The Wikipedia Factor in U.S. Intelligence

03.21.07 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The collaboratively written online encyclopedia Wikipedia, created in 2001, has steadily grown in popularity, credibility and influence to the point that it is now used and referenced in U.S. Government intelligence products.

A March 19 profile of Indian Congress Party Leader Rahul Gandhi prepared by the Open Source Center (OSC) of the Office of Director of National Intelligence is explicitly derived from “various internet sources including wikipedia.org.” A March 21 OSC profile of Rajnath Singh, president of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party, is likewise “sourced from wikipedia.org.”

An OSC report last year on the leader of the terrorist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Velupillai Prabhakaran, noted that he and his wife “have two children, a girl and a boy. According to wikipedia.com, the boy is named Charles Anthony and the girl, Duwaraha.”

The relatively new attentiveness of U.S. intelligence agencies to Wikipedia and other unorthodox sources (including fas.org) seems like a healthy development. Of course, like any source and moreso than some, Wikipedia cannot be used uncritically.

Last December, according to another OSC report, a participant in an online jihadist forum posted a message entitled “Why Don’t We Invade Wikipedia?” in which “he called on other participants to consider writing articles and adding items to the online Wikipedia encyclopedia…. and in this way, and through an Islamic lobby, apply pressure on the encyclopedia’s material.”

For various topics related to space physics, “Wikipedia was the most complete source of information” compared to other highly ranked web sites, according to an article in the American Geophysical Union’s Eos magazine (13 March 07) by Mark B. Moldwin, et al. But some Wikipedia entries on space physics, the authors found, also contained mistaken use of terminology, factual errors and omissions.

“Wikipedia lets anyone write or edit it, which of course makes it vulnerable to vandalism–as when a picture of the evil Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars briefly adorned the entry for the new Pope [Benedict],” notes Eric Rauchway in The New Republic Online (March 21).