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Blogging Intelligence

By Ryan Sager

A story on Friday caught the attention and raised the dander of bloggers across the ideological spectrum: A software contractor for the CIA, Christine Axsmith, had been fired for her postings on a restricted-access blog hosted within the intelligence community's classified intranet, known as Interlink.

"Waterboarding is Torture and Torture is Wrong." These are the words Axsmith seems to think got her fired. CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano, speaking to the Washington Post, which broke the story, would offer only a general comment: "Postings should relate directly to the official business of the author and readers of the site, and ... managers should be informed of online projects that use government resources. CIA expects contractors to do the work they are paid to do."

So, is Ms. Axsmith a cyber-martyr, paying the price for, as Andrew Sullivan put it, speaking on behalf of the "many in the CIA who cannot believe -- let alone condone -- what this administration has endorsed"? Or is she a cyber-goof-off, reaping what she sowed when she reviewed the food in the CIA cafeteria, on company time, under the handle Covert Communications?

Plenty of people in various realms of commerce have been having a tough time separating business from pleasure when it comes to blogging. Flight attendant Ellen Simonetti was famously fired for posting pictures of herself on her blog in her Delta uniform. Perhaps more famously, at least among tech nerds, a Microsoft contractor got the blue screen of death for posting pictures of Apple G5 computers being unloaded onto the software manufacturer's campus. And perhaps most famously, at least to politics nerds, in 2004, Jessica Cutler, a staff assistant in Sen. Mike DeWine's (R-OH) office, got into some hot water for chronicling her extracurricular (and extralegal) activities under the name Washingtonienne.

All these incidents point to a trend (three makes a trend, you can look it up): Blogs are a powerful tool for communication, but it's human nature to provoke, procrastinate and post sensitive information.

What a dangerous combination for people who deal in fighting the War on Terror. It's a danger, however, we're going to have to find a way to live with.

In a lot of ways, the Axsmith case is trivial. She seems to have been a low-level software tester, and, as such, she's a couple levels removed from actual intelligence gathering or analysis. What's more, if she was really reviewing the cafeteria food during work hours, her bosses were at least justified in telling her to knock it off -- if not, it would seem, to fire her for such an inconsequential bit of slacking.

More worrisome is what actually seems to have gotten her fired: blogging about interrogation transcripts she read as part of an assignment that, in her words, "should not be made public." It seems more likely that this breach was the proximate cause of her firing as opposed to her political views about the Bush administration and the Geneva Conventions.

In fact, the entire idea of a top-secret intelligence intranet would seem to be an invitation to incidents like this one: embarrassments major and minor, nasty internal spats and exchanges leaked to the press, and always the possibility of disclosures of sensitive intelligence.

At the same time, there's a growing awareness that new information-sharing technology, particularly blogging, can be a particular boon to the intelligence community. Blogger Daniel Drezner points to this article (PDF) by intelligence experts Douglas Hart and Steven Simon in the Spring 2006 issue of the journal Survival. If I may be permitted to quote at some length, because it's worth a read:

Current reporting procedures within the intelligence community enforce a hierarchical organizational structure in which information flows up and decisions flow down. Blogs, on the other hand, produce communities of interest in which power is manifested through the number of individual connections within a network, rather than through an individual's position with respect to reporting chains. These networks are key to emergent or new types of critical thinking amongst the analytical population. In other words, blogs might well be a means for individual analysts to express dissenting opinions that are not subject to official censorship.

Blogs can encourage critical thinking by placing bloggers in an informal and wide-reaching context of peer review that is not easily censored by management. Furthermore, a blog might be linked to structured arguments as evidence of the thought process that went into the argument. Alternatively, blogs, especially those espousing contrarian positions, could be linked to structured arguments as a means of safeguarding against analytical bias and its collective equivalent, groupthink. Blogs might also operate as digital dissent channels out of the glare of a stifling official context.

According to the New York Times, more than 1,000 blogs have been set up on classified servers in the last year. This is almost certainly a worthwhile experiment. But in undertaking it, the powers that be need to go in with their eyes open: Intelligence bloggers, whether "classified" or not, are going to act like bloggers in every other facet of life; they're going to have personalities, opinions, obsessions, ticks and spats with other bloggers; and without filters, without a net, they're going to do some stupid things and get in some trouble -- some of it, perhaps, winding up in the top brass's morning paper and spoiling their morning coffee.

The upside, we all hope, will be a smarter intelligence community, better informed, more collaborative, more open-minded -- and, most of all, benefiting mightily from the types of distributed information systems that have been revolutionizing every other aspect of American life.

As the Hart-Simon article notes, our enemies are already using these types of systems: "Jihadists have already formed their Internet-linked community, where networks coalesce in chatrooms, forums and blogs. ... this new approach to the creation of knowledge communities has enabled the eruption of knowledge from below, through the brittle crust of authority, into the open."

While Christine Axsmith's actions may not be exemplary, the overreaction to them shows that we've still got some catching up to do with our Jihadist opponents when it comes to making all the benefits of a free and open society work to our advantage.

Ryan Sager (rhsager.com) is author of “The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party.”

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