When the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs gathered last week to hear testimony about the state of information sharing across all levels of government, the committee leaders and even some of the expert witnesses pointed to the killings of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki as two examples of how information sharing across federal agency boundaries has improved.
What committee chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman (ID-CT) and some of those who testified before his committee on Oct. 12, most notably of the Markle Task Force on National Security in the Information Age, don’t seem to understand is that the level of information sharing between the intelligence agencies and the military that enabled the successful targeting and killing of these two terrorists existed well before 9/11. It is, therefore, inaccurate and misleading to use these examples as evidence that the larger homeland security community has improved information sharing.
These two community models have relatively little in common, with the notable exception that both efforts to improve information sharing were born out of obvious failures. Beyond that, the history of policies, procedures, technology investments and legal guidelines leave little with which to create an accurate comparison.
To use the CIA’s and the military’s long evolution toward information sharing that led to the ability to locate, identify and successfully target major terrorist leaders should not lead anybody to believe that such successes are indicative of progress in the larger homeland security community.”
As a former intelligence officer during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s, I have a unique perspective of why this is true. As the Second Marine Expeditionary Force (II MEF) was preparing for what many thought would be a large-scale combat operation to evacuate the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) from Bosnia, we had every database, map, aerial image, electronic intercept and CIA human intelligence report necessary to plan such an operation. And they were readily available and at our fingertips.
Every morning, usually beginning at 3 a.m., my analysts dug through large binders full of NSA, CIA, State Department and European theater military cables to piece together a current picture of the situation for the commanding general. As what was known as Operation Plan 40104 — the evacuation of UNPROFOR — moved from possible to likely (we went as far as being placed on a 96-hour alert), interagency collaboration increased significantly. And often, we didn’t have to initiate the request. It just happened.
For example, one of the most senior officers at the National Security Agency arrived one day and presented me with a one-on-one briefing on what we needed to know about the situation and what assets the NSA could bring to bear to support our operation. A few weeks later, a team of CIA analysts arrived and briefed us on their take of the military and political situation. I was then dispatched to Europe with the mission of collecting any information that the European Command and our NATO counterparts might be developing that could be of use to our planning. When I arrived in Europe, everywhere I went I was greeted with the same question and answer — what do you need? If we have it, you can have it.
What many might find surprising about all of this is the fact that the Internet was in its infancy at this time. It was during the planning for Operation Plan 40104 that I can recall seeing Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML) for the very first time. I was amazed when another officer showed me the world of classified databases and digital maps that I now had access to via Intelink (the network of classified intelligence community intranets) from the II MEF headquarters in North Carolina. We downloaded everything we could get our hands on. And anything we couldn’t find was put into a request for information and usually arrived within a few days or a week.
The CIA even went as far as to train me on their human intelligence (HUMINT) database. This provided me the ability to train all of my analysts on a system that enabled real-time searches of CIA HUMINT reports for the information we needed.
When Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady was shot down on June 2, 1995, another intelligence professional walked into my office and handed me a document detailing the incident even before CNN could report it. Within a few minutes, I, along with another senior intelligence officer, walked up to the commanding general’s office with evidence that O’Grady was still alive while CNN was reporting there were no signs of life near the wreckage. We were already supporting our fellow Marines of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) aboard the U.S.S. Kearsarge for a rescue mission while others assumed O’Grady was dead. All of this was possible only because of the close integration (policy, technological and operational) of the national intelligence community and the military.
Since that time, the intelligence community and the military have had more than 15 years of steady technological investment and operational experience in information sharing and what is known as joint operations. The joint imperative for the military services had been laid out more than a decade prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. And like the homeland security information sharing and interoperability imperative, the military’s joint operations decree stemmed from obvious failures — notably the inability to communicate tactically during operations in Grenada in 1983, and to a lesser extent, electronic information sharing shortfalls during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when military officers were forced to fly back to Washington, D.C. to get their hands on vital information.
But to use the CIA’s and the military’s long evolution toward a current information sharing process that has led to the ability to locate, identify and successfully target major terrorist leaders should not lead anybody to believe that such successes are indicative of progress in the larger homeland security community. As I have just outlined, the military and the intelligence community have decades of experience working with each other and eliminated many of the obstacles to information sharing long ago. The homeland security community as a whole — intelligence, law enforcement, federal civilian agencies, state and local police, and private sector entities — have by comparison little or no experience sharing real-time information across organizational boundaries in an operational environment.
While there have been recent information sharing success stories in the homeland security and counterterrorism world, such as the ability to locate and apprehend the Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad before he could leave the country and the investigation that led to the prevention of an attack against the Pentagon and Capitol using model airplanes, these are just the beginning of what is surely to be a long road of growing pains and tactical failures.
My reporting and conversations with high level homeland security officials suggests there are still major cultural hurdles and organizational distrust to overcome before the homeland security community is capable of achieving what we now see in the model forged by the Defense Department and intelligence community.
It is in the nation’s best interest, therefore, if our leaders in Congress and those who are called to testify are honest about the state of information sharing in our government. And the first step in doing so should be to acknowledge that comparing the homeland security community’s organizational relationships to the military-intelligence relationship is tantamount to glossing over the very real problems that still exist in federal, state and local information sharing more than a decade after 9/11.
A frequent contributor to Breaking Gov, Dan Verton is an award-winning journalist and author, and a former military intelligence officer.