ADVICE+DISSENT: Intelligence File All Together Now
Thomas McNamara wants security agencies to share.
"Ted McNamara is a son of a bitch."
So said Pablo Escobar, the infamous Colombian drug lord, after surrendering to authorities in 1991. McNamara was the U.S. ambassador at the time and was trying to extradite Escobar. As McNamara tells the story, when interrogators asked Escobar why he had turned himself in, he cited relentless pursuit by the head of the Colombian security service and that hijo de puta McNamara. As a gift, the Colombians embroidered the quote, in Spanish, with red thread on white fabric. It now hangs framed on McNamara's wall in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
That Thomas (his legal name) McNamara intimidated a psychopathic gangster bodes well for his future as head of the Information Sharing Environment. If you're wondering what that is, take heart; so is McNamara.
Established by the 2004 intelligence reform law, the ISE is a composite of policies, procedures and technologies that fosters the flow of information about terrorism. Participants include federal, state, local, tribal and private sector entities. The idea, as McNamara describes it, is to prevent the next terrorist attack through strength in numbers.
Say local port officials in Los Angeles notice a pattern of suspicious activity; someone snooping around a Coast Guard vessel, perhaps. In the ISE McNamara envisions, officials would create a report that state authorities could examine. Then they would compare that report to any similar ones from local inspectors in San Francisco. "They get together and figure out what's going on, on the West Coast," McNamara imagines. "Then that [information] shows up at the federal level, and the federal level takes five pieces of paper and says, 'Here's what the national trend is . . . and sends it back out to them. That's a rational, standardized, simplified method for handling the information. . . . And that's what the ISE is all about."
McNamara's actual title, program manager, doesn't capture the breadth of his job. He is an unlikely amalgam of engineer, psychologist and button-pushing bureaucrat. He's also no stranger to tracking terrorists: After the Sept. 11 attacks, McNamara was the senior adviser for counterterrorism and homeland security at the State Department. "The ISE is beginning to function, but it's not fully functional by any means," he says. "The technology is just a piece of it. " Getting people to change the way they handle intelligence is the kicker.
Case in point, the way agencies label information "sensitive, but unclassified." Generally, SBU means something isn't a secret, but there are restrictions on how it can be shared. But many agencies define SBU their own way and prescribe different handling procedures. They're reluctant to share information beyond their walls, fearing that others will mishandle or divulge it. In this chaotic system, McNamara says, agencies have devised at least 100 different SBU standards. As a result, intelligence that should have been disseminated was not.
But change is coming. "We got everyone to agree, back in December of last year, that in principle, we need to change the way the federal government handles SBU," McNamara says. Working groups met throughout 2006 and fashioned a set of recommendations, which, as of February, Mc-Namara was preparing for the president's consideration.
The intelligence community is working together "enormously more effectively than five years ago, but not nearly as well as they ought to be," he says. "We've got another at least five years of work to do before I would even be minimally satisfied that they're sharing information the way they ought to." McNamara could be setting low expectations so as not to disappoint anyone. But he casts himself as a realist. "I don't know if they're ever going to get to the nirvana of the perfect ISE," he says. "But they can improve it." He looks at the embroidered quote on the wall and smiles. "That's why they put me here."
Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.