As the Wall Crumbles

Intelligence and law enforcement agencies topple the information barrier.

The failure of the federal government to catch the 9/11 hijackers before they could carry out their attacks has been blamed in part on an artificial barrier between intelligence agents and law enforcement officers and organizations-known as "the Wall." Four and a half years later, the Wall is mostly gone, and it's probably not a coincidence that there hasn't been a terrorist attack since. A reorganization of the Justice Department offices overseeing terrorism and intelligence prosecutions is getting under way this spring, one of the last steps in eliminating the Wall.

The Wall was set up to ensure that information gathered for intelligence purposes was not improperly used in criminal investigations. Organizational structures and processes were designed to block information from passing from intelligence agents to law enforcement officers, since such information theoretically could be thrown out in criminal court if a judge learned that it had been gathered under a search order granted for intelligence gathering.

After 9/11, the need to pre-emptively stop terrorists meant that the Wall had to go, that intelligence and law enforcement agents had to coordinate more closely and share more information. Even the distinction between intelligence and law enforcement faded, since both groups' primary concern became the same: preventing a terrorist attack. The tools of both intelligence and criminal prosecution could be used toward that goal.

Bureaucratic distinctions such as those that led to the Wall are commonplace throughout government. They exist vertically between different levels of security clearances and pay grades. They exist horizontally between different types of employees, different offices within agencies and different agencies. Some of those distinctions and the barriers that accompany them are valuable because they prevent information from getting to people who could do harm to the country and they prevent the government from revealing proprietary business information or private details about individuals to others.

Such concerns are valid, and the government has a duty to protect such information. So far, it has demonstrated that it can tear down barriers such as the Wall and still protect information that needs protecting.

The Wall showed that information barriers can become self-propagating in bureaucracies, so the process of information protection becomes a goal in and of itself. The reasonable concerns that led to the creation of the Wall morphed into unreasonable restrictions on information flow that prevented officials from connecting the 9/11 dots.

There is a lesson for all government executives. You must question the information barriers that surround you, or you could find yourself on the losing side of history.

That lesson was summed up by FBI Director Robert Mueller last year when he discussed what the elimination of the Wall meant for his agency. "The presumption prior to Sept. 11 [was] you did not disclose something unless there's a good reason," Mueller said. "The presumption now for us is you disclose unless there's a good reason not to disclose."

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