Breaking Down Intelligence Barriers for Homeland Security

Report Homeland Security

Breaking Down Intelligence Barriers for Homeland Security

April 10, 2002 14 min read
Dana Dillon
Dana Dillon
Policy Analyst

The intelligence community has been the object of increased scrutiny since September 11. Criticism has been focused largely on the inability of intelligence agencies to gather sufficient information to predict the attacks. However, even if substantial information were available, unless agencies within the intelligence community could share existing information across departmental and agency boundaries, an accurate assessment of threats to national security would not be possible.

In fact, before the events of September 11, various intelligence agencies had identified specific al-Qaeda operatives as possible terrorists. A breakdown occurred at the level of interagency communication, allowing two hijackers to board commercial planes despite being on the Central Intelligence Agency's watch list.

This tragic failure was possible because the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency responsible for screening airline passengers, did not have access to the CIA's database. None of this information was linked together because no single agency is tasked with piecing together the myriad bits of terrorist information into a single recognizable picture. This glaring weakness in intelligence sharing was pointed out by the many experts on The Heritage Foundation Homeland Security Task Force in its January 2002 report, Defending the American Homeland.2 Each of the four working groups involved identified the need for a comprehensive intelligence fusion center to remedy this problem.

On October 8, 2001, Executive Order 13228 established the Office of Homeland Security (OHS), which was tasked to "identify priorities and coordinate efforts for collection and analysis of information" regarding terrorist threats inside and outside the United States. To this end, the United States should create an all-source intelligence fusion center that can access intelligence information gathered by the foreign intelligence community as well as domestic intelligence collected by the FBI and local law enforcement agencies (LEAs).3

In addition to being answerable to the President, the fusion center should be under the authority of the Department of Justice (DOJ), which would enable it legally and constitutionally to process both foreign and domestic intelligence. Additionally, the President should require governors to create intelligence offices on the state level to gather, analyze, and disseminate intelligence across federal and local levels of government.

Current Intelligence Collection and Analysis

Intelligence analysts confront a blizzard of information, the vast majority of which appears meaningless in isolation, yet they are expected to predict both the likelihood and magnitude of future threats. This is comparable to trying to identify the subject of a jigsaw puzzle before assembling all the pieces. The intelligence analysts' task is further complicated by the fact that America's foreign and domestic agencies either do not or cannot share intelligence resources. While 10 people may be working to complete the puzzle, they are not sharing the pieces with one another.

Among the numerous federal departments and agencies that either monitor terrorist activity or respond to terrorist attacks are:

  • The Department of Justice, which controls the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
  • The CIA, which has an all-source intelligence collection agency at the Counter Terrorism Center (CTC) that is restricted to collecting foreign intelligence.
  • The Department of Health and Human
    (HHS), which includes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), both of which are essential first responders in the event of an attack.
  • The Department of Transportation, which controls organizations such as the Coast Guard, that have pieces of the counter-terrorism puzzle.

In addition, several existing domestic systems can presumably provide intelligence to a counter
terrorist fusion center. For example:

  • The FBI maintains the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) computer system, to which police officers nationwide have access.
  • The FBI also has the Awareness of National Security Issues and Response (ANSIR) program, which is designed to work closely with businesses and to alert employees to unclassified national security threats.
  • The DEA participates in the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF), which purportedly promotes a coordinated effort among all drug enforcement agencies.

However, none of these organizations has an all-source collection and analysis capability that covers both foreign and domestic intelligence.

It is imperative that the Office of Homeland Security develop a means to allow intelligence agencies to share intelligence about specific terrorist threats, but there are a number of jurisdictional and bureaucratic obstacles to intelligence fusion that must be addressed. U.S. law restricts agencies dealing with foreign intelligence, including the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), from collecting intelligence on American citizens.4 This is a serious problem if an American citizen is involved, knowingly or not, in the activities of a terrorist group.

For example, when a suspected terrorist whom the CIA is tracking manages to enter the United States, the CIA is required to notify the FBI. At that point, either a joint case may be opened or the FBI may allow the CIA to continue its pursuit with its knowledge. In conducting its work, the CIA would be able to keep files that include information on U.S. citizens the terrorist encounters, but only as part of a combined CIA-FBI investigation. The CIA, as the key source for the relevant foreign intelligence in this case, would play a crucial role in the FBI investigation. However, once the case was closed (as an investigation) and crucial information turned over for prosecution, the information on American citizens would eventually have to be purged from CIA files and would no longer be a part of the CIA's body of intelligence for future all-source analysis and fusion.5

Also at issue is how that information was collected. The foreign intelligence community jealously guards its sources and methods of collecting intelligence. Its agencies do not want to compromise information gathered by electronic monitoring devices or to endanger the lives of informants and agents who provide information on terrorists. The law enforcement community, however, gathers intelligence in order to present that information as evidence in court. The missions, methods, and philosophies of the two types of agencies are in conflict insofar as the foreign intelligence community insists on protecting its sources and methods while the LEA gathers intelligence, fully conscious that it must be available as evidence in court, in accord with the constitutional right of an alleged terrorist to face his accuser. This conflict has been resolved in cases involving spies; it must be resolved with regard to collecting intelligence in the war against terrorism as well.

Another troublesome issue is the need to grant security clearances to people to whom they traditionally have not been granted, especially federal officials in departments and agencies like the CDC and HHS, for example, and state and local officials. These officials at all levels of government have some responsibilities related to terrorism or homeland security. The problem is that the more people who are given access to sensitive information, the more likely it is that other people who do not have clearances will gain access to this information as well.

Intelligence Fusion Center

If U.S. intelligence gathering is to be adequate, at least one government agency must be able to look at all available pieces of the terrorist puzzle and provide the President with a comprehensive and timely analysis. Intelligence fusion for the country is currently the responsibility of the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), who has the resources of a Community Management Staff (CMS) as well as a dedicated Deputy for Collection and a dedicated Deputy for Production.

Although the FBI is part of that intelligence community structure, this does not obviate the need for a fusion center. The CMS existed before September 11, 2001, with the responsibility to make organizations share intelligence. However, the intelligence community (which includes the CIA, FBI, Treasury, Energy, and State) and its CMS failed to ensure intelligence sharing. The Office of Homeland Security is now charged with that job.

The purpose of an intelligence fusion center is to break down bureaucratic cultures that, because they resist sharing information, keep those who need to know in the dark and Americans in general vulnerable. By pulling together information from all the pertinent intelligence agencies, the fusion center can meet that goal.

To be effective, the intelligence fusion center must have the capability to maintain a combined intelligence database. Contributing agencies should be able to access this information as needed, based on the assessment of the intelligence fusion center. If, for example, a previously identified terrorist attempted to apply for a visa at the U.S. embassy in Yemen, the request would be foiled because the application would have to clear the intelligence fusion center's all-source database. Similarly, whenever the INS processed a visa application, the information could first be verified with the intelligence fusion center.

The fusion center would include collaborative workspaces manned by members (analysts) from each agency. Collaborative workspaces would allow the various agencies to participate actively in the analytical process while permitting intelligence agencies to protect their sources. A centralized intelligence database and collaborative workspaces could significantly reduce the likelihood of the kinds of intelligence lapses that occurred before September 11.

This recommendation for fusing intelligence at the federal level, however, is not advocacy for permitting or encouraging the CIA to spy on American citizens or the FBI to become a major foreign intelligence collector. The existing boundaries to intelligence sharing exist for good reason, but they must not become an excuse for bureaucratic inertia or substantially re-orienting the mission of law enforcement agencies.

There are technical means and institutional methods for building firewalls or filters between agencies that permit relevant data to be exchanged between intelligence agencies without compromising the privacy of American citizens or forcing substantive changes in the collection of foreign intelligence or LEA information. The intelligence fusion center must eventually resolve various bureaucratic and jurisdictional problems, but it will not be able to do so without being granted the appropriate authority, responsibility, and backing from the President.

One intelligence organization cannot discover or uncover every foreign or domestic terrorist plot. The intelligence fusion center should not be singly charged with the responsibility of safeguarding against any and all intelligence failure. All existing intelligence and law enforcement agencies must continue to bear full responsibility for watching and reporting on their areas of responsibility. The intelligence fusion center would be designed to make the job of finding terrorists easier, not to let other agencies off the hook.

Finally, the fusion center would not simply duplicate the activities of existing agencies, but would enhance and improve their efforts by providing a service that does not yet exist. The creation of yet another intelligence center that does not share information with other agencies would merely add to the problems of the current system.

Integration of Intelligence Sharing Among and Between Agencies

The establishment of an intelligence fusion center would give the President and Director of OHS the tools needed to fuse intelligence gathering and analysis at the federal level. That accomplishment, however, would complete only half the goals of the executive order that established the Office of Homeland Security. The Director of OHS is also charged to "work with Federal, State, and local agencies as appropriate, to...facilitate collection from State and local governments and private entities of information pertaining to terrorist threats or activities within the United States." To accomplish this goal, the OHS must break down the vertical barriers between agencies to facilitate both vertical and horizontal information sharing.

Vertical intelligence sharing is key to solving the intelligence puzzle. As evidenced by the events of September 11, local government is the key first responder to acts of terror. In order to protect the homeland from further terrorist events, appropriate planning and threat assessments must be conducted with regard to incoming intelligence information. This planning is best done by state and local governments and entails access to information that, to this point, has been disseminated only at the federal level. Communication must be increased vertically, among different levels of agencies.

Although the FBI maintains some systems that presumably allow the nation's 650,000 state and local police officers to contribute to homeland security, in October 2000, the agency threatened to arrest local police officers in Portland, Maine, who were trying to assist in the investigation of two of the September 11 hijackers. The intelligence fusion center and federal agencies must create systems that maximize the efforts of the state and local police rather than a one-way transfer of information that cuts them out.

The most expeditious means of accomplishing that goal is for state and local governments to reestablish LEA intelligence units. Many of these organizations were dissolved in the 1970s because of a relatively few (and isolated) alleged abuses of the intelligence they gathered. The U.S. Attorney General and State Attorneys General can publish frameworks for activity to prevent the abuse of such centers.

Furthermore, training of state and local agents can be handled at DOJ's 30 Regional Community Policing Institutes, allowing the focus to remain within the realm of community policing and public safety rather than expanding to domestic spying. LEA intelligence units can serve as a useful interface for vertical communication with the intelligence fusion center.

This interface will be enhanced if a federal liaison is identified in each state to serve as the point of contact for state and local officials. This person should be granted the appropriate security clearance in order to receive federal-level intelligence and disseminate it appropriately among state officials and LEAs. The structure and funding for such a relationship already exists within the Department of Justice.

Additionally, the U.S. Attorney General should deputize selected state and local law enforcement officials as special U.S. marshals to handle classified information. The FBI already uses this arrangement in conducting some investigations; extending this relationship to homeland security issues will allow better dissemination of information across all levels of government.

Summary of Recommendations

  • The President should create a federal-level intelligence fusion center, under the broad direction of the Director of the Office of Homeland Security, to bring together and analyze intelligence and law-enforcement information. The President should direct the Director of the OHS--working with the Attorney General, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Transportation, and the DCI--to create an all-source federal-level information fusion center. All information relevant to homeland defense should be sent there and should become accessible to federal agencies, as well as to state and local LEAs with homeland defense responsibilities, as required on a need-to-know basis.
  • The President should assign the Department of Justice as the lead agency for establishing a federal-level intelligence fusion center. Because of the restrictions imposed on the foreign intelligence community in collecting information on American citizens, only the Department of Justice is in a position to review and analyze such all-source intelligence. Therefore, the Attorney General, under the direction of the OHS Director, should lead the fusion center.

    However, responsibilities of the fusion center should not be further delegated down to DOJ's subordinate law enforcement agencies. If one law enforcement agency, such as the FBI, dominated the intelligence fusion center, the possibility of continued fragmentation of intelligence would continue to exist. Furthermore, the Director of the Office of Homeland Security, the Attorney General, and other Cabinet Secretaries with law enforcement responsibilities should link career advancement to the extent to which individual agents in such organizations as the FBI, DEA, and INS cooperate with other federal and local agencies.

  • The OHS Director should create a structure for sharing and disseminating information among federal, state, and local agencies. The OHS Director should develop a mechanism for sharing and disseminating information among government agencies at all levels. State and local agencies should re-establish LEA intelligence units and employ existing channels of information exchange, such as U.S. marshals and many of the information-exchange systems employed in the war on drugs. These recommendations are complemented by H.R. 3825, which provides for the sharing of homeland security information between federal intelligence and law-enforcement agencies and state and local agencies.


Despite evidence that terrorists and drug smugglers have hidden their methods of operation and financing by taking advantage of many of the same cracks in security that have resulted from the compartmentalization of domestic intelligence, there has been no serious attempt to fuse domestic and foreign intelligence. The United States should immediately close these gaps in America's intelligence machinery by creating of an intelligence fusion center and developing methods to enlist state and local agencies in the fight against terrorism.

Dana R. Dillon is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

1. The following individuals contributed to this paper in an advisory capacity: John Fenzel, Staff Director, Office of Homeland Security; Bobbie Shea, Special Assistant, Office of Homeland Security; Ken Knight, Defense Intelligence Officer for Global Trends and Policy Support Director, Defense Intelligence Agency; Tom Frazier, President, The Frazier Group, former Chief of Police, Baltimore, Maryland, and former Director, Community Oriented Policing Services Program, U.S. Department of Justice; Major General Bob Harding, USA (Ret.), Executive Vice President for Operations, Innovative Logistics Techniques, Inc., former Director of Operations, Defense Intelligence Agency, and former Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff of Intelligence, U.S. Army; and Colonel Larry Wortzel, Ph.D., USA (Ret.), Director, Asian Studies Center, The Heritage Foundation.

2. The Heritage Foundation, Defending the American Homeland: A Report of the Homeland Security Task Force, January 2002; see esp. Chapter 3, "Improving Intelligence and Law Enforcement Capabilities."

3. According to the Department of Defense, all-source intelligence most frequently includes human resources intelligence, imagery intelligence, measurement and signature intelligence, signals intelligence, and open-source data. It is also defined as indicating (1) that, in the satisfaction of intelligence requirements, all collection, processing, exploitation, and reporting systems and resources are identified for possible use and (2) that those most capable are tasked.

4. See, for example, National Security Act of 1947 (50 U.S.C. 401 note) and Executive Order 12333 of 1981.

5. Interview with Major General Bob Harding (Ret.).


Dana Dillon
Dana Dillon

Policy Analyst