The Purple History of Intelink

When I first began talking with DIA CIO Mike Pflueger and Deputy CIO Mark Greer in the fall of 2003 about the work I’d be doing with them inside government, most of the ideas were big ones: let’s re-architect the DoDIIS enterprise, let’s find and deploy revolutionary new analytical software. One of our thoughts was a little one, but for me personally it turned out to be a most valuable project. They let me pull together a panel for the upcoming 2004 DoDIIS Conference called “Geeks and Geezers,” featuring some of the grand old names of intelligence technology. The panel was a success, and in organizing it, I spent quite a bit of time talking to those giants, or should I say listening to them. I learned an enormous amount about “the early days.” This post describes the important work of one of those fellows. 

What’s this post about? History, actually.


As the decade draws to a close, it’s helpful to cast a look back at where we’ve been. It is important for those designing and building better systems today for the intelligence community, to know the history of the platforms they build upon. It can also set some context for changes in the Intelligence Community taking place right now. 

It turns out that in 2009 a couple of ships have passed in the night, as it were – technology leaders crossing between the IC and the Department of Defense. Earlier this year John Hale, the Chief of Service Delivery, IC Enterprise Services, left his ODNI position in charge of providing a series of agency-independent web-based solutions to IC users, including services like Intellipedia and its constellation of collaborative and analytical applications running across the shared Intelink web platform for all IC agencies to use. 

John moved from the IC over to DoD, and is now Chief Engineer for Net Centric Enterprise Services (NCES) at the Defense Information Systems Agency, or DISA, and folks have expected Hale to inject into DISA a new strain of innovative thinking from the IC. In one of history’s clever puns however, a mirror-image move has also just taken place: Dawn Meyerriecks, who served as DISA’s CTO earlier in the decade, has just joined the IC, as the new Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Acquisition and Technology. (See my companion piece on Meyerriecks, “Undercover Grrl Band Techno Rave,” pointing out that she joins a remarkable group of women at the pinnacle of the IC.) 

Meyerriecks’ DoD background is highly relevant to her IC assignment. As summed up in a 2004 Government Computing News profile on naming her Defense Executive of the Year, she created “a common operating environment for the military’s IT infrastructure, [led] the team moving the Defense Department from legacy systems and mainframes to IP networks, commercial software and PCs,… [and then] moved on to her next challenge: Dismantle it all and start over with her Net-Centric Enterprise Systems initiative.”  NCES still remains the cornerstone of new DoD mission systems and its platform for future web-based information technologies. 

The Strain of Purple DNA 

So if you see a synchronicity between the Intelink way of thinking in the IC, and the NCES mindset in DoD, you’re not dreaming. For the benefit of those who only have developed an acquaintance with intelligence systems since 9/11, I want to point out that the IC’s most salient technologies have a combined intelligence/DoD paternity —  one might say it’s a shared strain of Purple DNA, from the phrase in the military world: 

purple-suiter: An officer assigned to duty on a staff where no particular service predominates. This may be a joint staff, where all services cooperate, or a combined staff, where two or more allied nations participate. He is called purple because he loses the identity (and color) of his particular service, and the color purple is not used by any of the services. The official colors are green for Army, blue for Air Force, and white for Navy.   – DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, cited in “Jointness: A Selected Bibliography,” US Army War College Library, August 2007. 

A majority of IC employees have joined up since 9/11, and understandably don’t have the same understanding of history as veterans. It strikes me that some folks in and around the IC think that purpleness is a new development in the IC, sparked by the birth of Intellipedia just five years ago. Not so.  

Fully a decade before Intellipedia, in fact, Intelink itself was born in a remarkable outburst of purple thinking which would sound familiar to the Web 2.0 gurus of the IC today.  

As this decade opened, more than a year before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, an article in Government Executive magazine outlined the early-1990s development history of Intelink, “the Internet-like network that has changed the way the intelligence community does business.” 

The story of Intelink is not one of technology but rather the need for timely and accurate information. The network grew out of the problems the intelligence community and the armed forces faced during the Persian Gulf War. Warfighters complained that they had to access too many disparate intelligence systems and could not get a complete spectrum of intelligence. 

Former CIA Director James Woolsey and former Deputy Secretary of Defense John Deutsch got together and agreed something had to change. They knew intelligence systems had to become more interoperable. But they didn’t see how to get the multitude of intelligence producers and users together. In 1994, the Intelligence Systems Secretariat was created to tackle the problem.             – “Intelink,” Government Executive, April 2000 

A bureaucratic birth certificate of the ISS can be gleaned in an archived copy of a mid-1990s DoD Directive placing it under joint control and direction of the Defense Department and the Director of Central Intelligence – note, not the CIA, but the DCI wearing his “purple” community-wide hat. 

The Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Intelligence and Security) (DASD(I&S)), representing the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Command, Control, Communications, and Intelligence (ASD(C3I)) and the Executive Director for Intelligence Community Affairs representing the Director of Central Intelligence, shall Co-Chair the Board [ISB], which shall meet on the call of either Co-Chair. 

ISS (hereafter referred to as “the Secretariat”) shall operate under the guidance of the Co-Chairs of the Board… The Secretariat Director shall be appointed by the Secretary of Defense in consultation with the Director of Central Intelligence.  The Deputy Director shall be appointed by the Director of Central Intelligence in consultation with the Secretary of Defense… As the staff element of the Board, the Secretariat shall be staffed jointly by the Department of Defense and non-DoD intelligence elements.  
 – DODD 5100.85 “Intelligence Systems Board (ISB), ASD(C3I)” 

The ISS responsibilities on behalf of the entire Intelligence Community, both DoD and non-DoD intelligence, were laid out in the DoD pub. See if they ring true today: 

  • Enhancing interoperability of existing and planned automatic intelligence systems designed or intended for intelligence support to the U.S. Armed Forces.
  • Improving interoperability between intelligence and military command and control systems.
  • Defining interorganizational intelligence information architectures.
  • Establishing an automatic intelligence information systems management security policy.
  • Defining and coordinating common information handling standards and procedures.
  • Developing program and budget guidance affecting the development and operation of automatic intelligence information systems.
  • Evaluating and adopting new and improved automatic intelligence information management technologies.
  • Identifying priority automatic intelligence information systems that require funding support for acquisition and/or operations.
  • Designating of an Executive Agent(s) to implement and operate automatic intelligence systems as a service of common concern.

Parts of the long 2000 retrospective in GovExec magazine are worth revisiting, for the mid-90s parallels to what would happen later with Intellipedia, and what is hoped will happen now with “Living Intelligence” and similar innovations. It’s absolutely required reading for anyone working on those kinds of projects today. The account also tells the story of a remarkable man, who much later joined my “Geeks and Geezers” panel and whom I grew to count as a good friend, the legendary Steve Schanzer

Led by Steve Schanzer and his deputy Fred Harrison, the ISS sought to figure out the solutions to interoperability. They started out with studies and interagency committees, and the going seemed slow. But in the spring of 1994, Schanzer got an idea: create a private Internet… 

The group experimented with the idea of a secure Internet and appropriated the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS) network as the backbone for the operation. JWICS is a classified, private network with no links at all to the public Internet. “JWICS provided the top secret backbone, analogous to the Internet, that we needed,” Harrison says. 

The idea was that intelligence organizations would put up Web sites on this network so that users would be able to surf it using commercial search engines. “The novel thing about this approach,” Harrison says, “was providing access over JWICS to other organizations’ servers.” 

Schanzer calls the new approach a “demand model” for intelligence. “Our goal was to improve interoperability throughout the intelligence community,” Schanzer says. “The normal approach to this type of thing had been a technical one that involved developing standards that organizations would have to adopt”-in effect, forcing all the systems to speak the same language, even if it wasn’t their native language. 

“I tried to approach the problem from a different angle,” Schanzer says. He figured that once the network’s users got a taste of what it could do, they would find it irresistible. This thirst for information would get his team farther toward their goal of interoperability faster than ramming standards down the throats of already isolated and sometimes suspicious analysts and intelligence consumers. 

Schanzer believed high-quality intelligence would attract users, who would demand more content from more sources. This expansion, in turn, would lure more players from the disparate parts of the community. The model is the same that many e-businesses use, with customer demand as its their growth engine. 

During Intelink’s initial test, Schanzer and Harrison let anyone who wanted to be part of the action take part. Although the test linked fewer than a half-dozen Web servers, everyone with access to JWICS could log on with a Web browser and try it out. The experiment worked. “Intelink went from just two or so participating organizations to 10,” Harrison says. “Then there were 20, then 30 and 40. More and more organizations wanted to be on the network.” 

“Organizations began to feel they couldn’t be left out of Intelink,” he says proudly. 

“We found that as more and more information became available on Intelink the more people wanted on there. It just grew, similarly to the real World Wide Web,” says [Intelink Management Office director Jim] Peak. 

Schanzer calls Intelink’s philosophical foundation “an information-driven model rather than a technology-driven model. Even so, Intelink does have a high degree of technology underpinning it.” 

“In the end,” he says, “Intelink changed the way intelligence was published and disseminated. There was a sense that here was a mechanism for disseminating intelligence that had value and grew for the same reasons as the Web and that is because it was compelling.” 

“Plus,” adds Harrison, “the great thing about all this was that all the technology was already in place so there was no real investment required. What was required, though, was a paradigm shift in attitude.” Intelink has enabled data sharing across the intelligence community and converted once-isolated agencies into information sharers. 

“When word got around about Intelink, we used this wonderful idea as a lever for promoting other interoperability initiatives,” Harrison says. 

Relevance of Past to Future 

In many ways, you could simply substitute “Intellipedia” for “Intelink” in those quotes, a decade later.  Each wave of reform brought only incremental progress, to be sure.  Heads are still banged against desks at the inanity of the crushing bureaucracy that remains, the old-think practices, the data hoarding. 

But those network effects and viral growth rates continue to be sought by those in today’s innovation efforts. I’ll end with one admirable example: the reform IC movement to highlight “Purple Intelligence,” also dubbed “Living Intelligence” for its reliance on online collaborative technologies like wiki software.  Here’s the IC’s most prominent social-software evangelist, Chris Rasmussen, describing the concept in September 2009 at the O’Reilly Government 2.0 Expo Showcase. If you detect strains of the Purple DNA stretching back to Steve Schanzer, you’re not alone. 

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8 Responses

  1. […] check out Lewis Sheppard’s blog post, The Purple History of Intelink, who posted this […]


  2. What a wonderful survey of tech innovation inside the IC. More of us should aspire to such purple thinking.


  3. […] post:  The Purple History of Intelink « Shepherd's Pi Categories: Internet Tags: changed-the-way, decade, government, intelink, Internet, […]


  4. Rassmussen ranting at Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase was my greatest achievement, mwuaa ahaha ha ahaaaha hahahaa


  5. Of course writing a short history of Intelink without mentioning Randy Marks, perhaps the most hands-on and singularly influential technologist and leader associated with Intelink’s “growth period” is like writing a history of jazz without mentioning Miles Davis or Stan Getz. Others founded Intelink, but Randy brought it to the operators as a scalable, robust, enterprise capability.

    During those so-called “DoDIIS Way-Ahead” years, the smartest thing DIA and DoDIIS could have done with respect to Intelink would have been to send over wads of money and get out of the way. So mostly they just got out of the way, but not for lack of trying to get in the way.

    Now the dialogue is how to find the proper long-term home for Intelink — since ODNI senior leaders are openly opining that they should not be in the “run and operate” or “service provisioning” business. Ironic that as Intelink officially celebrates 15 years of world-class services and support to the extended national security community, the bureaucrats are falling all over themselves figuring out how to kill it — mostly through benign, uninformed neglect.

    This is why the long-term prognosis of anything run by Washington DC bureaucrats is so poor. If Admiral Blair were reading this column, I’d be inclined to advise him to outsource Intelink to Verizon or AT&T or Cisco or Google or some other credible private sector player, and tell them to keep the rates at or below what they’ve been and continue to innovate on the shoulders of a smart, scalable enterprise open-source model.

    Fun blog tho – as always. Thankfully some of the folks you do name are slipping, year-by-year into nice comfortable obscurity.

    Aloha, Dave


    • Dave! You emerge from nice comfortable obscurity, to write a great comment 🙂 I should have mentioned Randy Marks and Jim Peak, and Roc Meyers who did so much of the early web-services architecture work even before Intelink but upon which it relied, in the old Military Satellite Office. Great guys all.

      I would blame my editor, if I had one 🙂


  6. […] The Purple History of Intelink […]


  7. I don’t believe all the folks involved in air travel safety have been introduced to all the inter-agency sharing of information that you and others put together when you were at DIA….apparently the idea of “who gets the credit” is only applicable when it’s negative……not to be critical of anyone but just an observation. JNS


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