Government urged to improve information sharing before crises

Federal decision-makers must improve the way they collect and share information among themselves and with state, local and private organizations, if they are to respond to future security threats effectively, according to a new study from a nonprofit research organization.

Timely and accurate information always has been vital to security, but increasingly U.S. and European officials will need to rely on information not part of traditional intelligence-gathering mechanisms, the report from the Henry L. Stimson Center stated. Information about things like pandemic disease, extreme weather and environmental factors can be critical in regional or global disasters, yet the methods for sharing such vital information remain at a nascent stage, as was seen in the U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the global responses to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the spread of the acute respiratory disease SARS in 2003.

A dramatic increase in the amount of information publicly available, coupled with a rise in the number of stakeholders, many of whom are not public officials, complicates information sharing, said Julie Fischer, a senior associate at Stimson and a primary author of the report, "New Information and Intelligence Needs in the 21st Century Threat Environment."

The center studied information sharing across three sectors: terrorism, infectious disease and natural hazards. Each has its own culture that affects how information is used and shared.

For example, private and government officials report and act on information about infectious diseases. This information is generated at the local level and generally is shared openly, although it is secured to protect personal privacy. Terrorism information is largely classified and is limited to national officials, although it is increasingly generated and consumed at the state and local levels.

"The ability to generate, use and collect [information] is uneven at the state and local levels," Fischer said.

Chet Lunner, the assistant deputy undersecretary of the Homeland Security Department's Office of Intelligence and Analysis, said the state and municipal fusion centers created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were designed to take an all-hazard approach to collecting and sharing information.

"The biggest problem is cultural," Lunner said. "We know what we need to do, but we don't seem to understand how to incentivize sharing."

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