Turf war hampers war on terror

Justice, Homeland Security's failure to agree on semantics hinders information sharing

July 13, 2006|By SIOBHAN GORMAN | SIOBHAN GORMAN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- For eight months, a quiet battle has raged between two federal agencies that piece together clues of potential terror threats. The feud has left officials without information about potential dangers. And it has persisted despite a White House deadline, which passed last month, to reach a resolution.

The dispute is not about the clues, but what to call them. With more than 100 labels in use among the various federal agencies to identify types of unclassified, but sensitive, information -- and who gets access to it -- the Justice and Homeland Security departments were assigned last year what seemed to be a fairly straightforward task: consolidate the list to just a few labels that would be shared by all agencies.

But some within the agencies have been reluctant to give up not only the labels they're familiar with, but also control over who gets information, intelligence officials and lawmakers said.

The conflict represents a major obstacle to the administration's information-sharing initiative and serves as a backdrop as the White House awaits what it expects to be a highly critical report today from the nonpartisan Markle Foundation on federal intelligence sharing, they said.

The report concludes that information sharing has been "stalled by turf wars and unclear lines of authority and control," according to one official familiar with it. He added that the report is also expected to target a lack of presidential leadership on the issue.

The two agencies missed a mid-June deadline set by President Bush to propose a new labeling system. As the dispute drags on, so does the tangle in communication of terrorism-related information between agencies, and state and local officials.

"It's really clogging up the information pathways," said Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican who chairs the Government Reform Committee. The problem must be resolved before counterterrorism officials miss a crucial piece of information that could foil a terrorist plot, he said.

Rep. Rob Simmons, a Connecticut Republican who chairs a House Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence, called the standoff "absurd."

"Information that is not successfully shared is useless no matter how sensitive it is," he said.

The Justice Department said it hopes to reach an agreement soon. "We continue to work with our interagency partners" on the issue, said Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.

At Homeland Security, spokeswoman Joanna Gonzalez said she expects resolution "in the near term" and that "doing this the right way is essential."

The issue is hardly a new one in the competition between agencies that handle intelligence.

The system has grown with no guidance over the past 40 years as agencies sought to protect information, often for legitimate reasons, such as privacy of medical records or a pending law enforcement investigation, said Thomas "Ted" McNamara, National Intelligence Director John D. Negroponte's deputy for information sharing.

But the labels also have become an excuse not to share information. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service concluded in a report last month that these "pseudo classification markings have, in some instances, had the effect of deterring information sharing for homeland security purposes."

Anything labeled "critical infrastructure information," for example, is generally not to be shared outside of federal agencies. If material is considered "unclassified controlled nuclear information," it is generally restricted to the Defense and Energy departments.

"Agencies resist sharing information unless they can be confident that it will receive a comparable degree of protection by the agency with whom it is shared," said Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy specialist at the Federation of American Scientists. The proliferation of labels, he added, "has impeded the No. 1 post-9/11 reform, which is to improve information sharing."

Even when the information filters down to the state or local level, officials there have often found themselves befuddled by the bureaucratic jargon, wondering how important the information is, much less how they should handle it and who else can see it.

The term "for official use only," for instance, is used by 13 federal agencies -- and there are at least five different definitions of it.

"It puts the states in an awkward position as to how to interpret it and whether and how they can share," said Thomas O'Reilly, who heads New Jersey's Department of Law and Public Safety.

A group of state officials proposed a new system with three designations -- law enforcement sensitive, homeland security sensitive, and for official use only. Each would include specific procedures on how to be distributed and secured. But Homeland and Justice officials said it was not viable, according to Col. Ken Bouche, who led that effort.

"We really don't understand why," said Bouche, who heads the information management division of the Illinois State Police.

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