September 11 2011
The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, commonly known as the 9/11 Commission, was created in late 2002 to give a complete account of the September 11 attacks and to offer recommendations for preventing future terrorist attacks. The 9/11 Commission Report released on July 22, 2004 is the Commission's answer.
The 9/11 Commission Report in a section titled “Unity of Effort in Sharing Information” characterized U.S. inter-intelligence information sharing as governed by "Cold War assumptions": archaic and inappropriate. This archaic view of information sharing hindered the ability of agencies to respond to the attacks of September 11 once they were underway, and inhibited the agencies from predicting the attacks in the first place.The Commission acknowledged real security interests in secrecy. However, it asserted that these concerns must be weighed against other pertinent concerns such as transparency:
The culture of agencies feeling they own the information they gathered at taxpayer expense must be replaced by a culture in which the agencies instead feel they have a duty to information--to repay the taxpayers' investment by making that information available.
Notice that those recommendations don’t include removing legal barriers to information sharing. That is because there were very few legal barriers pre-9/11. The culture of secrecy and entitlement is so strong that inter-agency rivalries and turf-wars were enough to keep information flow blocked—legal obstacles would be redundant.
The problem, according to the Commission’s investigation, is twofold. First, the Commission asserts that intelligence agencies have many incentives to keep information private, such as punishments for sharing information. However, there are no incentives to share information.
Secondly, the Commission notes that intelligence agencies are decentralized and already burdened with maintaining their systems, and thus have few resources at hand to promote inter-agency sharing. The Commission recommended that the President take a lead in promoting openness within intelligence agencies and with taxpayers. Specifically, the Commission believed the President should “coordinate the resolution of the legal, policy, and technical issues across agencies” to create a decentralized network that allows horizontal data sharing. The technology for this information sharing exists. Because intelligence agencies are decentralized and have their own agency policies, the solution is to promote sharing across this level. Because of the scope of his power and responsibilities, the President is in a unique position to spearhead this effort.
President Bush in addressing the second point created the National Countreterrorism Center (NCTC) and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) through Executive Order 13354 on August 2004. This office and position were created to allow intelligence agencies to cooperate and share information but the success of the office is dubious. Individuals within the intelligence community are skeptical that the Center, which is relatively small, can actually connect the 30 databases comprising the intelligence network. Even if this information is connected between agencies and access is improved, another problem remains: the ability to manage and maintain the information.
One problem with the NCTC is that it seems to ignore the horizontal nature of intelligence agencies. Intelligence agencies, such as the CIA, FBI, and NSA, each work independently of each other and follow their own policies. The 9/11 Commission acknowledged this, and did not express a need to consolidate the agencies under another office. However, this is exactly what the NCTC does. It also explicitly aims to “integrate” intelligence agencies, when the Commission urged cooperation.
One benefit to the NCTC is that it is successful in forcing the agencies to cooperate. At NCTC headquarters in Langley, VA, “agency-integrated teams assigned by subject matter and geography, [analysts] turn out reports disseminated to thousands of policy and intelligence officials across the government.” Agency representatives update the nation's threat matrix three times a day.
Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle to information sharing, whether it be sharing information with the public or between agencies, is human nature. The work the NCTC does to mandate inter-agency information sharing may be a start, however rocky, but there is still lacking a culture of transparency. Until individuals in the intelligence community lose the idea that information is theirs and that sharing it is disadvantageous, a wall between agencies and citizens will continue to exist.
Updated September 11, 2012.