The former head of the federal Information Sharing Environment says agencies must be forced to adopt common systems for tagging information, flagging what’s important and making sense of it quickly.
Most of the new federal agencies created in the wake of 9/11 have become familiar names: the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, for example. But here’s one you’ve probably never heard of: the Information Sharing Environment.
Hidden in the office of the director of national intelligence, the ISE is a task force whose goal is to get all of the agencies involved in fighting terrorism to share information seamlessly, a job whose importance was highlighted by the Nigerian who allegedly attempted to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day.
In its four years of existence, the ISE has pushed 17 federal agencies to pool their intelligence, make their databases mutually accessible and share as much information as possible with local law enforcement officials.
Until last year, its head (with the unsexy title of program manager) was Thomas E. McNamara, 69, a former counter-terrorism chief at the State Department and a nonpartisan veteran of more than 40 years in the federal bureaucracy — and he has some thoughts worth hearing.
McNamara doesn’t think either George W. Bush or Barack Obama has devoted enough attention to promoting information sharing. The Bush administration made a strong start, he says, but then lost interest, and the new Obama administration never even focused on the problem — until now.
“Quite frankly, the new administration was distracted by other priorities and just didn’t get around to it,” he told me last week. “They were so busy with everything else, the orders were: Just manage it.”
McNamara retired in July, and his job still hasn’t been filled, a symptom of the problem, he says.
McNamara agrees with Obama that the Detroit incident resulted from a “systemic failure” in the intelligence community’s effort to connect the dots of information it already had.
“Two things went awry,” he said. “One was information management” — specifically, the way intelligence is categorized and flagged.
“The method being used to handle information is not standardized so people can quickly recognize important information. . . . The same piece of data is looked at in different ways in different agencies as it makes its way through the system.
“When, for example, the report came in from the embassy that the father was worried about his son, it likely didn’t get the same traction in every agency. Some may have looked at it and thought it was a consular matter.
“The system wasn’t labeling the data [to say]: ‘Hey, this is really important.’ ”
That lack of standardization contributes to the second failure, which McNamara calls the “push-pull problem.”
“When information shows up on your computer screen without your having to ask for it, that’s ‘push.’ When you have to ask for it, that’s ‘pull.’ Too much of our intelligence is still in the ‘pull’ category — and that makes it less likely that the right people will get the right information at the right time.”
In a more sophisticated system, he said, computers would automatically connect more dots — like a mention of an alleged terrorist named “Umar” and a report about a father worried about a son with that name — without requiring analysts to ask.
Why haven’t the government’s different agencies adopted common systems for tagging information, identifying the important bits and speeding up the process of connecting the dots?
Because it would cost money, time and attention — and because no one is forcing them to do it.
McNamara is loath to point fingers at individual agencies. But he says the current departments of Homeland Security and Justice have done the best job of embracing information sharing. “Janet Napolitano gets it,” he said.
The FBI, on the other hand, sometimes wants to stick with its own traditional procedures. “The FBI made substantial advances in earlier years, but in the last year there’s been some backsliding,” he said.
The CIA and the rest of the intelligence community, he said, are “kind of a mixed bag, but overall it’s moving in the right direction.”
“The technology is there to be used,” he told Congress last summer. “It’s the cultural problems that hold us back.”
McNamara concluded, as he was leaving his job, that his main problem had been a lack of real clout. The bureaucrats knew that he couldn’t threaten their budgets or their jobs.
“I came to the conclusion that the only way to do it was to elevate the position within the White House, in the executive office of the president, and give it substantial budget clout.”
Last summer, when television demagogue Glenn Beck decided that the Obama administration had too many “czars,” the idea of giving White House officials more clout to bring balky agencies into line was controversial. (Beck never complained when a Republican president appointed czars to make sure his goals were being pursued — but that’s a different column.)
Here’s a case in which appointing a czar would be a good thing. If Obama wants 17 different agencies to pool their intelligence on terrorism and stop the next would-be airplane bomber before he boards, he’s going to have to fill Ted McNamara’s vacant job — and give it real authority.