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Friday, July 23, 2004

The Evening of the Deluge (J. W. M. Turner, 1843)
"The Need to Know" and "The Need to Share"

I think I'd like to take a break from "The Poverty of Communitarianism" for awhile and consider some other matters. One of these is politics. Today, the 9/11 Commission released its long-awaited report. The rare display of bi-partisan unity, directness, and commitment to the need for reform was notable in this campaign season. Lee Hamilton, the Vice-Chairman of the 9/11 Commission, in his initial summary remarks at the Press Conference accompanying the formal release of the report, said that we need a basic change of attitude in the intelligence community from "the need to know" to "the need to share". And Hamilton as well as other Commissioners emphasized the fragmentation of information about terrorism before 9/11 and the need for structural change in the US intelligence community to facilitate both an end to fragmentation and integration of information to let us see the patterns of terrorist activity and threat. Of course, there is little to argue with in this diagnosis from the point of view of First Generation Knowledge Management. The commission found "stovepipes" in the intelligence community aided and abetted by the doctrine of "the Need to Know", and the cure for that problem seems most immediately to be the integration of stovepipes and the substitution of "the Need to Know" with "the Need to Share." But will this recommendation really make us safer? Is it only information integration that we need to thwart the terrorists?

"The Need To Know" Can Mean Different Things

Of course, my answer to these last questions is that information integration will not make us safer, because we need more than just that to thwart the terrorists. In fact, what else we need is to "know" more about what the terrorists are likely to do. So apart from "The Need to Share" we also have "The Need to Know" but, of course, my "Need to Know" is not the same as "The Need To Know" Lee Hamilton was talking about. That "Need to Know" is about a situation where information or knowledge already exists in the intelligence community and access to it is restricted by security regulations in such a way that it is "stovepiped" and is unavailable to people in the community who need it to solve problems. In other words, that "Need to Know" is a negative doctrine about constraints that produces fragmentation and mal-integration of our intelligence knowledge base.

In contrast, our current "Need to Know" is about situations where the information or knowledge we need to make a decision does not exist and our problem is the knowledge gap between what we know and what we need to know. This "Need to Know" is about the need to solve problems effectively and about new policies in the intelligence community that will enable better success at making new knowledge that works against the terrorists.

"The Need to Know" and "Groupthink"

This second meaning of "Need to Know" brings us to the recent report of the Senate Intelligence Committee. While recognizing "stovepiping" as a problem, that report also attacked "groupthink" at the highest levels and attributed our intelligence failures to it. But what is "groupthink"? Stripped down to its essentials, "groupthink" is a problem solving process in which the range of tentative solutions and the range of criticism and evaluation of them are restricted so as to bias knowledge production towards the dominant opinion in the group. As much as we need information integration and to instill "The Need to Share", we need even more to ensure that our new better integrated intelligence community has healthy and "open" problem solving patterns. We need such patterns to encourage members of the community to create innovative solutions that have been subjected to and have survived our best efforts to refute them.

The danger in current proposals for a new Intelligence Directorate is not that they won't solve the problem of information integration, but that they may do so at the expense of imagination, creativity, and critical evaluation of proposed solutions to problems and intelligence estimates. In that case we will have more failures, more commissions, and more reorganizations, but no solutions to our intelligence problems.

"Fighting the Last War"

In the end, the 9/11 commission investigated 9/11 exhaustively and made recommendations for how another 9/11 can be avoided. But what about another Iraq? What about another 9/11 where the problem is not fragmentation of information, but a "glut" of conflicting information all integrated in the new National Directorate of Intelligence? If our objective is information integration, I'm sure the 9/11 commission is right in recommending a new National Directorate of intelligence with real authority over the community. But authority is always a two-edged sword. It can create the greater integration of information we need, along with a greater capacity for rapid response to threats. But, we must also see to it that the new Directorate runs an "open", adaptive, intelligence enterprise. And that means building both more creativity and more criticism into the intelligence gathering and estimation process. In reorganizing the intelligence community, we must not "fight the last war". We must build not just to fulfill "The Need to Share", but also to fulfill the real "Need to Know", the need to solve problems, to close knowledge gaps, that arise in the course of their intelligence work.
10:57:49 AM    comment []

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