American Spies Now Have Their Very Own Smartphone App
Chris Rasmussen is an evangelist, and his message is crowdsourcing. As a career analyst inside the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Rasmussen’s sermons have been limited to a closed top-secret community. But this week, he’s going public with his most radical idea to date, in the form of a smartphone app for senior US intelligence officers.
Called Tearline, the app is a wiki-style collaborative platform for reading and writing unclassified intelligence reports, complete with charts, comments, and updates. There are versions for mobile and desktop, Apple and Android alike. Anyone can download them, but without a vetted government credential you won’t be able to log in. (Think of it like banking: You can download the app for a bank you don’t use, but it won’t do you any good.) The Silicon Valley design firm IDEO helped with the look. And now that it’s finally available, Rasmussen and his team of iconoclasts can do nothing but hope that in the coming days, spies accustomed to extreme secrecy download it, log in, and see the light.
Keeping It Unclassified
For more than a decade, Rasmussen has striven to streamline the way spies at all US agencies write official intelligence reports. He was instrumental in the creation and adoption of Intellipedia, the Wikipedia for spies, now an intelligence community mainstay. He later developed a program called Living Intelligence, which he hoped would let spies collaborate on writing national intelligence estimates. It proved too radical a leap to find traction.
By separating out the unclassified from the classified in intel briefings, Tearline provides something entirely new. For a long time, that distinction didn’t much matter, since all the raw data that analysts used to build intelligence reports came from in-house, and was itself classified. Now, intel can come from all sort of private and public placesTwitter, Google Maps, you name it. Think, for example, of private satellites that can gather data similar to what NGA does.
Rasmussen took what he learned from the successes and failures of Intellipedia and Living Intel, and in 2015 convened an interagency team he called Pathfinder to answer two simple questions: Is it possible to crowdsource just the unclassified parts of intelligence reports? And if so, would people actually use it?
Tearline answers the first question. The second should prove harder.
“This could be a bomb. They could just not download it. They could stay in the SCIF,” says Rasmussen, referring to the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities in which senior officials read classified reports.
If the intelligence community does embrace Tearline, though, some much-needed innovation will finally connect the government’s most secret corridors with technology from the open internet.
The Coffee Strategy
Just like you might start your day reading the news over a cup of joe, so do spies. But while you might also review notes for that morning’s big work presentation, spies can’t. They can only access their work from secure facilities. That makes sense—no one wants top-secret information to fall into the wrong hands—but it’s also limiting, since much of what the intelligence community gathers and shares isn’t actually top secret at all.
Any given intelligence report will be roughly 20-percent classified info—“the spooky stuff,” Rasmussen calls it—and 80-percent unclassified context and background that someone reading about the spooky stuff needs to know to understand why the hell it matters. That’s called the “tearline,” diplomatic jargon for folding the report right before the sensitive stuff. “Above the tearline would be the classified version,” Rasmussen explains.
That 80-percent unclassified info currently lives only on the classified intranet inside intelligence agencies, and when printed out can only be looked at in secure facilities. Even if it’s on Intellipedia, the lowest-level of classification, senior intelligence officials can’t access it outside the network. So they can’t read it at home while drinking coffee, or helping get the kids off to school. And since there’s no system for writing it separately from the classified parts, they can’t jot down ideas from home when inspiration strikes. This leads to long hours at the office working on things that, with the right tools, could really be done from home.
“I was briefing this very, very senior official at the Pentagon, and he was like, I wake up at 5am, and I get the presidential daily brief at 9am. If you can give me 80 percent of the story unclassified before I even walk into the secure facility, that would be awesome,” says Rasmussen. “So that’s the goal.”
The Freedom of the Open Web
Rasmussen ran Pathfinder from within NGA, but with buy-in from most intelligence agencies, the Army, Marine Corps, and the Commonwealth allies (Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia). Approximately 30 agents from different agencies became full-time members of the Pathfinder team.
The team’s international collaboration required tools that are verboten in the classified system: the chat application Slack, Google Hangouts, Skype, and whatever else they wanted. Before, they couldn’t have their phones at their desks; during Pathfinder they could text with their spouses about school pickup as they researched the population of Chinese ghost cities for a Tearline report. It was a complete departure from what they were used to, and they loved every second of it.
“Often when youre in our line of work, you have to make the decision about whether you’re just gonna stay at work and miss whatever is going on in your life,” says NGA analyst Chris Henry. As a Pathfinder, Henry didn’t have to make that choice; he could take his kids to soccer practice and come back for a Google Hangout meeting with other Pathfinders. He found himself better able to focus on work without the distraction of being in an office.
The Pathfinder team developed a system for writing purely unclassified reports from the ground up, which incorporated most of the workflow Rasmussen had developed with Living Intelligence. The key was designing reports in the app, organized by topic, to be so easy to update that they always show the accurate current assessment.
IDEO’s main task was making the app as user-friendly as possible. Every Tearline report begins with a one- or two-sentence overview of the analysis, followed by a longer text block. Each section of the app has guidance for how to write successful reports. There’s also a timeline of changes, an area for asking questions, pointing ahead, and of course, citing sources.
The Pathfinders spent most of their time writing reports so that when Tearline went live, it was already providing value. Now the test is over, Tearline is live, and the Pathfinder team has disbanded and gone back to their normal jobs, a transition Henry describes as rough.
Now the real test begins. When senior officials download Tearline this week, they’ll be able to read the reports Pathfinders wrote for them, including the one on ghost cities. But without a dedicated team writing these reports full time, Tearline will only succeed if the officials who download it contribute to new reports themselves, and update these old ones.
“If there’s not 10 new stories in the next 90 days, the apps are going to die,” Rasmussen says.
Now that Tearline is out in the world, it’s out of all of their hands. “I believe that this time we can get it right,” Rasmussen says. One app download at a time.