Creaky Collaboration

Jon Krause

Concerns about information sharing persist, and they're dividing the intelligence community.

A minor rebellion broke out in the intelligence community a few months ago when the Office of the Director of National Intelligence announced it was shutting down a popular e-mail system. Called uGov, it allowed employees of different agencies to share information securely with each other, often without revealing operational details such as which agency they worked for or where they were located. uGov looked like a prime example of the innovation that many intelligence reformists, as well as the 9/11 commission, had demanded in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. It allowed people separated by barriers of secrecy to work together, even if on a limited basis. And judging by the outraged response that news of its demise drew, the sharing system apparently had taken hold.

Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic, a sister publication of Government Executive, broke the news of the shutdown, and it set off a flood of e-mails to the DNI's office. Aggrieved employees actually set up a protest wiki to save uGov. "I can't imagine doing my job as effectively without it," Ambinder quoted one DNI employee saying. A Navy officer reported that following a "catastrophic loss of communications [in Europe], decision-makers were kept in the loop only because we could access ugov.gov accounts from mobile devices and send updates and pictures." A CIA analyst claimed the system offered the only way to provide state and local law enforcement officials with homeland security information. And on and on.

Officials cited undefined security concerns as the impetus for terminating the system. This has always been the Achilles' heel of any open platform that allows employees with unequal access to secrets to communicate with each other. But outraged analysts questioned whether their leaders also would take the ax to other popular collaboration tools, like the wiki Intellipedia. Officials tried to assure them those tools were safe.

The protests, as well as Ambinder's dogged coverage of them, might have convinced intelligence leaders to alter their course. The ODNI has promised to hold off on ending uGov for some months and to assess the effects of shutting it down. And a letter to employees insisted the office "remains committed" to providing technology services across the intelligence community.

Yet one has to wonder how solid those assurances really are. For one thing, the very rebellion that the threat to uGov touched off likely affirms the initial fears some officials had about it. From the perspective of a security officer, whose sole mission is to ensure an agency's secret business stays that way, the employees who adore uGov are the ones who have no qualms about airing their agency's dirty laundry in public. Some aggrieved employees actually posted their remarks on Twitter for anyone to see.

Of course, had the protests never occurred, it's likely that uGov's opponents would have succeeded in killing it. No one has claimed that the system led to any security breaches, or that it threatened an agency's turf. So, it is tempting to conclude that skeptical officials were slaves to a kind of parochial thinking that a significant portion of the intelligence community finds antithetical to the way they work.

These might be irreconcilable differences. Security always has been the bane of innovation. The question long facing the DNI has been whether to come down on the side of openness and to accrue all the benefits it can bring, or to stick with a closed and arguably safer model, which also has proved to increase the chances of a major intelligence failure. The fight over uGov speaks to a still deep-seated conflict over this fundamental problem. And it doesn't bode well for the future of collaboration.

Shane Harris writes about intelligence for National Journal. His first book, The Watchers, will be published in February.

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