The Current State of Information Sharing

Government intelligence officials standing around table in monitoring room

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

In the years immediately following the attacks of September 11, all fingers pointed toward the lack of intelligence sharing among intelligence and law enforcement organizations and even more so with regards to awareness and threat information that was given to local authorities to help keep communities safe. To address this, a “whole of government” approach was adopted to eliminate the stove-piped and insular ways of the past and create a new way of thinking. Partnerships were formed, personnel was intermixed and exchanged within organizations, and those who resisted change were looked at askance. 

As FBI leaders, most of our efforts were spent building external relationships with one goal in mind: to ensure a pathway to pass intelligence and threat awareness information as far as we could. It was all about transparency, and you always erred on the side of caution by ensuring information was getting into the hands of the people who needed it most. 

Within the private sector, things were also changing fast. Businesses operating in sectors such as financial services, transportation, telecommunications, sports and entertainment, commercial real estate, and many others were let in on receiving intelligence that would help to protect employees, facilities, and their brands. We were in the heyday of a new paradigm; the United States became a model for other countries as a way that intelligence sharing should be done.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way things changed, and not for the better. Intelligence, law enforcement, and private sector agencies now look at one another and wonder what happened. Counterterrorism strategy is a constant pendulum, swinging in one direction as needs dictate, and then swinging in the other direction when the sense of urgency subsides.

A New Generation’s Effect

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”— George Santayana, The Life of Reason, 1905.

Now, 20 years later, we look in the mirror and what we find is a drastic change. The pendulum has not swung back. Intelligence sharing has reverted: Agencies have returned to their stove-piped ways of old and information is not passed along to state and local law enforcement. 

So, what has happened to cause this? 

Several factors have led to the deterioration of what was once a well-oiled machine of policy and practice. Let’s start by looking at Georgetown University and a typical class in the Master’s in Applied Intelligence program. Why Georgetown? Because a Georgetown class often represents a microcosm of the intelligence community, with many students working in the Intelligence Community in some capacity or serving an internship with a federal agency. 

Interestingly, students view their respective agencies as singular, essentially stand-alone operations functioning unilaterally. While this may seem that we have returned to the stove-piped ways of 20 years ago, it does represent how a new generation is taking shape. Employees who were there on September 11 have moved on and the life-cycle of attrition has taken hold. Personal relationships which led to interagency partnerships have slowly gone away, which has further reduced intelligence sharing. 

When you apply this on a larger scale, it is not hard to see how two decades can make a difference. And it is happening everywhere we look. It is not uncommon for even an FBI Special Agent to have only a scant recollection of September 11, as they may have only been 8 or 9 years old when the attacks occurred. They can't possibly have the same point of reference when it comes to building partnerships for the purpose of intelligence sharing. 

Changing Threats

There are still other causes that have contributed to this. The shape of the threat has dramatically changed. While the prior focus was mostly centered on al-Qaida, it was easy to position the concept that a foreign terrorist organization was plotting attacks from abroad and would likely utilize operatives who were embedded in the United States—in essence, the 9/11 model. This made it easier to conceptualize the threat, promote intelligence sharing, and create an exchange mechanism for two-way suspicious activity reporting. 

As the threat from al-Qaida diminished—although it is important to state that it has not been eliminated—the threat shifted to Homegrown Violent Extremists, which was primarily driven by ISIS and its efforts to encourage followers to wage attacks through online radicalization and recruitment. Sadly, many of the recipients of this messaging are minor children, creating additional investigative and intelligence-sharing obstacles. 

Additionally, the proliferation of anti-government and racially motivated violent extremists further complicate the threat picture, especially as much of the rhetoric brushes up against First Amendment protections and limits the degree of investigation which can be conducted. 

Lastly, when we look toward intelligence sharing internationally, the secrets disclosed publicly by Edward Snowden have created somewhat of a chilling effect in the way ally countries view the trust and confidence that was once never doubted. This has directly impacted intelligence sharing on a broader scale.

A Way Forward

The next generation of intelligence community leaders will be represented by the intelligence analysts who support the organizations, the investigators and other personnel who are the go-between to state, local, and tribal law enforcement, and the private sector. Collectively, they need to shift from the stove-piped view which we have reverted to and instead re-embrace the idea of intelligence sharing across organizations, reestablishing interagency partnerships, and committing to the idea that no one agency can do it alone. 

Intelligence and threat information has always existed as bits and pieces. And it is only when these bits and pieces are combined on a larger scale that we stand the chance of getting out ahead to prevent another event of the magnitude of the September 11 attacks.

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