House Democrat seeks new terrorist information-sharing unit

New unit would convert classified intelligence into forms usable by state and local officials.

In the latest of a series of proposals for easing exchanges of terrorism information among U.S. federal, state and local agencies, the top Democratic representative on antiterrorism matters is calling for a new office to facilitate "vertical" information-sharing.

The new unit would convert classified intelligence into forms usable by state and local officials and would provide a channel by which terrorism information from state and local officials could reach federal authorities. "We must keep state, local and tribal law enforcement in the loop and engaged in law-enforcement intelligence," said the House Homeland Security Committee's top Democrat, Bennie Thompson of Mississippi. "As it is now, they are not being given the information they need when they need it to identify potential terrorists or their methods."

Thompson proposed the new unit last week in a report criticizing information-sharing efforts by the Bush administration since the September 2001 attacks.

The administration, according to the report, has failed to respond adequately to "numerous directives, exhortations and invitations … to develop uniform standards for converting classified information into an unclassified or 'less classified' format" and "to create effective mechanisms … where [state and local] information assets can be shared with the intelligence community."

Last year brought several milestones in the federal effort, among them President Bush's April appointment of John Russack as federal program manager for information sharing.

Russack in November held the first meeting of his council. In House testimony the same month, he acknowledged shortcomings in sharing between federal and nonfederal agencies and vowed to improve the environment.

"We must work together more seamlessly at the federal level in order to better leverage the capabilities that the state, local and tribal entities bring to the counterterrorism effort," he told a Homeland Security Committee subcommittee.

"State, local, tribal and private-sector authorities need more unclassified information and intelligence," Russack added, "and the traditional federal emphasis on producing and disseminating classified information impedes the effective use of that information to support multidisciplinary prevention, response and recovery efforts."

Another development arose last month, when Bush issued a memorandum instructing federal agencies to "leverag[e] ongoing information-sharing efforts" and "promot[e] a culture of information-sharing." The president told the agencies to agree on common standards for sharing information among themselves and a common framework for sharing with state and local agencies.

According to Thompson's report, Russack "has made little progress in harmonizing the disparate approaches to declassification within the" intelligence community, and the guidelines in Bush's memorandum "simply restate the undisputed need" for common information-sharing standards and procedures, "rehashing … obvious challenges" without offering anything "substantive."

To jump-start progress, the Democrat called for creating a Vertical Intelligence Terrorism Analysis Link, modeled after the United Kingdom's Police International Counterterrorism Unit and Joint Terrorism Analysis Center. Those two units, according to the Democratic report, circumvent many obstacles to information sharing by allowing police and intelligence analysts to work side-by-side with a common mission.

The year-old U.S. National Counterterrorism Center is similar to the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center, according to the report, in that the U.S. center "leverages the intelligence capabilities of the CIA, the FBI, the [Homeland Security] Department and other agencies."

"Unlike the JTAC in the U.K., however, the NCTC serves only federal customers and is not in the business of sanitizing intelligence documents for dissemination to state, local or tribal law-enforcement," indicates the report.

The proposed new unit, the report indicates, "would establish law enforcement itself as a main driver of the intelligence products being shared with state, local and tribal authorities by looping front-line officers directly into the intelligence identification, analysis and dissemination process."