Lawrence Wright’s epic profile of US intelligence supremo Mike McConnell in the New Yorker—not available online, unfortunately, but there’s an abstract here—is well worth trawling through. Wright is particularly skilful at reviving what can seem a very tired privacy vs security debate by taking us through the dilemmas faced by McConnell as a federal law seems to restrict his ability to eavesdrop on the conversations of the captors of three kidnapped soldiers in Iraq. McConnell tells Wright that he believes the laws governing surveillance by intelligence agencies are ill-suited to the age of hyper-communication, and are jeopardising the lives of Americas by placing overly restrictive limits on intelligence agents. (One of his cyber-security colleagues spells it out more bluntly to Wright: “We have a saying in this business: ‘Privacy and security are a zero-sum game.'”)
Yet McConnell, whose attitudes towards privacy concerns—essentially that they are overdone—seem to lean towards those of the old-fashioned, unreconstructed spymaster, has also overseen the adoption within the intelligence community of various online models to facilitate debate and discussion:
In 2006, the community adopted Intellipedia, a secure version of Wikipedia. Blogging is now permitted on internal servers, giving contrarian opinion a voice. There is a new “A-Space”—based on sites such as MySpace and Facebook—in which analysts post their current projects as a way of creating social networks.
Elsewhere, Wright tells us about wings of the intelligence agencies that trawl through thousands of foreign media and other open sources, looking for “early warnings” of things like epidemics that could have international implications. Open-source intelligence is a topic that we at Prospect have been fascinated by for a good while—though not yet one which we’ve written about in any detail. Of course, what Wright describes above is hardly “open-source” insofar as “Intellipedia” is kept secure and blogging allowed only on servers within the agencies. (And in the glory days of the cold war, technological innovations like these would probably have been invented rather than appropriated by intelligence agencies.) But it is nonetheless refreshing to see the US intelligence community open to novel systems that facilitate internal debate and dissent, and interesting to see how these developments play out in future US intelligence output.
There are already signs that this new, more open approach is bearing fruit. The December national intelligence estimate, which contrary to previous reports claimed that Iran had put its nuclear programme on ice back in…