15,000 Affected By Intelligence Community Server Shutdown

The impending shut-down of the unclassified uGov e-mail domain affects more than 15,000 members of the U.S. intelligence community -- not hundreds, as I wrote yesterday, and replacing it with a similar, more secure system will be difficult, according to senior intelligence officials, given how thousands of intelligence agency employees have come to rely on it for their daily work. Another official with direct knowledge of the decision said that, until reporters and agency employees began to ask about uGov, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) did not intend to say when -- or whether -- the system would be replaced after it first announced the termination.

The ODNI plans to use a version of Microsoft's Exchange software to replace uGov, according to these sources. But only its 1,500 employees will be migrated over.

During a private meeting yesterday, the intelligence community's chief information officers discussed the uGov closure and concluded that it would not hamper intelligence collection or analytical priorities.

But testimonials to uGov's innovation and effectiveness continued to pour into a protest wiki set up on the Intellipedia website,

A member of a provisional reconstruction team in Iraq wrote that uGov was essential for her job, and that the alternative was Gmail -- a non-government system with fewer safeguards.  uGov, according to several officials who use it and to internal, unclassified documents, has at least five interlocking layers of security and passed an intrusion test put to it by the CIA last year.

A Navy officer who works with the NSA on cyber security said that uGov "reveals that I'm
a US govt employee, but not that I often work for NSA.In the military," -- an important layer of protection for operational security. 

A CIA analyst who works on open source projects with state and local law enforcement officials said that uGov provided the only secure way to provide them with critical homeland security information.

Several Defense Intelligence Agency employees wrote that the e-mail offered them cover for their intelligence gathering work -- using uGov at an internet cafe in a foreign city wouldn't be a problem because, being an innocuous-sounding domain, did not reveal which agency they worked or what they did. 

"I can't imagine doing my job as effectively without it," an ODNI employee wrote. 

Another Navy officer wrote that, following a "catastrophic loss of communications" from ground stations in Europe, "Decision makers were kept in the loop *only* because we could access ugov.gov accounts from mobile devices and send updates and pictures."

"Ugov may need to go away for reasons that we aren't privy to, but please give us a better solution," another user wrote.


The current CIO of the intelligence committee, Priscilla Guthrie, was named in memorandums as the person who decided to shut the system down.   Sherrill Nicely, a deputy chief information officer at ONDI, wants uGov to be replaced with a different system. Nicely, detailed to ODNI from the Central Intelligence Agency, is viewed with suspicion by some analysts and employees who work at other agencies and who believe that she intends to restore analytical primacy to the CIA.

A CIA spokesman said that the agency had nothing to do with the decision, and a spokesperson for the ODNI said that it was made by "leadership," collectively, and not by any one individual.

After the 9/11 Commission report was released, the intelligence community jumped on the collaboration bandwagon. It created lots of collaborative tools, started sharing more information between agencies and, at least rhetorically, committed itself to go for a "risk management" instead of "risk avoidance" approach for giving clearances to Americans with foreign backgrounds.

Since the ONDI was established in 2005, it has engaged in a tug of war with, principally, the CIA over who should speak for the community, how the community should speak, what it should use to speak, how it should speak to Congress and how it should foster cross-agency analytical and collection efforts. From a dispute about who should appoint the senior intelligence representative of a mission abroad to accusations over security violations, the organizational tensions have increased since President Obama was inaugurated. 

uGov was an exception: analysts and employees across the intelligence community find it reliable and useful. For many, it's the only unclassified e-mail system they use. It's become a symbol for a model of intelligence collecting that focuses on gathering information from many different sources, expanding the number of people who have access to it, and changing the type of products that the community produces. 

Taking uGov away - abruptly -- and not providing a reason for it, other than to say that there were reasons, appears to have struck many uGov users as a slap in the face and a step in the opposite direction -- a move back toward silos, a "need to know" culture and top-down management. The implication is that the leadership at ODNI did not realize how important uGov has become to the work and identity of those who use it to collaborate. It's so much a matter of not embracing technology -- the CIA is in love with cloud computing -- it's about how they use it and who gets to use it. 

The original announcement from the DNI read as follows:

On 1 October 2009, the Director of the Intelligence Staff, ODNI, on advice of the IC-CIO, issued a memorandum directing uGov Enterprise E-Mail system termination. In compliance with this directive, IC Enterprise Solutions (ICES) will begin termination of uGov mail service. Official termination date is TBD. ICES will work closely with the uGov enterprise mail customer community to ensure they have adequate time to arrange transfer of their mail records to other accounts.

It was only after the online petition was launched that the ODNI issued an updated "ticket"

A decision to terminate Ugov email, as a DNI provided service, has been made. The timeline during which the IC CIO and the ICES Center will work with end users and the total time to complete the transition is yet to be determined. However, this process will take several months. No current users will loose service in the short term...that will be done through a reasonable process. When we develop a full plan, we will make sure the user community is fully informed. We will limit new accounts to those with critical and/or forward deployed mission needs, and some others by exception. If your command has concerns or would like a briefing, please let me know.

An ODNI spokesperson refused to comment on the internal deliberations.

From the perspective of ODNI, trafficking in information about computer systems and internal meetings isn't terribly helpful, even if the underlying information is not classified, as in this case. Moreover, Dennis Blair, the current Director of National Intelligence, has made cross-agency collaboration and experimentation a priority. It as appears as if ODNI is worried about the profusion of new services and projects, largely unsupervised by senior management, and that some consolidation is necessary, if only for the sake of efficiency.  

Also: more people have access to more sensitive intelligence than before. From the standpoint of senior intelligence officials, unless the innovation process is thoughtful and well established,  when there comes a revelation that some technological advance related to the post-9/11 info-sharing zeitgeist is inevitably revealed to have been exploited by or have in some way facilitated some act of espionage or another, the spirit of cooperation can remain, even if the technology has to be changed.

uGov is based on an open-source collaboration suite written by  Zimbra collaboration, which which provides Microsoft Exchange And Outlike-like capabilities at about one third the cost.  Internal estimates suggest that if the entire intelligence community moved their unclassified e-mail to the system, it could save as much as $50 million per year. If the Department of Defense did the same thing, it could save the government as much as $600 million a year.
 
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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