Homeland security's biggest challenge: too much information

Four years into the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), Washington is drowning in an "information glut" of monumental proportions. America's National Security apparatus, built in another, perhaps simpler, time, cannot adequately understand, analyze, and distribute the billions of pages of information on the Internet and in the cyberworld that have become a crucial battlefield in this worldwide struggle.

The cold war of America's national security youth was about obtaining a relatively limited number of hard-won secrets from an enemy bent on hiding them from us. The GWOT is a total information war. It is about sorting through information of unimaginable volume. Terrorists print their plans on the Internet in tens of thousands of blogs and chat rooms. They take advantage of cellular communications that allows encrypted and encoded messages to be conveyed nearly instantaneously across the planet.

America has its own unique information problem: compartmentalyzing information through security classification. Washington is still grappling with the mentality that information gathered must be classified "secret" based on who gathered it not on what the information is about. Further, this "compartmentation" is usually handled differently by each federal agency that "owns" the information.

The third challenge is, perhaps, the most difficult one: The number of analysts who can engage in sorting through this information is limited and increasingly expensive to get. Concentrated in Washington, the forefront of terrorism analysis is split into the alphabet soup of the town - DIA, CIA, FBI, NCTC, etc. Most of these analyst positions require security clearances and often pay below private-sector rates. Most of the federal agencies have attempted to supplement their staff by hiring local contractors to do the job. They work at higher rates. Thus analysts are often enticed to leave the federal government for the less stressful greener pastures of the private sector.

It is up to the Bush administration to straighten out this mess. The president's newly established Information Sharing Council (ISC), chaired by a representative of the director of national intelligence, must bring players from every agency together to understand the extent of the challenge. The ISC must also reach out to the private sector in Silicon Valley and elsewhere to find the "best practices" technical solutions that "sense make" the huge volumes of data.

It is also time for the ISC to make sense of an arcane and inconsistent clearance and classification system. Counterintelligence and leaks should always be a concern. However, if terrorist information is available, it must be shared with those who need it wherever they are - and as quickly as possible.

In addition, acting as an agent for the ISC, the Department of Homeland Security must reach out in a comprehensive way to the 17,000-plus state and local police departments to understand their needs and provide them information accordingly. Also, DHS must be able to acquire from state and local authorities the kind of information the "cops on the beat" get about what is going on in their area. The relative success of the British in dealing with the July 7 bombing has to do with local authorities and national intelligence working together closely and quickly.

Finally, the entire Federal government must think carefully about the number of entities involved in analysis and their own competition for the scarce resource of the "analyst mind." The National Counterterrorism Center - a consortium of intelligence agency analysts - is a good start, and more should be done to combine the other agency analysts in one large symbiotic center. Along with better pay, the private sector's analytical tools, and information sense-making technologies, the analyst's job should become easier, longer lasting, and therefore more effective.

We have little time to bicker about this information challenge. We know the problems and what must be addressed. America is in a war to the death with forces bent on destroying it. We must have the proper information given to the right people to understand our enemy and defend our nation.

Ronald Marks is a former senior CIA official and a senior fellow at George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute.

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