GAO Faults Agencies' Sharing of Terror Data
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Despite more than four years of legislation, executive orders and presidential directives, the Bush administration has yet to comprehensively improve sharing of counterterrorism information among dozens of federal agencies -- and between them and thousands of nonfederal partners, government investigators have concluded.
Repeated deadlines set by both President Bush and Congress have not been met, according to a 34-page report issued late Monday by the Government Accountability Office. While acknowledging the "complexity of the task," the report notes that responsibility for the effort has shifted since late 2001 from the White House to the Office of Management and Budget to the Department of Homeland Security, and now resides with the director of national intelligence. "None has yet completed the task," the report noted.
The GAO expressed "disappointment" that Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte declined to address its findings beyond a letter saying that "the review of intelligence activities is beyond GAO's purview." Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Susan Collins (R-Maine), who requested the investigation along with several House chairmen, issued a statement yesterday regretting the DNI response and noting that she co-sponsored the 2004 law that mandated the information-sharing and created Negroponte's job.
The failure of intelligence and law enforcement agencies to share information that might have warned of a pending terrorist attack was cited by investigations that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Delays in developing a comprehensive system to link counterterrorism efforts and information among federal agencies have long been attributed to what Negroponte has called their individual "cultures" and a reluctance to cooperate with one another.
Last spring, the president appointed a "program manager" in Negroponte's office to develop what is formally known as an "Information Sharing Environment," or ISE, across the entire government. In October, Bush issued an executive order setting priorities for developing a system, followed on Dec. 19 by a presidential memorandum requiring all executive department and agency heads to support ISE efforts.
In January, ISE manager John Russack, an intelligence veteran, resigned after complaining of inadequate staffing and budget. A new manager, former State Department counterterrorism adviser Thomas E. McNamara, was named by the White House last month. A new deadline for the ISE system has been set for December.
The GAO report cited several initiatives underway. They include the establishment by the FBI of 103 joint terrorism task forces around the country staffed with FBI officers as well as state and local law enforcement officers; FBI-Department of Homeland Security collaboration in distributing terrorism-related intelligence bulletins to local law enforcement, and the creation of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).
The NCTC was established to prevent individual agencies from hoarding terrorism information. It collects and analyzes terrorist threat information from 26 different government databases and shares it online with what NCTC spokesman Mark Mansfield said are "about 5,500 users from throughout the federal counterterrorism community, a more than 30 percent increase in the past year alone."
The report did not fault the NCTC operation but noted the lack of "government-wide policies and processes to help agencies integrate the myriad of ongoing efforts to improve the sharing of terrorism-related information that is critical to protecting our homeland."
It was particularly critical of the lack of standards for "sensitive but unclassified homeland security information" that is subject to limited distribution and not to be made public. A wide range of federal agencies including the departments of Defense, Justice, Treasury and Homeland Security reported using 56 different designations to identify such information, including "For Official Use Only," "Protected Critical Infrastructure Information," "Limited Distribution Information" and "Sensitive Information."
Many use the same terms, but with widely different definitions, or use different terminology or restrictive phrases for what is essentially the same information. Most of the 26 federal agencies surveyed reported they had no firm policies for such designations or individuals specifically authorized to impose them.
In a reflection of ongoing mistrust, 11 of the agencies said they had concerns about the ability of other parties to protect sensitive information, and some complained that information disseminated to state and local partners had on occasion been posted on public Web sites.
State and local first responders told GAO investigators that the multiplicity of designations and lack of common federal standards "not only causes confusion but leads to an alternating feast or famine of information" that either left them in the dark or overwhelmed them with identical information from multiple federal sources.