“Bring up the turnover blog on the big screen”
The first time I said those words on the US Pacific Fleet watchfloor, I got a weird look from my Intelligence Specialist, a Navy Sailor who only recently joined our team from his basic school. “A blog? Sir, we work in intelligence, not blogging.”
My watchfloor, a small group of 4 enlisted Sailors and one officer, maintained the intelligence plot for Commander, US Pacific Fleet (at first Admiral Harris, and later Admiral Swift). We watched all of Pacific Fleet’s area, a huge swath of the world that covers everything from Pakistan to China, North Korea and Russia to Indonesia, and up to the west coast of the US. When I came to the team, I learned how we partnered with a lot of other organizations and put together one neat picture for the Commander to make decisions. It was (and still is) a really important job. I watched our Commander use our information to make decisions that I would read about later in the news.
What I like to THINK I do, but in reality I point at a screen. A lot. Image from Wikipedia.
One of our biggest challenges was turnover. When you turnover what is happening in about 50% of the world, it’s a daunting task, and it’s easy to miss something. People before me had created turnover sheets that covered most things, but as the world got more complicated, it often fell short, especially for smaller countries. Most importantly, it was a paper sheet. Nobody outside our organization ever saw it.
I thought it was a weak spot, especially since many other organizations cued from us as to what was important in the world. So I persuaded my team to start writing our turnovers using Intelink’s blogging service. Intelink is a suite of sharing tools we have on our classified networks. The government buys a license for a tool, puts it on the network, and everyone can use it. The most well known is Intellipedia, which looks exactly like Wikipedia, except that you have to portion mark every paragraph with the proper classification. We also have WordPress for blogging, Pintrest (called IntelPin), Twitter (called Chirp) and a few others.
The beauty of Intelink is that the services are reliable and make it really easy to share and discover. If you tag your products on IntelPin or Intellipedia, suddenly others who are creating intelligence on the same issue can easily find them. Too many people have this idea that everyone in intelligence is on the same page and somehow has access to all the information about a topic, but in reality the landscape is divided among the 16 Intelligence Communities, and someone in the CIA could be working on the same thing as me and have no idea what I’ve done.
So we started the Pacific Fleet Intelligence Blog. It started as just my team, but soon it caught on to the other teams. They liked that we could hyperlink products, add images, and that you could easily pull up previous turnovers. It gave my boss and other organizations the ability to see what we were working on remotely. Soon my Intelligence Specialists were blogging like professionals.
Intelink came under fire in a recent article on Wired, which said it mostly failed and may have been manipulated by the outgoing Obama administration to spread disinformation about Russia’s influence in the 2016 election. Wired said that bureaucracy killed Intelink as a way to build a better National Intelligence Estimate, conjuring images of some creepy old guy in a suit holding folders of classified information yelling the spy equivalent of “Get off my lawn!” at some younger analyst. But as Hanlon’s Razor teaches us, the truth is probably much simpler.
The reality is that most older analysts don’t know how to share. They are very used to email. I managed a group inbox on the watchfloor, and it was constantly deluged with intelligence reports from all over the world. We would send out our brief, a 100 slide monstrosity, over email to customers. I started posting our brief on a document sharing site (called IntelDocs) and sending out a link. I swear, some people’s minds were completely blown that you could actually do that.
When money is tight, the first thing to get cut in the military is training, and I think we’re seeing that now. We have a lot of older analysts that we should be training on how to effectively use these tools, but we don’t. They aren’t stupid, they simply need someone to show them how to use these tools. But it’s not just the older folks. My junior analysts are smart people, but they are third generation users of the internet. Most never built a website from scratch on Geocities like so many of us did back in the day. Their internet usage consists of Facebook, Snapchat, Google and Tindr. We simply assume that Millenials have these skills, an assumption that I see proven false on a daily basis.
I think the future is bright for Intelink. The Pacific Fleet Intelligence Blog continued after I left, a good sign that it wasn’t just my “good idea fairy.” They also extensively use SharePoint, something I had helped setup with our network people in the last two months of my time there. My boss, who had started his career building briefs on paper, was regularly surfing our sites and pulling information down by the time I left.
Change it would seem happens one person at a time, and even those in intelligence can learn to share.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, US Pacific Fleet, or any other government agency. And please note that I use the word “spies” liberally, “intelligence professional” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.