Bush details plan for more effective information sharing

Strategy addresses department chiefs’ authorities, addresses coordination among federal, state and local governments.

President Bush on Monday unveiled details on the administration's plan to more effectively share terrorism-related information among federal, state and local governments, as well as the private sector.

Bush sent the details in the form of "guidelines" and "requirements" to the heads of government departments and agencies, and to lawmakers. The guidelines concern the role and scope of the authority of department chiefs. They also implement commonalities in technical standards and architectures to expedite the process of intra-government information sharing.

The changes aim to clarify how government officials should treat classified information as they share data. Additionally, the president's order would designate specific officials within government departments to handle information-sharing activities.

In a letter to Congress, Bush explained that the details are part of his effort to build the "information-sharing environment," or ISE, as required by a 2004 intelligence law.

"The ISE is intended to enable the federal government and our state, local, tribal and private-sector partners to share appropriate information relating to terrorists, their threats, plans, networks, supporters and capabilities while, at the same time, respecting the information privacy and other legal rights of all Americans," he wrote. "Creating the ISE is a difficult and complex task that will require a sustained effort and strong partnership with the Congress."

In April, Bush nominated former Energy Department Intelligence Director John Russack to expand the environment. Russack is a former CIA official and reports to John Negroponte, the national intelligence director. Russack held the first official meeting of the Information Sharing Council in November.

James Lewis, a Center for Strategic and International Studies' senior fellow, said the most critical elements of Monday's announcement concern the assignation of specific officials to handle information-sharing activities, the effort to build a common information architecture, and the revamped system for classifying information.

He noted that the changes still have to play out in the implementation process. In the past, the lack of clarity on how to effectively share sensitive terrorism-related information among federal and state authorities acted as major roadblocks in effective terrorist prevention, as noted by a key report issued by a commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Lewis said.

Many of the information-sharing provisions in the 2004 intelligence act came from a report issued by the Markle Foundation. Michael Vatis, a former high-level government official and former executive director of the foundation's task force on national security in the information age, called the ongoing establishment of the president's information-sharing initiative "vital."

"[The initiative] actually creates a framework for sharing information while also protecting some of the legitimate interests of the security of the information," he said. The plan creates procedures for sharing information, and it calls for the use of technologies to selectively share information across the government.