An Intelligence Sharing Success Story?
THE HOMELAND Infrastructure Threat and Risk Analysis Center (HITRAC), established in 2004, was recently praised by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for its role in investigating the plot to blow up a pipeline at JFK airport. That was a rare moment in the sun for this little-known program that has been helping the United States to make important headway in information sharing.
HITRAC brings members of the federal intelligence community together with private sector critical infrastructure stakeholders and local and state law enforcement officials. The center provides information, which is sometimes classified, to members of critical infrastructure industries and local authorities, and it receives information from those sectors.
While local law enforcement and the FBI respond in an emergency or intervene immediately if there is intelligence of an impending attack, HITRAC’s mission is more long term. The group sorts through and analyzes information, to identify overarching trends in the threats and attacks facing industries.
For example, if someone is seen surveilling one pipeline or railroad, it might not raise suspicion, but if several reports come in and are compiled, a pattern can be spotted. HITRAC also analyzes overseas terrorist attacks to provide guidance on how to prepare for similar attacks domestically.
The center has taken a few years to get to the point where it’s providing helpful information to industry, according to Kendra Martin, director of security programs at the American Petroleum Institute (API). Martin is one of API’s liaisons with HITRAC.
“In the beginning,” she says, “it was kind of like, ‘Well, what do you want to know about?’ or ‘How do you want to talk about these issues?”
Now, both parties have a better understanding of how to work together. Says Martin: They know “what we’re interested in,” and we know “what they have available.”
The center has helped to streamline information sharing, she adds, explaining that prior to HITRAC, it seemed duplicative for members of the petroleum industry, who already have close relationships with local law enforcement agencies, to also interact with the federal agencies. But, “HITRAC has really helped focus that,” says Martin, citing particularly the classified briefings HITRAC holds three times a year so that critical infrastructure members receive specific information they can use.
Additionally, Martin says, HITRAC has started to develop more sector-specific tools. “When you get [the reports], you actually read them and might implement something out of them as opposed to feeling like everything’s so generic that you can’t be bothered with it.”
HITRAC had been focusing its analysis on terrorist incidents occurring overseas and drawing lessons from them, such as attacks with improvised explosive devices. But, now, says Director Melissa Smislova, the center is expanding its focus. She says feedback from critical infrastructure community members showed that they were also worried about many domestic threats, such as environmental terrorist attacks.
HITRAC’s newfound prominence may signal that “there’s finally been a recognition here after six-plus years that state and local and private sectors are an integral part of this homeland security fabric,” says John Rollins, terrorism specialist at the Congressional Research Service and former chief of staff at DHS’s office of intelligence. Rollins says that the paradigm of the federal government leading the way in homeland security has to be inverted, and that HITRAC is the perfect tool for that.
While the center has made great strides, Martin sees room for improvement. For example, she says that it might be helpful in the future if the center could serve as a broader conduit for information sharing so that the industry groups don’t have to call both local and federal offices when they need to report something specific occurring at a site.
For now, she contacts local law enforcement and the FBI and later alerts HITRAC if there is time. Although she knows that HITRAC will use that information toward its reports and trend spotting, the FBI and local law enforcement are the ones who must be informed in an urgent situation.
Rollins expresses concern over this also. “Hopefully, at some point, one of these entities will say, ‘You know what? We need to get HITRAC involved [initially] because they’re the ones that are matching up the intelligence threat information with known vulnerabilities.’”
Another possible area for improvement is in how the information is segmented. It’s broken down by industry. But Rollins thinks that HITRAC should go a step further in breaking down information by jurisdiction. “Is this more likely to occur in New York than in Wichita?” says Rollins. Right now, if a threat is perceived to, say, oil refineries, it’s not narrowed to any location.
Despite these concerns, Rollins says that HITRAC is “really doing some value-added stuff.” He adds that it should be “given more personnel and more resources to grow.”