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Collecting the Dots

“We’re entering a new era of knowledge management,” declares In-Q-Tel CEO Gilman Louie. “Call it the era of chaos or complexity or whatever trendy term you want. We’re looking at a level of integration that has never been contemplated before in government.”

It’s too soon to know how (or whether) officials in Washington will approach this challenge. Any effort will  most likely be spearheaded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which is still in the process of organizing itself. Nevertheless, it certainly is not too soon to take a look at how such a virtual intelligence system might work and how it might use technology most effectively.

Before we can connect the dots, we first have to collect the dots. And in the war on terrorism, notes the Markle report, “most of the people, information, and action will be in the field.” Critical clues can come from unexpected places: “a cop hearing a complaint from a landlord, an airport official who hears about a plane some pilot trainee left on a runway, an FBI agent puzzled by an odd flight-school student in Arizona, or an emergency room resident trying to treat patients stricken by an unusual illness.”

Likewise, in most cases, most of the expertise required to interpret particular pieces of intelligence or to devise responses will reside with local officials and other agencies outside the centralized-intelligence community. If, for example, a town is facing a threat to its water system, an appropriate response team might include state officials and local hospitals, as well as public utility commissioners, building inspectors, and watershed conservationists. So the virtual community’s most basic requirement will be an online meeting space that’s open to any and all such officials. Such a system could be implemented as a virtual private network running on top of the Internet, with standard encryption techniques providing the security. Many companies have been operating virtual private networks for several years.

But simple communication is only part of what’s needed. Investigators from myriad federal, state, and local agencies will also have to share data quite freely, if only because there’s no way to know in advance what information will be relevant to whom. This commonsensical notion is not the norm in conventional intelligence agencies, where to protect sources and methods, information is kept tightly compartmentalized. Yet information sharing among employees is increasingly common in the corporate world;  open communication helps companies become much more flexible, innovative, and responsive to customers. And it is even taking root in the Pentagon, where information sharing is known as network centric warfare. A prime example: the Afghanistan war, during which everyone involved-imagery analysts, fighter pilots, and experts on Afghanistan itself-had access to the same data and could interact in real time.

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