Sharing of intelligence a weak point

Data from local sources overlooked

August 12, 2006|By SIOBHAN GORMAN | SIOBHAN GORMAN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Britain's success in thwarting an alleged plot to blow up U.S.-bound airplanes illustrates the critical importance of intelligence in counterterrorism initiatives, but yesterday as the FBI chased new leads possibly connecting the British plotters to the United States, former intelligence officials said the British plot should also be a warning for U.S. domestic intelligence efforts.

Post-9/11 efforts to promote intelligence sharing among federal agencies and with their state and local counterparts have lagged, while hunting known terrorists overseas and building up border security have commanded the bulk of government officials' attention - and budgets - they said. Among the most important kinds of intelligence still largely overlooked are the crucial bits of information that local police and community officials collect as they do their jobs.

The revelation of another so-called homegrown terrorist cell gathering in a Western country also highlights the success of groups like al-Qaida and their sympathizers in recruiting converts in the West, and the difficulty the United States and its allies have had in stemming that tide, they said.

"We're going to see more and more of that as it becomes more difficult for al-Qaida central to deploy people," said John Brennan, a former head of the National Counterterrorism Center and former CIA chief of station in the Middle East.

The emphasis of the U.S. strategy against terrorism has been on fighting terrorists overseas and preventing them from crossing U.S. borders. But Thursday's announcement, combined with last year's attacks in London and last month's thwarted plot in Canada, suggests that the next threat could well come from within U.S. borders, terrorism experts said.

And had the plot developed in the United States, it might well have gone undetected, said Ron Marks, a former CIA officer turned homeland security consultant.

Britain is far smaller and has had 30 years to hone its ability to pull relevant intelligence up from the community level and develop a system that rapidly puts it into a national context through its domestic intelligence agency, the MI-5, Marks said. And even then, the system is not perfect, as was demonstrated last year with the subway bombings in London on July 7.

"We have a much bigger landscape here and much greater scattering of sources, and that makes the job much more difficult," he said.

Domestic intelligence collection has been among the government's greatest post-9/11 challenges. While it has been easy to deploy more border guards and buy fancier screening machines at airports, even basic issues of designing a communication system among federal agencies that connects to state and local officials - who are most likely to detect a local threat - have tied federal officials in knots.

Marks said the United States lacks mechanisms to enable intelligence to "bubble up" consistently from local officials, who would be closest to a homegrown threat. Such information is passed along in an ad hoc manner that prevents the information from coming together comprehensively to search for trends, he said.

There are 42 state "fusion" centers that pull together information, but the degree to which they are plugged into Washington varies considerably.

As recently as last month, the Justice and Homeland Security departments were feuding over which agency should be the main point of contact for state and local officials. The national spy chief's deputy for information sharing, Thomas "Ted" McNamara, had to step in to referee, and intelligence officials report progress on, but no resolution to, that basic problem.

The communication between Washington and state and local officials as the British plot was revealed early Thursday showed improvement, one intelligence official said. Federal officials held a conference call with local officials at 2 a.m. - 30 minutes after it hit the press.

The speed of communication was "impressive," said the intelligence official, who requested anonymity because he's not authorized to speak to the news media. But he added that such procedures should be the norm rather than a praiseworthy exception. "This should be rote five years after 9/11."

Homeland and Justice continue to tangle over another, similar issue - deciding on a common way to label security information so that it can be shared readily with state and local officials.

As part of the 2004 intelligence reforms, Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte was given an office dedicated to information sharing. After one year in existence, the office is on its second chief, McNamara.

"What we're talking about is a revision of how we are approaching this whole terrorism issue," said John Rollins, a former intelligence official at the Homeland Security Department and the FBI. That vision should emphasize the importance of intelligence gathered in cities across the country, he said.

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