Senate panel prods agencies to share intelligence

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence voted unanimously Thursday to approve an intelligence authorization bill for fiscal 2004 that attempts to improve the sharing and analysis of critical information among intelligence agencies.

The bill provides the funding necessary to establish a single governmentwide terrorist watch list, according to information released by the committee at the end of its closed-door markup. It also provides increased funding to standardize databases to facilitate access to information.

In addition, the bill requires the director of central intelligence to conduct a pilot program "to determine the feasibility and advisability of permitting intelligence analysts access to raw intelligence from the databases of other elements of the community," the committee said in its news release. The ultimate goal will be to achieve "all source fusion of data," the panel said.

"One thing which was clear from last year's joint [House and Senate] inquiry into the intelligence breakdown prior to September 11th is that collected intelligence is only as good as this nation's ability to properly analyze, fuse and disseminate it," Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said in a prepared statement. "We are better than we were on 9/11, but we still have a long way to go. I think this bill moves the intelligence community in the right direction."

The need to improve government information sharing was one of the principal findings of the congressional inquiry into the events leading up to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A report released Wednesday by the General Accounting Office found that the government still lacked any standardized or centralized method to monitor suspected terrorists. GAO found 12 different "watch lists" with "overlapping but not identical sets of data and different policies and procedures [that] govern whether and how these data are shared with others."

Coincidentally, a new Terrorist Threat Integration Center-perhaps the most visible of President Bush's initiatives in the classified budget-opened Thursday in a temporary location at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Consistent with congressional demands for improvements in the sharing and analysis of information among intelligence agencies, the center is supposed to monitor threat information gathered by the CIA and FBI and allow these two rival agencies some access to each other's data. But with many operational details still to be worked out and lots of technical hurdles to overcome involving different databases, it is expected to take more than a year for the center to function effectively.

Besides addressing policy and resource constraints that limit information sharing and intelligence analysis, the Senate committee said the authorization bill also "lays the basis for more fundamental reforms by requiring the executive branch to review and report to Congress on issues such as the need to revise executive orders and security policies consistent with improved information sharing in the computer age."

"Other provisions assist the director of central intelligence by providing additional management flexibility for personnel and construction issues and by eliminating a number of recurring and burdensome congressionally directed reports," the committee said.

In particular, the committee said it approved provisions that:

  • Relieve the director of central intelligence of notification obligations for certain construction projects. The current director, George J. Tenet, who also heads the Central Intelligence Agency, asked for these authorities to expedite construction projects which might be necessary to protect U.S. interests, the committee said.
  • Authorize $8 million to the "Community Management Staff" to establish a program similar to the military's Reserve Officers Training Corps to encourage college students to pursue careers as intelligence analysts.
  • Permit Defense Department intelligence agencies to award personal services contracts to acquire, on short notice, critically needed personnel such as linguists and experts on weapons of mass destruction.
  • Require a report on intelligence lessons learned in Iraq.

"This nation has been and remains at war and I believe that this bill reflects that reality," Roberts said. "We have tried to correct some problems without unduly interfering with the intelligence community's ability to prosecute the war in Iraq or the war on terrorism."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the committee's vice chairman, described the bill as "a bipartisan effort to support the needs of the intelligence community, while pressing it to move forward on important reforms."

"My goal with this bill is to take the first step in improving information sharing, collaboration, and domestic intelligence," Rockefeller said in a prepared statement. "And, through funding, oversight, and language in the bill, I believe this goal was achieved."

Details of what the government spends annually on intelligence activities have been a well-guarded secret for more than 50 years, although the CIA's Tenet voluntarily revealed five years ago that overall spending at that time totaled $26.7 billion. Some experts outside the government estimate that total annual spending has climbed to well over $30 billion, especially since Congress boosted funding for intelligence activities by $3 billion to $5 billion immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and by roughly $2 billion to $3 billion last year.

More than 80 percent of the money in the bill goes to the Defense Department, and the rest is apportioned among the CIA, the National Security Agency, and other smaller federal agencies.

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