You’d be hard-pressed to name an intelligence initiative that has received more attention—or has been the subject of more debate and anxiety—than information sharing. After the 9/11 attacks, policymakers and managers indoctrinated the intelligence workforce in a “need to share” culture, and an official policy of “responsibility to provide” information to those who need it.
Now more than 10 years after the attacks, this effort sounds like a broken record. The more intelligence officials, experts and the press invoke the sharing mandate, like some kind of battle cry, the hollower it sounds. A reasonable policy is being reduced to a boilerplate of axioms and platitudes. So perhaps it’s time to send a different message: Information sharing actually is happening and it’s as good as it will ever get.
I don’t take credit for this idea. It comes from Mark Lowenthal, a former assistant director of Central Intelligence for analysis and production and current president of the Intelligence and Security Academy, who spoke on a panel I moderated in 2011 about analytic trade-
craft. When it comes to information sharing, Lowenthal said, the government should follow the advice of former Sen. George David Aiken, who during the darkest days of the Vietnam War suggested that the United States should “declare victory and go home.”
It’s a compelling idea. After all, intelligence agencies have made demonstrable progress since the pre-9/11 days. Many of the legal barriers that inhibited common-sense collaboration were removed quickly after the attacks, and they haven’t resurfaced. Officials established the National Counterterrorism Center as the hub for threat reporting from across the community, and today it’s staffed by analysts from every agency.
My own anecdotal reporting during the past 10 years suggests that there is an information sharing mind-set, and while it’s not uniform, it has taken hold at many levels of the community.
Information sharing hasn’t produced perfect results—but no one ever said it would. The counterterrorism center failed to detect the so-called underwear bomber in 2009, but not because there’s an aversion to sharing. Indeed, thousands of intelligence reports flow into the center every day, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to isolate the most important ones. Analysts failed to put together the pieces because there was no technological system in place for alerting to them to what they already were sharing in huge volumes.
Some legal barriers to sharing remain, but for good reason. For example, as a bulwark against civil liberties abuse, there are rules that prevent the Homeland Security Department from merging some of the information it maintains on American citizens with foreign intelligence databases at agencies such as the CIA.
Policymakers will debate the merits and usefulness of particular hurdles like this. But has any reasonable person ever suggested that we have to do away with all such restrictions to achieve intelligence harmony? No.
Intelligence isn’t a perfect business. That’s why Lowenthal’s admonition to stop striving for perfection resonates with me. I presume it does as well with his colleagues, many of whom suffer public recrimination for their mistakes. I’m not suggesting policymakers and the public demand less of our nation’s spies. Instead, they should consider revising their own expectations.
Just because the information sharing drumbeat ends doesn’t mean intelligence agencies will stop collaborating. We’re past the point where this policy needs to be drilled into people’s heads. If it hasn’t stuck by now, then it never will. Perhaps everyone’s time would be better spent keeping the current system working well rather than trying to reach some intelligence nirvana that will forever remain beyond people’s reach.
Shane Harris is author of The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State, and senior writer at The Washingtonian.