July’s Washington Post investigation of the national security and intelligence system continues to live — least on the internet, its blogosphere suburbs, and (in October) on public television’s Frontline.
Jessica Herrera-Flanigan summarized the size of the intelligence enterprise in her July 19th post. :
- 45 organizations (with 1,271 sub-units) engaged in top-secret work.
- 1,931 companies engaged in top-secret work for the government.
- 854,000 individuals hold top-secret security clearances.
- Over 50,000 intelligence reports published each year.
- A $75 billion (public number) intelligence budget for 2009.
What does the nation get for those numbers? What does it lose?
Today’s post is from a colleague who is a member of what might be called the pre-9/11 intelligence community. Her essay was written before the Washington Post investigation was published.
She writes specifically about the growth of fusion centers (there are now more than 70 of them). But she makes a larger point that something important may have been lost amidst the growth of Top Secret America and homeland security.
Recently, the joys that accompany homeowner responsibility found me on my way to the local Home Depot to purchase the supplies necessary to fix a leaky kitchen faucet. I arrived at the store lacking any anxiety about the shopping trip. After all, I was bound to easily locate my required plumbing supplies at the largest home-improvement retailer in the United States… or was I?
Two hours later, the same, but now greatly decreased, joys of home ownership found me at my local hardware store, where the anxiety created by my Home Depot visit was alleviated by the knowledge and helpfulness of the familiar owner.
As I made my way back home, finally armed with the correct supplies to complete my project, I thought about the reasons I had encountered such obstacles at Home Depot. I realized the big-box concept that initially gave Home Depot its innovative value had been overcome by inconvenience and a loss of trust due to unfamiliarity. The resulting experience was less efficient and more time-consuming, thereby negating any monetary savings.
Upon further reflection, I recognized many similarities between my Home Depot visit and the problems besetting homeland security in the United States. Since the events of 9/11, the number of individuals working in the homeland security field has greatly increased. New initiatives abound, most of which consist of adding people and resources as the solution to any and all problems.
But given the current issues within this field, including the struggle for success of fusion centers, mission creep between agencies, and vast duplication of responsibilities, are the solutions working? Or has the safety of our nation fallen victim to big-boxization?
People working counterterrorism matters prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were part of a much smaller cadre of personnel focused on the security of our homeland. They operated through a voluntary collaborative effort on Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs), before the days when collaboration became a forced requirement. They worked as a team, before the days when that team became a behemoth. They knew the right people to contact for the right information, before the days when all of those people were required to sit in the same location.
Revisiting my Home Depot experience, I can draw many parallels with the current problems found in homeland security and, specifically, within the fusion centers that have been established allegedly to ensure information sharing between federal, state, and local stakeholders.
Similar to the various departments within a Home Depot store, the fusion centers are staffed by people representing various agencies, levels of government, and areas of expertise. But just as the salesperson assigned to the electrical department at Home Depot could not assist me when I couldn’t locate a plumbing representative, the physical co-location of personnel within a fusion center does not produce the ease of one-stop shopping. Instead, issues of security clearances, proprietary information, and the lack of data interoperability cause the same refrains to be echoed throughout the fusion centers as I heard in Home Depot: “Sorry, ma’am, that’s not my department.”
My inconvenience at Home Depot was further exacerbated by the sales staff’s lack of familiarity with the local community. I live in a town home community built in the 1940s and, as is often the case, the historic nature of my neighborhood is accompanied by many quirks in construction and materials. The plumbing salesperson at Home Depot (who I finally located) did not know anything about my neighborhood and its quirks. His penchant for guessing what supplies I needed did not increase my confidence or trust in his knowledge.
When I finally abandoned my attempts to succeed in Home Depot and went to my neighborhood hardware store, I was greeted by the long-time owner who was intimately familiar with the inner workings of the construction of my townhouse. Combined with his broad-based knowledge of every item on the shelves within his store, his familiarity immediately fostered my trust that I would walk out of that store with the correct supplies.
The large number of agencies and personnel being pushed into fusion centers risks creating the same lack of familiarity exhibited by the Home Depot salesperson. Only time will tell whether this familiarity, and corresponding trust, will be established. The common physical location of personnel may not be the answer to full collaboration because, as is seen in Home Depot, the issues of stovepiping and the lack of broad knowledge still remain, no matter how many people and resources are assigned to a single location.
I know for certain that I will not be visiting Home Depot the next time I need home improvement supplies. Instead, I will return to my neighborhood hardware store in which I have full confidence. Will I soon say the same about homeland security and avoid the fusion center, as I long for a return to the days of the “mom and pop” version of counterterrorism?