Homeland Security agency narrows intelligence focus

Critics fear potential loss of ability to protect nation

August 24, 2005|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Department of Homeland Security has quietly scaled back its intelligence operation in a move that some intelligence insiders say could significantly hamper the government's ability to protect the country from terrorist attacks.

Originally assigned by Congress to collect and analyze terrorism intelligence from throughout the federal government, the department instead plans to concentrate solely on information gathered from within its own units, focusing mostly on border security and, eventually, data from state and local governments, officials said.

Doing so, officials say, will prevent duplicating the work of other federal agencies. They say that developing expertise in a more limited area will help the department gain greater legitimacy among the nation's 15 intelligence agencies.

"It's really important that each of the intelligence community members focus on its particular expertise or niche," said Karen Morr, the agency's acting assistant secretary for information analysis.

Created amid widespread criticism of federal agencies for failing to share information before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security was to be a central clearinghouse for information about terrorism threats. But in aspiring to take the lead in coordinating all terror intelligence, the department was outmaneuvered by other intelligence agencies.

Retired Lt. Gen. Patrick Hughes, who until March headed Homeland Security's information analysis division, said the National Counterterrorism Center "took away most of the raison d'etre, most of the motivating force" for having Homeland Security take the lead on analyzing all threat information in one place.

The National Counterterrorism Center employs analysts from many U.S. intelligence agencies and reports to National Intelligence Director John D. Negroponte. It has received more White House support than Homeland Security.

Ill-suited for mission?

Former CIA officials who have worked with the Homeland Security Department said, however, that Negroponte's office might be ill-suited to fulfilling its mission, which requires the agency to be attentive to potential domestic threats as well as those from overseas.

In part because of its roots in the CIA, where it was initially housed, the counterterrorism center has routinely deferred to the FBI on domestic intelligence issues and often failed to fully integrate the information in its overall analyses, according to a former senior intelligence official who has worked closely with the center and spoke on condition of anonymity.

That fragmented process, in light of the pared back effort by the Homeland Security Department, represents a turning back toward the widely criticized lack of intelligence coordination that was typical of the government's efforts before the Sept. 11 attacks, he said.

"The bad news is, the job ain't getting done," he said. "The result is that we don't have any domestic intelligence collection and analysis capability four years after 9/11."

Another intelligence official, formerly with the CIA, said overlapping assignments and the complex network of agencies tackling the terror threat have caused confusion about which office is ultimately responsible for connecting the dots on foreign and domestic intelligence.

"No one has really sat down and said, `What is the clear way out of this?'" said the official, who spoke on condition that he not be named. "I am very concerned that this is not going to be a good story a year from now."

An opposing view

Officials in Negroponte's office referred a reporter to a senior counterterrorism official, who would speak only on condition of anonymity, because of the sensitivity of intelligence issues.

He disputed the notion that the government is losing ground in its efforts to coordinate intelligence and said the National Counterterrorism Center "has much more capability than any other organization" to analyze the terrorist threat.

The official said he does not believe the center defers to the FBI on domestic intelligence matters.

While it's hard to give the center's work a grade, the official said, "it has improved significantly" since its early days. "It can do a lot more, and it should, but it's going to require additional space and resources."

Under the first Homeland Security secretary, Tom Ridge, the department had planned to set up a government-wide analysis center to track trends in threats. But officials eventually concluded that it was counterproductive to try to sort through "the bureaucratic mystery" over which agency was responsible for what, said Hughes, who began efforts to refocus the department's efforts.

"We never did achieve what we'd like to have achieved, and, frankly, I don't think it is likely to be achieved," said Hughes, who headed the intelligence division until earlier this year.

A narrower focus

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