Inside an unmarked, secured office near the White House, intelligence officials, lawyers and police work to close a gaping hole in the nation's counterterrorism system: the failure of people in the government to communicate with one another.
The Sept. 11 commission report singled out official resistance to sharing information as a key reason the government failed to thwart the 2001 terrorist attacks. In response, Congress authorized the president to create the group now based near his office, known as the "information-sharing environment" (ISE) program. Its goal is to create a system for moving terrorism-related information among officials — be it the president or a small-town mayor — quickly and securely.
In coming days, the group will send the president its recommendations for taming an explosion of "sensitive but unclassified" (SBU) documents. These reports, papers and memos — not classified but not meant for public eyes — bear "markers": from the basic "For Official Use Only" or "Trade Secret" to the mind-bending "Information Related to a Continuity of Operations Plan." So far, the ISE has collected 108 markers, and McNamara says more probably exist. Each marker dictates the rules for handling, distributing and storing the document that bears it. Confusing things further, the rules vary by agency, even for the same marker.
The result is "chaos," said ISE program manager Thomas McNamara, a former State Department counterterrorism official who now reports to the director of national intelligence. Studies by the National Governors Association and the Government Accountability Office have found that the SBU mess undermines the effectiveness of terrorism alerts from Washington. In one example, a local police official received a confusing SBU memo from Washington, wrongly thought it was classified, and scrambled for days to find a secure phone line so he could ask about it.
SBU stands at the center of a trend toward greater government secrecy that "threatens accountability in government and promotes conflicts of interest," according to a report on the phenomenon released last year by the advocacy group OpenTheGovernment.org.
"You need an anthropologist to understand how these bureaucracies function," said Steven Aftergood, an open-government advocate who runs the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy News blog. "But it's not their own information. It's government information, and it should be handled in a uniform manner."
McNamara said his goal is to narrow the number of SBU markers from more than 100 to a dozen or fewer, develop one set of handling rules, and make the documents available to all who need them.
Once approved, the new program will be rolled out in Washington and across federal and local agencies. That could take years.
The SBU system is a throwback to the Cold War, McNamara said, "when we as a government paid particular attention to classified information" that falls into "Secret," "Top Secret" and "Secret Compartmented Information" categories, with corresponding security clearances for those who use it. To be classified, documents must refer to defense, foreign policy or national intelligence. Since most agencies can't classify, McNamara said, they devised the SBU system to control information such as law enforcement evidence, personal records and trade secrets.
But just as governments tend to overclassify, the agencies used SBU designations so often that they created an insurmountable mountain of documents — and undermined confidence in the system.
"Information flows are so dramatically large now that we can't depend on the old system," McNamara said. "We either create a new one or we're going to be very, very sorry we didn't."