Dempsey and Louie: On a tightrope

Pair sought common ground between security, privacy

An unusual task force began meeting shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The group's members, known as the Markle Foundation Task Force on National Security in the Information Age, were determined to find a way to prevent such awful events from happening again.

Composed of about 50 prominent experts, the task force met frequently in small groups and as a whole to analyze and discuss the problem with senior Bush administration officials.

In December 2003, they offered a recommendation: Use network and database technologies that are commercially available to reorganize the federal government and eliminate the communication failures that allowed the 2001 attacks to happen.

With such a reorganization, federal and local authorities could finally connect the dots about future terrorist plots and get information they need to avert surprise attacks, the group argued.

The Markle Foundation's task force was not a typical one. Its members were an unusual mix of national security, privacy and technology experts, many of whom have government experience but now work in the private sector. Jim Dempsey, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology, and Gilman Louie, president and chief executive officer of In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm financed by the CIA, were among the leading members.

The task force's work was influential. President Bush issued an executive order in August 2004 requiring the creation of an information-sharing network. Congress enacted intelligence reform legislation in December 2004, incorporating the task force's ideas.

"Can you name any other private report that has been translated directly as legislation?" asked Paul Rosenzweig, senior legal research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "It is almost impossible to think of a private organization that has had as much influence on a substantive policy as the Markle Foundation has had on the information-sharing network in the legislation."

In discussions that lasted sometimes for several days, Dempsey said, members of the task force reached consensus on several compelling ideas that have gained widespread, although not universal, acceptance. First among them is the notion that federal officials should rely more on information technology to safeguard national security.

"It's one of our strongest suits in fighting terrorism," Dempsey said, adding that federal officials have not yet made good use of IT to prevent future attacks.

Second, the task force said that federal agencies must protect people's privacy as they try to strengthen national security in an age of terrorism. An IT "program that does not respect privacy from inception is doomed to fail," Dempsey said.

He cited as an example the brief existence of the Defense Department's Total Information Awareness program, which lawmakers quickly cancelled. "The public, the Congress, the executive branch will not tolerate, even in the face of this serious threat, a program that intrudes upon privacy," Dempsey said.

In addition, the group's members said technology can enforce government policies automatically, without human intervention. "We now have the capability to do that," Louie said.

The task force became a proponent of the idea that federal agencies could reorganize their intelligence operations by utilizing powerful network and database technologies. "For the first time, we can leverage the power of the network," Louie said, "making it much harder for someone to attack this country than if we were operating as separate, distinct organizations."

Many ideas from the task force originated with Louie and Dempsey. For example, Louie contributed his know-how for designing and building commercial technologies, Dempsey said.

Louie also brought a Silicon Valley perspective to the task force. In that environment, business executives emphasize "collaboration, innovation, flexibility and interoperability — all of the things that are missing from the governmental IT process," Dempsey said.

Other task force members echoed the view that Louie's unique perspective on government IT derives from his experience as a venture capitalist for the CIA.

"The CIA and intelligence community have the same IT problems that industry is facing: managing vast amounts of data and creating secure communications," said Jeffrey Smith, a senior partner in the law firm Arnold and Porter, a member of the task force and a former CIA general counsel.

That means that commercial technologies developed for Citibank can solve the CIA's problems, too, if they are put together the right way, Smith said.

Influenced by Louie's insights, the task force recommended the creation of a virtual intelligence organization using an information-sharing network built from commercially available network and database technologies.

As one of Louie's colleagues on the task force, Dempsey made contributions of a different sort, said Peter Swire, a law professor at Ohio State University who was chief counselor for privacy during the Clinton administration. Dempsey is one of the few privacy and civil liberties experts who is also deeply knowledgeable about national security issues, Swire said.

Because Dempsey stood behind the task force's proposal for a new information-sharing network, Swire said, lawmakers were comfortable with the idea. "Jim's support for the network probably made it easier for Congress to accept that it would be done consistent with privacy," he said.

Although the task force's recommendations have been enacted into law, its members have not quit working. Some of them remain busy trying to help Bush administration and agency officials build the network that lawmakers asked for in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.

Not everyone believes that it can be done, Smith said. "There are some critics saying that we were dreamers and that the idea that we could create this network and everything would magically fall in place is just silly," he said.

Dempsey is convinced that the new law requiring an information-sharing network is a sound one. And he is hopeful but not completely certain that such a network will be built. In the context of the new law, he said, "there is still some resistance, some confusion within the executive branch about what sharing means."


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