The Importance of Information Sharing

Lower Manhattan at night on September 11, 2020

This article is part one of a two-part series on information sharing in the intelligence community in the 20 years since September 11. Read part two: The Current State of Information Sharing.

Recently this country observed the twentieth anniversary of the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001, in which al-Qaida operatives were able to successfully hijack four U.S. commercial airliners and utilize these airplanes for kamikaze type attacks that resulted in the destruction of the two towers that comprised the World Trade Center, the partial destruction of the Pentagon, and the loss of 2,977 lives, including all those aboard the four airliners.

For the Baby Boomer generation, this became our Pearl Harbor. Similar to when our parents huddled in December 1941 to listen to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s radio address before Congress that launched the United States into the Second World War, we were glued to the television as President George W. Bush addressed the nation and commenced the global war on terrorism when he stated:

“Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts. The victims were in airplanes or in their offices: secretaries, business men and women, military and federal workers, moms and dads, friends and neighbors. Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror.”

For those within the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the United States Intelligence Community (USIC), this event became a watershed moment of drastic organizational change in ensuring that such an event could not be repeated on American soil. But not before Congress investigated the attacks and assigned blame with their recommendations.

The 9/11 Commission

Shortly after the attacks, former Governor Thomas Keane was appointed Chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. The independent, bipartisan commission found that the attacks could have been prevented if intelligence was properly shared, specifically between the CIA and the FBI. 

Executive Order 12333 and the USA Patriot Act

In order to clarify the duties and responsibilities as they pertained to intelligence collection and sharing, President Bush amended Executive Order 12333 in which the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was primarily responsible for the collection of intelligence overseas while the FBI was primarily responsible for the collection of intelligence within the United States.

In addition, Sections 218 and 504 of the USA PATRIOT Act helped to bring down the “wall” that the Justice Department and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Courts built in the belief that the “primary purpose” of obtaining a FISA warrant was the “collection of foreign intelligence rather than the collection of evidence of a crime” which in effect prevented the sharing of intelligence collected in national security investigations with those special agents involved in criminal investigations. 

In testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales emphasized that “a perception arose that improper information sharing could end a career, and a culture developed within the Department sharply limiting the exchange of information between intelligence and law enforcement officials.” The Patriot Act paved the way for “more robust information sharing between intelligence and law enforcement personnel.” 

The FBI’s New Director

Robert Mueller was the sixth Director of the FBI and was only on the job seven days when the 9/11 attacks occurred. In the aftermath of the attacks, several members of Congress were calling for the splitting of the FBI into two separate organizations, similar to the British MI5 and MI6 models. While fighting off such attacks, Director Mueller was determined to change the FBI’s culture from a reactive, case-driven, and criminal-centric agency to one that was proactive, threat-based, and intelligence-driven, while making counterterrorism and national security matters the agency’s top priorities.

In addition, the FBI realized that in order to be successful in the prevention of acts of terrorism it needed to work more closely with its partners within the USIC and the Law Enforcement (LE) communities throughout the nation and overseas. This approach revolved around the concept of becoming more transparent in the sharing of intelligence. The FBI now occupied a seat within the USIC and participated in daily briefings regarding ongoing terrorism investigations at the newly created National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). 

Embracing Intelligence Sharing

To ensure intelligence was being shared with the LE community, Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF) comprising federal, state, and local officers were established in every FBI field office across the United States. Counterterrorism working groups composed of the senior agency officials within each state were established. Overseas, the legal attaché program was expanded with FBI representation in more than 60 U.S. Embassies. The FBI also partnered with the Department of Defense in the interrogations of terrorists on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Furthermore, the FBI took the necessary steps to professionalize their intelligence analyst program while creating Field Intelligence Groups (FIG) within every FBI field office and assigning personnel to the DHS-led Fusions Centers that were being formed throughout the United States with state and local intelligence personnel. Along with the above steps to improve intelligence sharing within the intelligence and law enforcement communities, the FBI engaged the private sector in the sharing of critical intelligence with such programs as the Domestic Security Alliance Council and InfraGard.

As we teach the next generation of intelligence analysts in the Master’s of Applied Intelligence program at Georgetown University, we hope that the lessons learned from the tragic events of 9/11—especially the FBI’s need to successfully share intelligence while working side-by-side with their partners in the intelligence and law enforcement communities, both domestically and abroad—are not forgotten by this generation and future generations tasked with the prevention of another international terrorist attack on our homeland.

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