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Intelligence Sharing Improves

SINCE 2004, when Congress mandated robust, national information sharing to thwart terrorism, state and local officials have consistently complained that they share all available information with their partners in Washington, D.C., only to receive little in return.

That is changing, according to leaders of the federally administered information sharing environment (ISE), who discussed at a recent congressional hearing their work to produce useful intelligence for police, firefighters, and their peers on the front lines.

The critical element of the effort is the new Interagency Threat Assessment and Coordination Group (ITACG), a team of four state and local civil and law enforcement officials posted to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). The ITACG team looks through the center’s finished intelligence for items of potential interest to their constituent groups. It counsels federal partners on what local first responders want to know and how best to get the information to them.

ITACG, established last year under a 2006 White House directive, is modeled directly on Great Britain’s Police International Counter Terrorism Unit (See “The New Need to Know,” September 2007).

The system ensures that “sources and methods” described in raw intelligence from the gathering agencies is not part of the information that is widely disseminated. Cleared ITACG officers and analysts draw out the substantive information needed by, and relevant to, their specific audiences, but the sensitive sources and methods are removed unless the recipient has the appropriate security clearance, explains John Cohen, an NCTC spokesman.

If, for example, a CIA agent stationed overseas receives intelligence about a specific threat within the United States, local law enforcement in a specific region may simply receive a “be on the lookout” bulletin regarding an individual or vehicle.

Top officials in the areas affected by the threat, however, such as governors or big-city police chiefs who hold secret or higher clearances, might receive a more detailed bulletin, including information about the credibility of the original source, Cohen says.

Information sharing is facilitated by a growing number of data portals, each catering to a segment of the public-safety community, whose members hold different security clearances. Three new portals have launched within the past year.

One is the NCTC Online—Secret (NOLS), a portal hosted to link NCTC, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the FBI, and state and local officials who hold “secret” clearances. The second is the Homeland Security Data Network (HSDN), a DHS intelligence-focused portal serving state and local officials who are cleared to view classified information, specifically fusion center analysts. (HSDN is not to be confused with DHS’s Homeland Security Information Network, or HSIN, an older situational awareness portal designed to serve first responders and emergency managers.)

Finally, the Homeland Security State and Local Intelligence Community of Interest (SLIC) portal is open to law enforcement officials who do not hold security clearances. Unclassified information is also distributed via e-mail, and on the FBI’s Law Enforcement Online (LEO).

Cohen explains that the system’s redundancy is intentional—valuable information is made available to all stakeholders, in different forms, through different portals, he says.

At the time of his testimony, 41 fusion centers could access SLIC, said Charles Allen, DHS undersecretary for intelligence and analysis, while 35 could access HSDN. The agency hopes to raise the total accessing HSDN to 41 by year’s end.

One challenge in staffing ITACG’s unit within the NCTC is that the officers must be away from home to fill the post. To deal with that difficulty, the position rotates out annually. Even so, Ambassador Thomas E. McNamara, ISE program manager, told lawmakers that NCTC had to reduce the rank requirement for the unit to secure enough applications from officers willing to accept the posting. The first year’s detail consists of representatives from the Boston, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C. police departments, and a member of the New Jersey State Police.

A separate issue with regard to information sharing is getting information from the field to national intelligence analysts. Speaking a few days after the hearing at ASIS International’s annual 26th Annual Government/Industry Conference on Global Terrorism, then-acting NCTC Director Michael Leiter told attendees that national officials have yet to develop a formal apparatus for collecting and synthesizing information and intelligence that is sent in from state and local partners.

“The way we send information down is imperfect. The way we pull information up is anemic, Leiter says. “That system has yet to be developed and, in my view, is one of our greatest weaknesses.”