DOJ, DHS could do better at sharing terror info

Shutterstock image (by Wichy): Businessman touching a glowing electric circuit to access a virtual network. 

In the wake of a spate of terror attacks including those in San Bernardino, Calif., Orlando, Fla. and Paris, counterterror components of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department, as well as state and local law enforcement, have redoubled commitments to sharing critical terror information domestically, but procedural and operational gaps remain that need attention.

The gaps addressed in a joint audit by inspectors general at Justice and DHS deal primarily with organizational coordination, but IT components and administration also play a role.

The IG report credited  tech advances with spurring more efficient information sharing among the communities and agencies. Among those cited as contributing positively to the process was the Homeland Security Information Network used by federal state and local partners after attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. Partners, said the audit, used HSIN to share real-time updates, submit and respond to information requests and support one another nationwide. Fusion center personnel considered the HSIN as a best practice for sharing information across the national network of fusion centers.

Secure video teleconferencing was also a telecommunications bulwark following attacks in Paris, San Bernadino and Brussels, Belgium, auditors said. On Nov. 13, 2015, the day of the Paris attacks, the FBI conducted a three-hour conference call with all 78 fusion centers in the U.S., DHS representatives, executives from national law enforcement associations, the Criminal Intelligence Coordinating council and Governors' Homeland Security Advisors, as well as state and local law enforcement officials.

Despite the IT successes, the audit also pointed out that DHS field personnel sometimes have to wrangle access to classified networks and facilities such as the Defense Department's Classified Local-Area Network and the FBI's Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIF).

The audit said some DHS field staff rely on informal agreements made through personal relationships with DOD facilities and field offices to get onto C-LAN facilities. Some DHS field agents, it said, have to drive three hours to get to those facilities, limiting their ability to use them.

Additionally, it said some DHS field personnel lean on the FBI for access to classified systems and meeting space. Only FBI special agents, it said, have access to SCIFs through participation in joint terrorism task forces. The audit reported that only about 43 percent of DHS intelligence and analysis agents have active FBI badges similar to those that DHS task force officers receive and about 20 percent have access to FBI systems such as FBINet or the Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information Operational Network. 

To remedy the situation, the audit recommended DHS increase field personnel access to classified systems and facilities above the Secret level, establish more SCIFs in the field and formalize agreements with other agencies. 

The watchdogs are also asking the intelligence community, DHS and DOJ to review a critical 2003 interagency agreement on information sharing and determine what actions are necessary to update intelligence information sharing standards and processes among the departments.

However, this may not, strictly speaking, be necessary. In reply comments dated Jan 10, 2017, Air Force Lt. Gen.  John D. Bansemer, writing on behalf of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, noted that the memorandum of understanding in question had been superseded by the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act and subsequent executive orders. A DHS official agreed with that assessment.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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