The Liberator

Mike Wertheimer may be the most dangerous man in U.S. intelligence. You would probably never guess it, judging from his lengthy and opaque title — assistant deputy director of national intelligence for analytic transformation and technology. A perfect testament to the well-worn bureaucratic tradition of offering little insight by tossing around a lot of words.

Wertheimer’s squishy and unassuming title only hints at some vague, general notion of what he actually does for a living. Particularly for the uninitiated, the moniker buries a sense of authority beneath a pair of prefixes (assistant deputy) and offers an unsatisfying buzzword descriptor (transformation), whose etymology points to some consultant’s pocket glossary. The title screams “middle management” and thus reassures, “This guy is not a threat.”

That message is especially ironic, because to thousands of powerful career employees in the American intelligence community, Wertheimer is, in fact, very threatening. He threatens to upend their world, to change the way they work, and to foist on them the values of a younger generation of spies, who happen to outnumber them. He also threatens to change the way that policy makers use intelligence to reach decisions, and so to “transform” the intelligence agencies’ role in the government. All of this makes Mike Wertheimer very dangerous to people who oppose his basic assumptions. And he knows that. He also knows that, to many thousands more in the intelligence field, he is something of a savior.

To understand the origins and purpose of Wertheimer’s office, of which he is the first occupant, it helps to refer to a document that also bears a lengthy title, the report by the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction. Better known as the WMD commission report, it provides a painstaking explanation of how 15 intelligence agencies collectively failed to discover that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction.

The contrary assertion that he did have those weapons — and thus was a threat to the Middle East and a potential benefactor for terrorists — was, of course, the Bush administration’s chief casus belli for the Iraq war. The claim was backed up at the highest levels of the intelligence community in a National Intelligence Estimate released to Congress in October 2002. The WMD commission, which published its findings in 2005, echoed the sentiments of many intelligence professionals, including some who had participated in and blessed the flawed prewar analysis, by pronouncing the episode “one of the most public — and most damaging — intelligence failures in recent American history.”

Wertheimer’s job is to prevent any more such failures and to make sure that the intelligence agencies can accurately predict a host of catastrophic events, including terrorist attacks and disease outbreaks. The commission laid much of the blame for the bad call on Iraq at the feet of analysts, whom it called “the voice of the intelligence community.” Although the problems begin with the failure to collect the right information in the first place, the commission particularly faulted the analysts’ inability to make sense of intelligence, and to present their judgments to decision makers. During his time in government, Colin Powell was widely regarded among professionals as a decision maker who understood this inherently murky process. He would say to his intelligence officers, “Tell me what you know, tell me what you don’t know, and then tell me what you think is most likely to happen.” When that analysis breaks down, as it did with Iraq, “the consequences can be grave,” the commission wrote.

To be sure, many career analysts object to the “flaws” the commission cited in their tradecraft, regarding both Iraq and another notorious intelligence failure: the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But very few argue with the substance, or the roots, of these breakdowns. The “intelligence community,” as the agencies are collectively known, hardly operates as one, and this lack of coordination and — especially — collaboration among analysts means that agency leaders and their clients often don’t know what the analysts don’t know. The disconnect also means that contrary analysis — of which there was a significant amount in the run-up to the Iraq war — may find no quarter in analysts’ final judgments. It is a disastrous situation for policy makers, who are increasingly turning to nongovernment experts and the news media for rapid, cogent analysis that the intelligence agencies can’t always provide.

The WMD commission identified the fix: “Integrate the community of analysts.” That’s easier said than done, of course, but Wertheimer and others who understand how very un-integrated the analysts are today know that it is prescriptive advice that they can’t afford to reject.

The Threat Within

“Post-9/11, we coined a term, the ‘asymmetric threat,’ ” Wertheimer says. “That’s a fancy way of describing a future in which the targets for intelligence, the things that we will focus on, are built, designed, and operate completely differently than the way we do.” Transformation, that fuzzy word in his title, means “removing that asymmetry.”

Before the attacks, the intelligence community was “like a power builder — very muscular but not very fast,” Wertheimer says. Today, the agencies need to be swift. They need to analyze more information faster. But analysts also need new ways to connect to one another, to benefit from one another’s knowledge. If a specialist on sub-Saharan Africa at the Defense Intelligence Agency is studying terrorist inroads into tribal communities, shouldn’t a CIA expert in Africa studies know that? Might she have something useful to contribute to the inquiry?

Collaboration isn’t an especially novel concept, and the WMD commission wasn’t the first to suggest that analysts do more of it. But Wertheimer is the first official in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — the “czar” of the community — to make collaboration a full-time job. Gen. Michael Hayden, the former principal deputy director of national intelligence who is now the CIA director, created the position after talking with Wertheimer two years ago about how to change the way the community operates. The new intelligence director, Mike McConnell, has forcefully backed the transformational efforts, as has his deputy in charge of analysis, Tom Fingar, a career analyst who used to run intelligence at the State Department. Fingar, who is essentially the only official layer between Wertheimer and McConnell, is the political muscle in this endeavor. Wertheimer is the idea man, “my philosopher of transformation,” as Fingar recently put it.

Transformation has less to do with changing procedures than with changing people. A key pillar is a suite of new information-sharing and collaborative technologies that look and feel a lot like Google, Wikipedia, and MySpace, the networking and search tools that younger analysts grew up using at home and in their dorm rooms. These newcomers have been baffled to find that these 21st-century staples aren’t widely used within the intelligence community.

The first of the new intelligence tools came online recently. Analysts can now log on to Intellipedia, a collaborative knowledge base that they can use to swap leads and examine one another’s work. (Officials say that Intellipedia helped one group of analysts create a helpful report on Iraqi insurgents’ use of chlorine gas to increase the lethality of improvised explosive devices.) Later this year, Wertheimer’s team will launch A-Space (“A” for analyst), modeled after MySpace and the popular website Facebook. Officials hope the new site will help analysts create social networks outside established channels.

In addition to the new tools, Wertheimer and his colleagues have created unusual training programs. One sends analysts to a monthlong retreat at a classified location where they work alongside private-sector experts to investigate complex intelligence topics. Another takes young analysts out of their assigned jobs for two years and puts them through an intensive training program where they learn the tradecraft but also such on-the-ground spy skills as defensive driving and weapons handling. Agencies will ultimately deploy these analysts to global hot spots to support spies in the field.

It’s no accident that Wertheimer and his team are aiming these new tools and programs at the younger crowd. Sixty percent of U.S. intelligence analysts have five years of experience or less on the job. In the larger intelligence community of about 100,000 employees, which includes clandestine operatives and support staff, those young workers are about 40 percent of the rolls. America’s spies are decidedly green, and they’re not comfortable — or particularly useful — working in bureaucratic silos without Internet browsers, instant messaging, and social networking sites on their desktops.

In his quest for transformation, Wertheimer is playing to this youthful workforce that finds collaboration neither newfangled nor threatening. For these analysts, networking is just the way information moves. But to the intelligence establishment, information is power, and relinquishing it means losing that power, as the WMD commission and many other critics have repeatedly lamented. It seems illogical to the generation of electronic socializers, but when information moves around, and becomes known to people who don’t have the “need to know,” veteran members of the community view it as no longer special because it’s no longer secret. Too much collaboration also threatens to reveal the sources and methods by which agencies obtain information — secrets they must zealously guard lest those sources dry up or get killed.

Sharing and secrecy are opposing forces. So this is Wertheimer’s task: Transform the massive intelligence bureaucracy into a collaborative network, in which loose lips are, in a way, encouraged; introduce technologies that many seasoned analysts neither understand nor trust; and build a cadre of young, ambitious rookies, who just can’t believe they’re not allowed to check their personal e-mail at work, into the future of the business.

The opposition is fierce. When The New York Times wrote about A-Space recently, analysts commented about the piece, and about Wertheimer, on a private intelligence community blog. Some recorded their dramatic dissent. “I guarantee,” one intelligence employee wrote, “Mike Wertheimer will cause people to get killed over this.”

“I am threatening the status quo,” Wertheimer says. “And that’s a hard pill to swallow for anybody.”

Taking the Blame

Wertheimer, 50, is a mathematician who earned his master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. He spent 21 years as a cryptologist at the National Security Agency, and rose to become the agency’s most senior technical leader. On paper, he fits the stereotype captured in an old joke among NSA hands: “How can you tell an extroverted analyst? He’s the one who looks at your shoes when he’s talking.”

But Wertheimer defies typecasting. When he speaks, he looks people in the eye, but often from above — he is 6 feet, 1 inch tall. He has arching eyebrows that signal when he’s listening but also serve as a warning for when he’s about to descend with an impassioned argument or an analogy that he thinks perfectly captures what he’s up against. (In a recent conversation, Wertheimer compared the government’s attempts at collaboration to the Borg, the supremely villainous race of cyber-aliens on Star Trek: The Next Generation who “assimilate” whole societies by stripping people of individual character traits and turn them into one giant collective.) If you spotted Wertheimer in a room, or even better, watched him work a room, you might wonder why he hasn’t sought his fortune on the motivational speaking circuit.

When he speaks, you get the feeling that he’s talking to you. He reveals a lot about himself, which might be unsettling if he weren’t so earnest about connecting his flaws and fears to his intelligence work. At a recent conference on analytic transformation in Chicago, Wertheimer confessed to a crowd of more than 400 people that after the 9/11 attacks he felt personally responsible for not anticipating Al Qaeda’s strike. He became depressed, he said, and was inconsolable until his father snapped him out of it. “I don’t blame you for this,” Wertheimer’s dad told him, and then warned, “You’re scaring your kids,” who thought that whenever their father had to rush back to the office, something very bad was about to happen. Wertheimer briefly left government in 2003 to work as a technology consultant but returned two years later.

Wertheimer is like a number of other veteran intelligence officials who were involved in the global hunt for terrorists before 9/11. They feel that their own actions — more precisely, their inactions — allowed the disaster. Wertheimer says he blames himself and his colleagues. He thinks he personally failed and, accepting his part in a broken system, he seems to have no qualms about tearing it down and rebuilding.

“It is something that he can appreciate as being absolutely critical to the future of this country and the protection of the country, and when you hear him speak, you get caught up in that emotion,” says Tim Sample, a former analyst and staff director of the House Select Committee on Intelligence who knows Wertheimer well. Sample is president of the nonprofit Intelligence and National Security Alliance, which co-hosted the Chicago conference with the intelligence director’s office.

In large measure, Wertheimer’s charisma comes from his willingness to defy tradition. “We are going to share more,” he said in his Chicago speech. “We are going to take risks.” Directing his remarks at those who would rather preserve the status quo, he said, “For the first time, the challenge is not why we can’t do it; it’s how you’re going to find a way to secure this.” Rather than appeasing members of the intelligence community who blanch at collaboration and its attendant security risks, Wertheimer lays the burden on their shoulders and tells them that if collaboration doesn’t happen, they’ll take the blame.

But if Wertheimer succeeds, it probably won’t be by convincing his intransigent opponents. Rather, he will work with that younger generation at whom transformation is aimed. By and large, these newer members of the community are optimistic and, like him, believe that the intelligence community is dangerously broken.

“It’s Huge”

Sean Wohltman, a 25-year-old counter-terrorism analyst with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, embodies the kind of optimistic disillusionment that Wertheimer wants to harness. Two years after defending his master’s thesis in geographic information science at Virginia Tech University, Wohltman joined the government “following a call for patriotism,” he said. He encountered “disappointment and disillusionment” in his first three months on the job, however.

As Wohltman explained to the Chicago conference, “When I first logged on to what I expected to be a terminal from 24‘s [counter-terrorist unit] command center, I was instead driven to my agency’s home page, which flashed information about an upcoming picnic and links to fill out my health insurance. And not only that, it launched in Netscape.” Those in the audience who laughed understood that Netscape is an obsolete Internet browser.

Later, Wohltman explained why it mattered to him that the intelligence agencies were so far behind the technological curve. In 1999, when the popular and controversial music file-sharing system Napster debuted, he pointed out, Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca” and other corporately manufactured pop hits topped the Billboard charts. Only artists from big record labels got mass recognition, and listeners were cut off from the bounty of independent and innovative artists who excelled in a variety of musical styles. But that year, Napster’s collaborative technology allowed fans of lesser-known artists to share songs, which in turn boosted their recognition, fanned their popularity, and led to greater awareness of the wider music scene. It also fueled the market for independent music and challenged the record companies’ dominance of the industry.

Taking Wohltman’s analogy, Wertheimer says that the intelligence agencies could be compared to the record companies. Information is filtered through a hierarchical process that culminates in senior executives choosing what intelligence to disseminate to customers. Similar to Napster, tools such as Intellipedia and A-Space — known as “disruptive technologies” — bypass this process and get more information out to a wider audience.

But will collaboration guarantee better analysis? Did Napster improve music quality? Did it benefit the industry as a whole? Recording artists and companies sued Napster for copyright infringement, and the network shut down in 2001, eventually to be reborn as a pay-for-service system.

Napster did pave the way for other innovative technologies, which adapted to customers’ demands to buy music a la carte, rather than having to pay for an entire album. Today, Apple’s iTunes sells songs for 99 cents and threatens the record companies’ control of their own products. Collaboration, in a sense, won out, and customers’ demand for more music, delivered in new ways, has opened the market to more artists. “Will this lead to better music?” Wertheimer asks. “I can’t believe that it will not.”

Wertheimer and other transformation proponents often point to iTunes, and the hugely successful iPod music player, to support their theory that collaboration can fundamentally change and improve people’s lives. And they reason that A-Space, Intellipedia, and other innovative services will create demand in the intelligence community and overwhelm the transformation naysayers.

Wertheimer channels the enthusiasm of Apple’s CEO and co-founder, Steve Jobs, whose rousing keynote speeches, known as “Stevenotes,” command more press coverage and world attention than speeches by most members of Congress. But as with Jobs, some skeptics question both the substance and the goal behind Wertheimer’s zeal.

Early in Jobs’s career, a co-worker coined the term “reality distortion field” to describe the aura that the Apple prophet cast over his spellbound audiences. The term could easily apply to Wertheimer’s enthusiastic showmanship. Wikipedia describes RDF as “the idea that Steve Jobs is able to convince people to believe almost anything with a mix of charm, charisma, exaggeration, and marketing. RDF is said to distort an audience’s sense of proportion or scale. Small advances are applauded as breakthroughs. Interesting developments become turning points, or huge leaps forward.” (The phenomenon has been applied to other leaders, as well.)

Wertheimer does, in fact, applaud certain advances as breakthroughs that others — particularly those outside of government — might find underwhelming. For instance, one planned transformation program, the Library of National Intelligence, would be a repository of all the documents produced by all of the agencies. Eventually, Wertheimer hopes, analysts will search the library for key terms, and an automated system will help to judge who should have access to classified materials. He calls this program “huge.”

Why is it huge? Some observers would have a hard time believing that the agencies didn’t already have such a resource, the kind that most large organizations take for granted. LexisNexis, for example, contains copies of every article published in most of the country’s periodicals. Following basic business practices, most companies compile and retain their internal documents for research and for legal purposes.

Wertheimer is careful to put things in perspective. “It’s big,” he says of the library. But then he quickly follows up: “For us, it’s huge.” And he’s right. Much to the consternation of the WMD commission and others, this is a giant leap for the intelligence community, a kind of moon-landing moment.

But do collaborative libraries — and wikis, blogs, networking websites, and special training — make transformation worthwhile?

Change Without End

Mark Lowenthal retired in 2005 as the assistant director of central intelligence for analysis and production. Among seasoned intelligence officials, he is considered one of the most knowledgeable authorities on analysis, the agencies’ shortcomings in that regard, and the education of young analysts in the ways of the tradecraft. So in Chicago, when Lowenthal stood up to question why Wertheimer and the DNI’s office are expending so much energy on transformation, people listened intently.

“You are urging this transformation for an end that I do not understand,” he told Wertheimer. “Collaboration is not an end in itself, to my mind. You want to do this, I think, … to make analysis better. What does that mean? It means it would be faster? It would be more comprehensible? It would be more accurate more often? I don’t think you have a way of knowing at the end of the day when you get there.”

Lowenthal doesn’t dismiss collaboration out of hand, and he has spent a sizable part of his career trying to create a true intelligence community. But his remarks reflected a palpable skepticism among those who think that it is impossible to know whether Wertheimer’s ideas will actually fix intelligence. Lowenthal told him, “I think, unfortunately, a lot of this is pandering to a bunch of commissions that have no understanding of what we do for a living, or the nature of our work, and to a workforce. And I don’t think that’s a sufficient ground for a transformation. And so I’m left here wondering, what’s the end state? For what reason?”

Wertheimer responded that he didn’t have a satisfactory answer. The best he could offer, he said, were anecdotes. He has spent the past two years talking to analysts and trying to figure out what those who achieved real breakthroughs — overcoming “hard problems,” he said — had in common.

The few successes were not enough to prove a theory, he admitted. But the one trait these breakthrough-makers shared was — perhaps not surprisingly — collaboration. These were analysts who challenged old assumptions, re-examined evidence that had been set aside as useless, and shared information beyond normal channels. They also, Wertheimer said, ignored their bosses’ admonitions that such inquiries — going back to ground that had been plowed unproductively before — were “career killers.” Bucking authority is another of Wertheimer’s recurring themes. He says that a colleague once told him, “You will have succeeded when you become really hard to manage.”

Wertheimer, however, plays down the notion of analysts as revolutionaries. “I don’t like the thought that transformation is changing something from the past to something new,” he says. Rather, transformation is about “creating an environment in which more things could happen than could happen in the past. It’s liberating. Let’s call it ‘analytic liberation.’ “

Wertheimer seems perfectly comfortable working in this gray area, where there is no obvious way to know whether his ideas are working and where concepts change on the fly (transformation becomes liberation) and the end goal isn’t defined at the outset. Were it not for the DNI’s backing, such a nebulous, high-risk approach to preventing another intelligence disaster might never take flight. Wertheimer might still go down in flames, but taking that risk appears to suit him just fine. “We can’t afford the kinds of mistakes that we’re making based on the way we’re doing business today. It’s just the bottom line,” he said. Riffing off the intelligence blogger’s comments, he added, “If I’m the first one to get killed, so be it.”

The Hard Sell

Bravado may obscure Wertheimer’s pragmatic streak. He is provocative and excitable, and sometimes brash. But those who know him well say that he is also humble and self-deprecating.

He frets that he will become too personally associated with his cause. “I’m a little worried about this being too personality-driven,” he says. “This has got to be about ideas. We have to sell people on the ideas.”

Wertheimer knows that the reason his pitch isn’t resonating with enough people his own age is because he has failed to demonstrate how middle managers and veteran analysts — the people who are feeling most threatened — can take part in this grand enterprise, how they can be “liberated.” Wertheimer, the realist, has promised to find a place for them. But he does not apologize for embracing young analysts and for assaulting the culture that reared him. “We don’t allow our people to reach their full potential,” he told the audience in Chicago. “This is a society, this is a community, that tamps down potential.”

“We treat [analysis] like a guild,” Wertheimer said later, a society of apprentices who study at the feet of masters. “This is like making a fine violin or studying opera. That [approach] makes a lot of sense at the scale that you build violins or have opera singers. But we’re talking about massive [numbers] of young people coming in…. They learn on their own. They don’t read the rule book. They don’t read the owner’s manual,” he said. “They click buttons and investigate, and if they get bored, they do something else.”

If the two sides of this generational divide are irreconcilable, Wertheimer doesn’t seem worried, because the rookies have the clear majority. “It’s simply a matter of time,” he said. “Now, the question we all have in our minds is, how much time can we afford? We can’t afford another day.”

Several younger colleagues once asked Wertheimer to name his greatest career achievement at the National Security Agency. At one time, he said, he was the world’s leading expert on a certain cryptographic technology, the smartest man alive on that one subject. But “that’s not what makes me so accomplished,” he said. “It’s that I’m no longer the No. 1 expert, and that the experts are in this room, because I taught them. And they exceeded everything I could have done on my own.”

That’s one way Wertheimer judges success: Someone comes along and does it better. It doesn’t quite answer his critics’ concerns that his ideas might be flawed to begin with. But Wertheimer is a strong believer in the “wisdom of crowds.” He and his bosses are betting that collaboration is the way to fix what’s broken with intelligence and, by extension, to keep people from dying. If they are right that transformation, in all its forms, is the key to stopping another terrorist attack, or to avoiding another catastrophic intelligence failure, then it seems a decent bet that the next generation of analysts will follow Wertheimer’s lead.

“If I can just start something for which a handful of folks better and smarter than me take over,” he said, “if you could put that in my epitaph, I would die a happy man.”

Published in National Journal