Task force urges distributed intelligence

Better information analysis and sharing are essential in the war against terrorism, but not a giant, central database

Better information analysis and sharing are 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 last week.

And don't put the FBI in charge of domestic intelligence gathering and analysis, a task force of the Markle Foundation urged in a 173-page report delivered to Ridge at the White House.

Instead, create a horizontal, networked information sharing system and put the Homeland Security Department or a similar agency in charge of it, said the 35-member Task Force on National Security in the Information Age.

Local police, airport workers, FBI agents, emergency room personnel and first responders collect information critical to stopping terrorism. What's needed is a system that can integrate, analyze and share that information. So far, the Bush administration has not developed a coherent national information and intelligence strategy, the panel said.

Of the $38 billion in the 2003 budget for homeland security, only $200 million was earmarked for information integration, according to the task force.

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

Following last year's terrorist attacks, it became 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 they failed to put the information together or make it available so that 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. "Yet, 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 Zo' Baird, Markle Foundation president.

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. Task force members said the watch lists should not be physically merged into a single data warehouse.

Nor should other centralized databases be created, according to the task force.

"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." Information needs to be easily available to all of them, the members wrote.

"The federal government must build an operating system that can harness the distributed power of local, state and federal officials and analysts across the nation," they wrote.

In addition, the agency that collects and analyzes domestic intelligence should not have arrest powers or conduct prosecutions, Baird said, as a way to preserve civil liberties and privacy rights.

The Homeland Security Department — if Congress opts to create it — is a better choice to oversee information collection and analysis, according to task force members.

***

Where the action is

The Bush administration's homeland security strategy should not be federal-centric, according to the Markle Foundation's Task Force on National Security in the Information Age. In part, that's because much of the work will fall to state and local agencies, not federal agencies.

According to the task force:

* There are only 11,500 FBI agents; there are more than 50 times as many state and local law enforcers.

* There are only a few thousand professionals in the Federal Emergency Management Agency; there are about 2 million potential emergency responders in the field.

* To work on domestic intelligence against terrorism, the FBI currently has only about 100 analysts, even by the FBI's definition of the term. Meanwhile, there are 40 counterterrorism analysts just in the Los Angeles Police Department, and the New York Police Department's analytic effort is larger still.

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