The Washington Post has an interesting story by Walter Pincus on Friday about efforts in the federal governments to standardize agencies’ procedures for reporting suspicious incidents up the chain of command and sharing information with other agencies – a process that has been haphazard at best, and has recently encountered criticism in light of Pincus’ story last November about DOD’s “Counterintelligence Field Activity” program and its collection of information on domestic antiwar protesters. Pincus lists a number of departmental intelligence collection efforts that until now have received scant or no public mention:
The FBI has a classified system called Guardian that carries urgent, initial reports about suspicious acts, according to one bureau official.
He described it as an automated database used “to track and monitor terrorism threats and suspicious activity from the initial reporting to its final resolution.” One example, he said, involved individuals seen taking pictures of a nuclear power plant who jumped in their car when approached for identification.
“In all cases it is up to the reporting agent to follow up on suspicious activities and if a report clears it up, it is taken out of the database,” the official said. “There has to be a resolution,” which Pentagon officials acknowledged did not happen with Talon reports.
The State Department has a system called the Security Incident Management and Analysis System, which carries reports of suspicious activities from overseas embassies and other diplomatic facilities.
And the Treasury Department has a program for filing SARs related to unusual transfers of funds, which has focused primarily on terrorism threats since 2001.
These are all valid and necessary intelligence gathering activities in my opinion, if carried out with proper guidelines and stringent oversight. But clearly these two conditions have been lacking. The Director of National Intelligence needs to lead an effort with full haste to create these guidelines and standards , as the Post article suggests. And there’s a need for better oversight on a government-wide basis on this question, not siloed in each department’s inspector general office. The GAO has a role, but the primary responsibility for vigilance on this issue has to fall to Congress.