Homeland urged to integrate info

But don't put the FBI in charge of domestic intelligence gathering and analysis, a task force advises Ridge

Markle Foundation: Task Force on National Security in the Information Age

Better information analysis and sharing is essential in the war against terrorism, but don't build a giant, central database in Washington, D.C., a panel of intelligence and technology experts advised homeland security chief Tom Ridge Oct. 7.

And don't put the FBI in charge of domestic intelligence gathering and analysis, they said.

Instead, create a horizontal, networked information sharing system and put the proposed Homeland Security Department or similar agency in charge of it, a Markle Foundation task force urged in a 173-page report delivered to Ridge at the White House.

Information critical to stopping terrorism is collected locally — by police, airport workers, FBI agents, emergency room personnel and others, the 35-member Task Force on National Security in the Information Age noted. What's needed is a system that can integrate, analyze and share that information.

So far, however, the Bush administration has not developed a coherent national information and intelligence strategy. Of the $38 billion in the 2003 budget for homeland security, only $200 million was earmarked for information integration, the task force said.

"We're very strong at collecting information and gathering intelligence. We're not so strong at processing it," said Philip Zelikow, executive director of the task force.

In the aftermath of last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it has become evident that the FBI, the CIA and other agencies had information about the possible use of airplanes as weapons, had some of the terrorists on watch lists, had suspicions about foreign students at U.S. flight schools and had records of suspicious financial transactions, but failed to put the information together or make it available where it could have been used to prevent the attacks, Zelikow said.

Law enforcement and security agencies are "not getting the basics right. On Sept. 11, known terrorists on watch lists bought tickets and boarded planes using their real names," he said.

"Inexpensive data checks, strategically planned, should have been able to prevent the [Sept. 11] attacks," the task force wrote in its report to Ridge. "Then, the government lacked the capabilities to perform them. Now, more than a year later, the government has still not acquired them."

Although the Bush administration plans to spend $40 billion on homeland security in 2003, "almost zero" is budgeted for information integration and sharing, said Zoi Baird, Markle Foundation president and the task force's co-chairwoman.

As an example of the improved information sharing it envisions, the task force recommended a "virtual consolidation" of a dozen or more government watch lists so that names can be checked simultaneously for matches. However, task force members said the watch lists should not be merged into a single data warehouse, nor should other centralized databases be created.

"America will make a mistake if we create a centralized 'mainframe' information architecture in Washington, D.C., rather than the networked, decentralized system that is needed," they wrote.

"Most of the people, information and action will be out in the field — in regional or local federal offices, in state, regional and local governments and in private firms," the task force noted, calling for the federal government to "build an operating system that can harness the distributed power of local, state and federal officials and analysts across the nation."

Developing such a system should be overseen by the Homeland Security Department, not the FBI, the task force said.

The FBI lacks experience in national security matters, and "there is a resistance ingrained in the FBI ranks to sharing counterterrorism information with the national security community and others outside of law enforcement channels," according to the task force.

The Homeland Security Department — if Congress opts to create it — is a better choice to oversee information collection and analysis, task force members said. The department would receive and analyze intelligence from multiple agencies, including the FBI and CIA, according to Bush administration plans.

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