The issue has become central to the investigation of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the commission looking into it is expected to release a report next month.
The House Homeland Security Committee - a new entrant to the longstanding debate about intelligence "stovepipes," the term used to describe communications that travel only vertically, within agencies, and not to other agencies - was the locus for Thursday's discussion.
Former Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey recommended that Congress hold executive session hearings with top officials from the various intelligence agencies and generally backed a proposal by California Democratic Rep. Jane Harman to create a new director of national intelligence (DNI).
Former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore, who headed a security commission, offered support for the currently temporary Homeland Security Committee to continue its work but said the committee that holds such hearings must be "steeped in expertise." He said a national director would need budgetary and personnel authority in order not to be a "sitting duck."
Gilmore also raised questions about working with the Defense Department, which he said has the most money, power and talent. "They don't work with the CIA, and they don't work with the DNI under the proposal, and they don't work with Homeland Security," he said.
Markle Foundation President Zoe Baird recommended that the committee focus on setting rules for information sharing. She presented Markle's proposal to create a central database for intelligence from all sources, accessible by anyone who needs more information at any time.
Several committee members raised concerns about the lack of government success in improving information sharing. "Almost three years later, all must acknowledge that, despite serious and sustained efforts by responsible government agencies, we still do not have the level of timely, routine and unfettered information sharing we know we need to prevent terrorism and respond to it as effectively as we must," said committee Chairman Christopher Cox, R-Calif.
Committee ranking Democrat Jim Turner of Texas provided a chart showing the competing information-sharing systems within rival agencies. He said that picture was further complicated by the addition of the Homeland Security Department and the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC), an interagency intelligence-fusion center housed at the CIA.
"Creating and maintaining multiple intelligence centers is a recipe for continued confusion, and the failure to coordinate the work of these various centers has real-world consequences," he said.
Several committee members and witnesses said the nation's "first responders" to emergencies, especially local police, will continue to be a primary source for intelligence. They said states and localities continue to lack access to key information and to tools for sharing it. Turner said first responders would not know who to call in a national emergency.
Separately, the U.S. Joint Forces Command on Thursday announced that it is seeking industry help in developing a more efficient multinational information-sharing environment.