At a time when government seems unable to address our most pressing problems, we are about to mark the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks with rare evidence that Washington can work.
In the decade since 9/11, our government has answered the threat of terrorism by transforming itself in important ways. Much more remains to be done, but there is real progress to acknowledge and lessons that can be applied to other national security threats, such as economic security and cybersecurity.
In hindsight, it is clear that our failure to discover the Sept. 11 plot was in many ways a failure of information sharing and a lack of skill at empowering our best and brightest. Ten years ago, our law enforcement and intelligence communities were driven by a Cold War “need to know” culture that stovepiped information and stymied cooperation. The lack of major attacks over the past decade, along with a string of notable intelligence successes, is a testament to the fact that things are changing.
There has been a virtual reorganization of government, a shift in thinking that inspires reform in the way agencies, people and technology collaborate and communicate. The need-to-know culture is being replaced by a need-to-share principle; information is increasingly decentralized and distributed. Informal and flexible groups of analysts from different parts of government and the private sector are able to work together and share expertise.
A great deal of collective thought by national security officials, civil liberties experts and the private sector went into figuring out how to use new IT tools to innovate rapidly. Today, our government is able to function in hubs and spokes and distributed networks, empowering people at the edges of agencies instead of working in hierarchical pyramids. Information is shared, and teams from disparate parts of government go in and out of the National Counterterrorism Center and fusion centers nationwide. Ad hoc pursuit teams of experts or concerned officials form and disband as they see problems needing attention. The adoption of powerful social networking tools allows analysts to connect with colleagues throughout government. No longer must all information or requests for authority go up a chain of command or come down from on high.
This flexibility and openness is what allowed the Defense Department and the CIA to work together to find Osama bin Laden. It is also how the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the New York and Denver police departments worked together in 2009 to stop an al-Qaeda plot to bomb the New York subway system.
The virtual reorganization that changed counterterrorism can make a difference in other national interests, especially as economic and fiscal challenges heighten the need to reduce government’s cost and improve its function. The transformation we are seeing in counterterrorism is built on principles and practices that can be extended to other areas so that they, too, work in a more modern, decentralized, public-private manner.
In the terrorism sphere, these reforms have not come easily. Bureaucracies resist change, and some agencies resent their loss of control — in part due to the unauthorized release of classified information through WikiLeaks. But WikiLeaks is not an argument for less information sharing, which would compromise our national security. Rather, as we improve our capabilities to better share information, we should apply better policies and technologies to control, discover, access and use information.
Progress in counterterrorism must continue to ensure that information can be located by analysts who need it, regardless of which agency has it. The concept of “discoverability” must come with the principle of “authorized use” so that before analysts can access the information, they must establish that they are “authorized” to use the data based on their role, mission and a predicated purpose. When combined with strong protections of individual liberties and privacy, it minimizes the risk to American civil liberties and the security of the information. Such a system of checks and balances builds trust that information is used in accordance with our nation’s core values, enables greater public-private cooperation, and pushes decision making and initiative to the edges of the system — to local police, for example — where threats are most likely to be seen.
The challenges confronting our country are in some ways greater than they were 10 years ago. The world is more complex and our resources more limited. Our intelligence assets — indeed, all the assets of government — must be deployed in a way that is smarter, more networked and efficient, and in line with our core values. The task remains enormous, but our progress in intelligence sharing since Sept. 11 points the way.
Zoe Baird Budinger is president of the Markle Foundation and co-chaired the Markle Task Force on National Security in the Information Age. She served for eight years on President Bill Clinton’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Jeffrey H. Smith, a member of the Markle task force, was general counsel of the CIA from 1995 to 1996.