How They Connect The Dots

This is what information sharing looks like.

Information sharing: It has been hailed as a preventative for terrorist attacks, a prophylactic for miscommunication and the pinnacle of preparedness that every intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security agency in the government should strive to reach. Only days after the Sept. 11 attacks, a narrative took hold about the months and years preceding the disaster. The CIA, the FBI, all the powerful intelligence gathering and analytic arms of the government failed to share what they knew about al Qaeda and its capabilities with each other, and so they missed the full picture of impending doom.

In the years since the attacks, the concept of information sharing has taken on mantralike status. Everyone from the president down to the local police officer says it's not just a good idea but the indispensable ingredient to true homeland security. But putting aside all the abstract talk and obvious virtues, what does information sharing actually look like today?

When the Homeland Security Department says it shares information about terrorist threats with state and local governments, how does that work? Do a bunch of officials sit in a room together? Do they communicate via computer? When the FBI insists it's cooperating like never before with the CIA and other intelligence agencies, what does that really mean? Are they swapping leads about sleeper cells, or do they just have each other on speed-dial but never pick up the phone? What's really going on here?

If you want to know what information sharing today looks like, consider the hypothetical case that unfolds on the following pages. While imagined, it is grounded in reality and presents a comprehensive view of what agencies are capable of when they put their minds to it.

In this scenario, more than a dozen agencies and organizations, from the federal, state and local levels, as well as the private sector and one foreign government, come together to catch a suspected terrorist. Behind every action, every phone call, every check of a watch list or interrogation of a suspect, information sharing is happening.

The chase doesn't always unfold so neatly, but if you want to know what governments can do today, and how they would like to perform in the future, then read on.

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