When you're unemployed, where does your mind go?

by Marc Hedlund

Related link: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/watergate/deept.htm



This past summer I spent some time "between jobs," and my mind went on vacation. I recently found something I wrote during that time, which today seems amusing, archaeologically if nothing else. It was composed as a letter to some friends; I chickened out and never sent it because I suspected even then that it was ridiculous. But what is a Weblog if not a relentless form of self-abuse? So here, for your amusement, is (some of) What I Did During My Summer Vacation.








I recently read Leonard Garment's In Search of Deep Throat: The
Greatest Political Mystery of Our Time
. Garment was in
the Nixon administration Counsel's Office, and uses his personal
knowledge of many of the Deep Throat candidates to investigate the
mystery of the leaker's true identity.



Garment's book is horrible. Sure, he's not a bad writer and relates
some interesting anecdotes. As a work of investigation, however, the
book is quite simply the most inept piece of nonfiction I can ever
remember reading. Nearly all of the people he eliminates from
consideration could not be Deep Throat, he says, because they are "not
the type" to be creeping around in garages after midnight. He
eliminates the entirety of the FBI because Deep Throat's quotes "don't
sound like" an FBI insider to him. One candidate leaves the list when
Garment's wife, meeting the candidate's wife, whispers to her husband,
"that is not Deep Throat's wife!" If there is anything at all
we should have learned from Watergate, isn't it that a person twice
elected President was nonetheless
commiting base criminal acts in office, and that we should never judge
solely by appearances?



Reading the book gave me a "personal itch" analogous to Eric Raymond's
first prerequisite for an open source project. I didn't like the book
-- I hated it. I wanted to read a better book on the topic, and none
existed. I started contemplating a database of candidates crossed
with characteristics, flights to D.C. to grill Bob Woodward on the
Deep Throat clues he's dropped over the years, days spent in the
Washington Post archives -- and then I remembered I was unemployed.



Some time later, I was thinking about the case of Kaycee Nicole (see
this page for background). The Kaycee
story, where a woman used Web sites and email to fake the illness and
eventual death of a supposed daughter, brings up many interesting
questions for me. How can you know what is true on the Web? How do
the interactions people have on the Web fall through to "Real Life"?
What brings people together on the Web, and what can they accomplish
when they get together? One interesting part of the Kaycee Nicole
story was that her story was discovered to be untrue by a
collaboration of strangers, using the Web to investigate and
coordinate their understanding of the story. This strikes me as
something like an open source journalism project -- rather than
reading a printed story (buying a software package), the story is
created by Web users (developers) who both contribute to and consume
the story (software), and make their results available for free on the
Web.



Where I'm headed with this is probably obvious -- I'd like to apply
the Kaycee Nicole investigation model to the question of Deep Throat's
identity. Ben Bradlee, editor of The Washington Post and supposedly one of the
four people who knows Deep Throat's identity, has said, "I have always
thought it should be possible to identify Deep Throat simply by
entering all the information about him in All the President's Men
into a computer, and then entering as much as possible about all the
various suspects." His nod to artificial intelligence aside, this
seems like a pretty good idea to me. Bob Woodward has said Deep
Throat has been publicly identified and has denied being Deep Throat.
Figure out when Woodward first said that, and then figure out who
denied a Deep Throat fingering between the publication date of All
The President's Men
and the date of Woodward's statement, and you
have a candidate list. Collect all of Woodward and Bernstein's
descriptions of Deep Throat, from their book and since, and you have a
set of fitness tests. Ask contributors from all over the Internet to
search out, document, and verify information to determine a
candidate's fitness, and you have a collaborative, open-research
investigative reporting project. With an enlisted army of online
investigators, perhaps we could paraphrase Linus' Law and say instead,
"Given enough eyeballs, all leaks are shallow."



This model opens horrible, wonderful potential pitfalls. Watergate
reporting was filled with anonymous sources -- this model takes things
a step further, to anonymous reporters. How do we know what they
report is true? What do we accept as documentation? Will the
participants immediately start flamewars that drive away the more
thoughtful would-be participants? Will the nature of the topic
attract legions of conspiracy theorists and wackos? With no deadline,
no publication, and no editorial reputation, would the product come
out as chaos? While these may seem severe problems, open source
projects always have some variant of these dangers, and none of them
seem insurmountable. Facts could be "checked in" by a group of
"committers," and one criteria for "release" could be the number of
verifications (like platform testing) for each claim.



Maybe the project is impossible, maybe the medium is poorly suited to
the task. Maybe it is presumptuous to think a million Internet
monkeys sitting at a million keyboards would ever produce Deep Throat
when so many have failed before. I choose to think not -- I'd like to
believe that, more like RC5 cracking, a collaborative group on the
Internet might be able to achieve something otherwise considered
impossible.








For the record, I am now employed again -- in the technology industry, not as an investigative reporter!