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NO DNI love for uGOV

In the finger-pointing-fest after 9/11, the US Intelligence Community was blamed for failing to “connect the dots.” As incomplete a description of the intelligence analysis process as that may be, it brought to the fore a point that many of us in the business had been complaining about for years: stovepipes and parochial interests inhibited our ability to produce the best intelligence.

Which makes the story of the ODNI closing the UGOV and BRIDGE collaborative environments, covered by Marc Ambinder in the Atlantic blog, so devastating:

The intelligence community’s innovative uGov e-mail domain, one of its earliest efforts at cross-agency collaboration, will be shut down because of security concerns, government officials said […]

[This] follows reports that another popular analytic platform called “Bridge,” which allows analysts with security clearances to collaborate with people outside the government who have relevant expertise but no clearances, is being killed . . .

The importance of things like UGOV and BRIDGE cannot be understated. New analysts who use tools like Chirp (the IC’s version of Twitter), A-Space and Intellipedia are always surprised to hear me talk about how back in the day, in addition to walking to work barefoot in the snow and uphill both ways, if you wanted to collaborate with your peers in another agency you had to run a deception operation against your own boss because working with anyone outside your agency was considered disloyal. Working with someone outside the community just wasn’t done (at least not at the functional level in any meaningful way). UGOV gave functionality and (more importantly) legitimacy to the idea of working together, whether driven by your own initiative or real-world events:

ODNI frequently stands up temporary analytical groups that take in analysts from agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the DIA and the National Security Agency (NSA); the uGov domain made it easy to give all of them a common platform.

“Security concerns” is the excuse being used to take down UGOV, but that doesn’t explain why BRIDGE has to go too unless “security concerns” is code for “we’ve been hacked.” That’s pure speculation on my part, but if you have tracked any of the traffic related to Cyber Command, the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative, or the Cyber Czar, you know that systems like UGOV or BRIDGE would make for attractive targets by myriad adversaries. And while such systems would surely be outfitted with some of the best security mechanisms the IC could provide, if it’s connected to the ‘Net, its hackable. Even a small compromise would be all the excuse needed to get such systems shut down en masse. The “deny all” security mindset that prevails in the community hasn’t prevented our adversaries from compromising us in the past, its really just a convenient way to hate on collaboration.

Collaboration, and the tools that facilitate it, also often run up against the juggernaut of older technologies and those with a vested interest in supporting them. There is still a lot of big iron in the community as well as software designed to support how the intelligence business worked 20 years ago.Converting and/or upgrading is expensive, but in the long run money is cheap: the price we pay for using legacy systems (and bad retrofits) and not an open framework that can address the needs of the mission today and rapidly adapt to future needs cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

There are those who applaud the progress the IC has made since 9/11, but I would argue that while some of the technology being used has indeed improved, and we are on the path to achieving “living intelligence,” the way the community works and is managed remains largely unchanged. It is still an industrial age system that rewards stove-piping. Looking after your agency’s parochial interests is still the fastest and easiest way to get ahead. Buying monster technology solutions from the usual suspects – usually to the detriment of the mission – is easier than going lightweight and cheap (if not free). Working on “joint” projects is still something relegated to ‘those who can be spared’ or those intrepid few who accept that collaboration means disobeying orders.

There is hope:

UGov has been especially popular among the large tranche of analysts who joined the community after 9/11. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) runs the network.

Already, analysts have contributed to a “save uGov” wiki on a community-wide network which, unless you’re got access to the secret network, you can’t access at this url:

But like so many bottom-up revolutions throughout history, absent powerful, external support, the end result is likely to be more Grant-through-Richmond than Walesa and Solidarity.

For all the great work being done in the IC, imagine what could be done if everyone in the community – especially its leaders – stopped worrying about spending more money and getting more credit, and embraced the idea that “light” and “cheap” are not synonymous with “bad” and that none of us is as smart as all of us?

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji spent nearly 20 years in the US intelligence community. Trained in both SIGINT and HUMINT disciplines he has worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office. At various points in his career he served as an expert in information warfare, computer network operations, computer forensics, and indications and warning. A veteran of the US Army, Michael has served in both strategic and tactical assignments in the Pacific Theater, the Balkans, and the Middle East.