Executive order puts information sharing in the spotlight

A breakdown in government communication was part of the reason the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were successful, and the more recent WikiLeaks release of classified documents reignited questions about information sharing and security. The federal government is getting even more serious about improving the way critical information is shared across Washington and beyond.

On Oct. 7 President Barack Obama issued an executive order that set guidelines for federal information sharing, including an expansion of the Information Sharing Environment, an official government-wide policy that enhances the ability to share terror-related data.

The new guidelines are in tandem with efforts that launched last year in the wake of WikiLeaks. What remains to be seen is whether they will build on those efforts, which the Government Accountability Office indicates need more work.

Witnesses at a recent Senate committee hearing said the government has made significant progress in information sharing since 2001. “Two years ago in my final appearance before this committee as the program manager, I stated that we had built a strong foundation for the ISE, but that a fully functional, mature ISE was still” desired, said Thomas McNamara, a former ISE program manager, at that hearing. “I am delighted to observe two years later that the ISE has gone well beyond that point.”

Obama’s latest directive calls for a senior information and safeguarding steering committee, a classified information sharing and safeguarding office and an interagency insider threat task force, among other principles designed to secure and better connect the dots between agencies.

“Our nation’s security requires classified information to be shared immediately with authorized users around the world but also requires sophisticated and vigilant means to ensure it is shared securely. Computer networks have individual and common vulnerabilities that require coordinated decisions on risk management,” Obama wrote in the executive order.

According to highlights from an Oct. 12 GAO report, progress is being made in those efforts in risk management, but the ISE is not yet fully functional and there are not yet the right metrics in place to measure progress.

“A breakdown in information sharing was a major factor contributing to the failure to prevent the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Since then, federal, state and local governments have taken steps to improve sharing,” the report read.

But it notes that there is still work ahead.

“Fusion centers” that are being built up by agencies to provide analytical and operational capabilities are shaky in terms of long-term sustainability, hindering the ability to create an information-sharing network. They also still need assessment and monitoring to ensure effectiveness

The Homeland Security Department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis has established key state and local partnerships, but lacks specific plans and programs necessary for carrying out the mission as well as metrics to demonstrate value, the GAO study found.

GAO will report results of ongoing work later this year, according to the study’s findings.

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.

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