GAO: Terror Intel Still Stovepiped

A new GAO report concludes that the sharing of intelligence has not improved all that much since 9/11.

Despite more than four years of legislation, executive orders and presidential directives, the Bush administration has yet to comprehensively improve sharing of counterterrorism information among dozens of federal agencies — and between them and thousands of nonfederal partners, government investigators have concluded. Repeated deadlines set by both President Bush and Congress have not been met, according to a 34-page report issued late Monday by the Government Accountability Office. While acknowledging the “complexity of the task,” the report notes that responsibility for the effort has shifted since late 2001 from the White House to the Office of Management and Budget to the Department of Homeland Security, and now resides with the director of national intelligence. “None has yet completed the task,” the report noted.

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The GAO report cited several initiatives underway. They include the establishment by the FBI of 103 joint terrorism task forces around the country staffed with FBI officers as well as state and local law enforcement officers; FBI-Department of Homeland Security collaboration in distributing terrorism-related intelligence bulletins to local law enforcement, and the creation of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). The NCTC was established to prevent individual agencies from hoarding terrorism information. It collects and analyzes terrorist threat information from 26 different government databases and shares it online with what NCTC spokesman Mark Mansfield said are “about 5,500 users from throughout the federal counterterrorism community, a more than 30 percent increase in the past year alone.”

The report did not fault the NCTC operation but noted the lack of “government-wide policies and processes to help agencies integrate the myriad of ongoing efforts to improve the sharing of terrorism-related information that is critical to protecting our homeland.”

It was particularly critical of the lack of standards for “sensitive but unclassified homeland security information” that is subject to limited distribution and not to be made public. A wide range of federal agencies including the departments of Defense, Justice, Treasury and Homeland Security reported using 56 different designations to identify such information, including “For Official Use Only,” “Protected Critical Infrastructure Information,” “Limited Distribution Information” and “Sensitive Information.” Many use the same terms, but with widely different definitions, or use different terminology or restrictive phrases for what is essentially the same information. Most of the 26 federal agencies surveyed reported they had no firm policies for such designations or individuals specifically authorized to impose them.

While disappointing, this is hardly surprising. Bureaucracies are incredibly resistant to change, especially when it goes so directly against their culture. Intelligence agencies are incredibly reluctant to share information and tend to distrust anyone outside the group. The creation of below-Secret classification levels is rather odd although, again, not surprising.

The solution that Congress imposed on the system was laughably absurd: Adding yet another layer of bureaucracy with the intent of creating less bureaucracy. As those of us who pay close attention to Defense transformation efforts have long known, one can not create “jointness” while simultaneously giving all the institutional power over pay, promotions, and other rewards to the separate departments. We already had a nominal Director of Central Intelligence, in place since 1947, without success because he had little real power over those not employed by the CIA. Now, we have a Director of National Intelligence with no real power outside his own office.

The report, “Information Sharing: The Federal Government Needs to Establish Policies and Processes for Sharing Terrorism-Related and Sensitive but Unclassified Information,” GAO-06-385, March 17, 2006, is available in PDF format. The abstract is here.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.