Information sharing: Improved, but more work remains

Across the landscape of federal agencies and local governments, officials have been sharing more of their sensitive information in the last several years than they once were willing to, experts and officials told a Senate committee Oct. 12.

“Concepts and programs that were hard-fought struggles in those first years are accepted as conventional wisdom now,” said Thomas McNamara, an adjunct professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

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McNamara was the presidentially appointed program manager for the Information Sharing Environment from early 2006 until mid 2009.

He and others testified before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee about sharing information among federal, state and local agencies in the years since Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks.

“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, he said. “I am delighted to observe two years later that the ISE has gone well beyond that point.”

John McLaughlin, practitioner-in-residence for the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, told the committee too that the improvements come because of a general willingness to share information and the capabilities to do it. Policies have laid a foundation to help sharing happen as well. Specifically, he referenced an intelligence community directive.

But there are problems.

While capabilities have improved for programs, most agencies’ information sharing programs don’t work across agency lines. Further, the breakdown in security discipline in the government continues to work against information sharing.

“Leaks, both unauthorized and authorized, strengthen the impulse to tighten up, and they reinforce the arguments made by those who stress the risks in sharing and pose obstacles to doing so,” McLaughlin said.

He also said broader information sharing policies haven’t kept pace with trends, and the amount of information increases a staggering rate, “ensuring in the process that those who would do us harm can often go unnoticed without even trying that hard.”

Nevertheless, Cathy Lanier, chief of the Metropolitan Police Department in the District of Columbia, told the committee that she’s seen a significant improvement in sharing, even with local law enforcement.

In the past, she would not get information because it was classified, even unnecessarily. Yet the information would have changed her strategy for adequate security around an event. But it took weeks of arguing to access to the information.

“I don’t see that happen anymore,” she said.

With the 9/11 commemorations last month, “I was amazed at how open both the F.B.I. and [the Homeland Security Department] were in sharing information.”

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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