When Sean Dennehy and Don Burke were tasked with increasing knowledge sharing across the intelligence community in 2005, it was like being asked to promote vegetarianism in Texas. Against the odds, these analysts in the Central Intelligence Agency have succeeded in creating a tool that breaks with the prevailing culture, increases the flow of information and ultimately makes our country safer.
The intelligence community has traditionally discouraged the sharing of intelligence widely for fear of compromising classified information. The downsides of this strategy became apparent to federal officials after learning how intelligence agencies failed to “connect the dots” in the months leading up to the September 11 attacks.
Former Deputy Director of Intelligence Carmen Medina explained, “There was way too much weight placed on the individual actor model of analysis, but the world’s too complicated and dynamic for that.”
Armed with the support of forward-thinking leaders and technology enthusiasts in the community, Dennehy and Burke charged ahead to bring the open source ethos that drives the Internet into the intelligence business. After overcoming several early obstacles—including a rejected funding proposal, debates about the design of the software, nagging concerns about security, and perpetual cultural resistance—they finally achieved initial success with “Intellipedia,” an internal knowledge repository modeled off the popular user-generated Wikipedia.
“As an analyst,” Dennehy said, “it resonated with me to see pages about sensitive topics created by numerous contributors.”
Since Intellipedia’s creation by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), Burke and Dennehy’s primary task has been to serve as “evangelists,” educating analysts and spreading the word about the potential benefits of Intellipedia and other social media tools.
To encourage intelligence analysts to join and actively engage in these tools, Burke and Dennehy developed ways to recognize contributors who have cultivated the program. In addition, the pioneering duo has organized a week-long “sabbatical” program to teach analysts how to use Intellipedia and ODNI’s other social media tools.
ODNI and CIA officials were quick to recognize the magnitude of Burke and Dennehy’s accomplishment. “It’s hard to overstate what they did,” Eric Haseltine, former chief technology officer of the intelligence community, said. “They made a major transformation almost overnight with no money after other programs failed to achieve these results with millions of dollars in funding.”
Due to Burke and Dennehy’s pioneering spirit and sabbatical program, Intellipedia has grown into a full-fledged library of crucial intelligence information with more than 900,000 pages and 100,000 user accounts. Dennehy and Burke, however, don’t see this progress as an end in itself, but rather as a means of improving the capacity of the nation’s intelligence community, which the program’s supporters claim has already occurred.
Eric Haseltine says that there have been many instances in which the community reacted “more quickly and more intelligently” to potential terrorist threats than they would have without Intellipedia. In just a few years, analysts have already used Intellipedia to analyze potential threats to the 2008 Beijing Olympics; to argue about potential perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai attacks; to create a protocol for documenting cases of improvised explosive devices in Iraq that contained chlorine; and to prevent the transfer of sensitive materials with input from analysts at five agencies.
Intellipedia supporters argue that it’s not just about the concrete successes that the program has facilitated, but the “dozens of little victories” that occur every day thanks to information flowing in from agents from the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies around the world.
Despite the early victories that Intellipedia has created, improving communication in the intelligence community remains a challenge. Perhaps indicative of analysts’ distrust of information sharing in such a sensitive occupation, the number of contributions to the top-secret version of Intellipedia remains only a minor percentage of the total work performed by the Intelligence Community. Additionally, a report by ODNI’s inspector general in April 2009 noted that “stovepiping” within the disparate intelligence agencies continues to hamper the community’s mission.
But with Dennehy and Burke’s energy, knowledge and tools, ODNI officials are confident that they will leave a lasting imprint on the intelligence culture. Medina hopes that Intellipedia can be the “atom bomb that breaks up the old culture” with a new “platform for progress.”
These medalists were the recipients of the Justice and Law Enforcement Medal. This medal was combined with the Homeland Security category in 2013, and renamed the Safety, Security and International Affairs Medal in 2020.