The Government Accountability Office issued a very important report on Monday on one of the most important homeland security issues: the challenge of government information-sharing. The report makes a strong case that 4 1/2 years after 9/11, the federal government has still not improved information-sharing to the degree necessitated by the terrorist threat to the United States.
The report suggests several reasons for this poor record of performance:
- The frequent shifts in lead responsibility for info-sharing over the past few years, from the White House and OMB, on to DHS with the passage of the Homeland Security Act in 2002, and then over to the DNI with the passage of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) in 2004.
- The subsequent setbacks that the DNI has faced in meeting their timetable for establishing an Information Sharing Environment, as required by IRTPA.
- The uncoordinated designation of unclassified information as “sensitive.” On this issue, the report notes that “Federal agencies report using 56 different sensitive but unclassified designations (16 of which belong to one agency) to protect sensitive information [ed. note: see Appendix II for the breakdown of these]…There are no governmentwide policies or procedures that describe the basis on which agencies should use most of these sensitive but unclassified designations, explain what the different designations mean across agencies, or ensure that they will be used consistently from one agency to another.”
The report also hints at cultural reasons why agencies have been unable to share information. And it comments on the impact of private sector concerns on information-sharing:
DHS said that sensitive but unclassified information disseminated to its state and local partners had, on occasion, been posted to public Internet sites or otherwise compromised, potentially revealing possible vulnerabilities to business competitors.
If that sentence had mentioned revealing vulnerabilities to al-Qaeda and terrorist groups, then that would be a valid concern. But business competitors? To be sure, DHS should make all reasonable efforts to protect commercially sensitive information (just as it should make reasonable efforts to protect individual privacy). But do these commercial concerns trump the vital need to share critical information with state and local homeland officials? That’s a difficult argument to make.
Finally, the DNI’s response to the report hints at the very reason why information-sharing will likely remain problematic for a long time to come:
We are aware that you have been previously advised by the Department of Justice that the review of intelligence activities is beyond the GAO’s purview. For similar reasons, we decline to provide the GAO with comments on the draft report.
Nevermind that the GAO report is completely focused on unclassified information. And nevermind that the GAO has been looking at intelligence activities for decades. This response smacks of smarmy indifference to oversight – a dangerous attitude when so much more needs to be done to improve government information-sharing.