Of all the intelligence issues highlighted by the 9/11 attacks, none proved so lethal nor as resistant to repair as the inability of government agencies to share information with each other. Investigations reveal, and senior officials concede, that five separate agencies — the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the CIA, the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration and the State Department — had information ahead of the attacks which, properly arrayed, might have enabled the government to foil the attack. Yet two years later, law enforcement and intelligence officials and the lawmakers who oversee them remain deeply skeptical that changes have gone far enough.
“The FBI is from Mars, the CIA is from Venus” ran the headline in a recent issue of Government Executive, a magazine devoted to coverage of the Washington bureaucracy.
It is a common sentiment at the two agencies, and just the tip of an iceberg of misunderstandings, mutual suspicions and mismatched technology that continues to plague the effort to get the nation’s myriad homeland security and intelligence agencies on the same page.
A host of congressional and independent investigations conclude that improvements in information sharing — “removing stovepipes,” in the language of the Washington Beltway — is a vital step in safeguarding the country from a second catastrophic attack of the kind suffered on Sept. 11, 2001.
“We are now learning that before September 11, the suspicions and insights of some of our frontline agents did not get enough attention,” President Bush said last summer. “If you are a frontline worker for the FBI, the CIA, some other law enforcement or intelligence agency, and you see something that raises suspicions: I want you to report it immediately. I expect your supervisors to treat it with the seriousness it deserves. Information must be fully shared, so we can follow every lead to find the one that may prevent tragedy.”
Rerouting the plumbing
Over the past two years, primarily driven by the White House, the government’s intelligence agencies have realigned themselves, with the most dramatic example being the creation of the new Department of Homeland Security.
That move alone brought agencies which had grown up for oblique historical reasons under rather sleepy government bureaucracies (the Customs Service was run by Treasury Department, Coast Guard and airport security handled by Transportation Department, for instance) and placed them under DHS.
Indeed, many regard the creation of the Transportation Safety Agency to handle the nation’s airport security under the homeland security department as the single most effective move taken since 9/11.
With regard to information sharing, the key step was the creation of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC) last January, which in practice merged counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism functions of the CIA and FBI under one roof — that roof being the CIA’s. Together with looser rules under the USA Patriot Act on what FBI, CIA and other agencies investigate and act on, this is cited by the administration as a major step toward correcting the “stovepipe” problem.
”[TTIC]’s not a collector of intelligence, they simply have all components in one place and that gives then the ability to do threat assessment,” says Pat D’Amure, the Special Agent-in-Charge of FBI’s New York field office.
The Pentagon, too, took steps — most importantly, creating a new post of “under secretary of defense for intelligence,” now held by one of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s long-time aides, Stephen Cambone.
The move, says Don Black, the spokesman for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), creates a new dynamic inside the Pentagon. Where previously major defense agencies like the DIA, the National Security Agency (NSA) or the National Reconnaissance Office all reported directly to Rumsfeld, the new undersecretary “gives intelligence matters a senior policy level and can facilitate actions that need to happen. From that standpoint, information sharing, inside the Pentagon, is improved.”
Deep, or skin deep?
Yet many view these as largely cosmetic changes — or, in the case of the Pentagon, moves intended to bolster the influence of one bureaucracy at the expense of the other.
“I don’t believe at all that they’ve gotten all the stovepipes, says Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican and former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman. “For the [intelligence] community to go through serious reform and be on the cutting edge of information, the administration — any administration — is going to have to push to make changes.”
Larry Downes, a private-sector strategy consultant and author of “Unleashing the Killer App” and “The Strategy Machine,” says tweaking the federal organization chart is a doomed effort.
“On a day-to-day basis, each department, each agency, each office works hard to avoid having to interact with others when doing so means more work for the individuals who actually do the work, especially when there is no reason to believe they will get anything in return,” he says.
Downes, who has worked with government as well, says that in most successful organizations — business or government— information flows not by decree or by creating new bureaucracy to force it but because there are personal relationships between the people who work in different parts of the organization.
“If the individuals believe that sharing information will benefit them in some way, they’ll do it,” he says. “Otherwise, they won’t.”
Not enough progress
So far, say former intelligence officials and administration aides, there is little evidence that information is flowing much better than it did in the days before 9/11. “The culture of law enforcement and intelligence is not to share information,” says James Gilmore, a former Republican prosecutor and governor of Virginia who heads one of the government’s most influential of the post-9/11 study panels. “At this point, we’ve made a lot of pronouncements, but we still need to find ways to get information shared.”
Gilmore cited the recent inter-agency disputes over who was responsible for the erroneous assessment of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program — the infamous “Niger uranium issue” — as an indication that the system still needs serious reform.
”[Intelligence and law enforcement are] a culture based upon a legitimate concern about burning their sources and revealing of methods and knowledge,” Gilmore says, “and it’s also the fact that knowledge is power, and information makes you superior to the other agency.”
One of the chief problems, in the view of many intelligence professionals, is that no one person is in charge of the sprawling American intelligence community. In theory, the head of the CIA also holds the title “Director of Central Intelligence” or DCI, and as such, is the president’s primary advisor on such issues.
In practice, the DCI has only nominal influence on what the FBI or the homeland security department or the Pentagon’s many intelligence nodes do on a day to day basis.
“I do think we must embark on forming a plan for change in the U.S. intelligence community,” says retired Gen. Patrick Hughes, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “We should have done that earlier than the 9-11 events.”
Hughes says nothing rash should be done, but that once the real obstacles to information sharing and other challenges are identified, “change we must. The world has certainly changed.”