Foundation showcases data-sharing network, urges action

By Mathew Honan

March 22, 2004

STANFORD, Calif. -- Panelists at a Stanford University law school forum on Friday called for the creation of a homeland security information network and demonstrated a prototype of how such a system would work.

The panel, members of the Markle Foundation Task Force on National Security in the Information Age, described a database-driven system that would allow officials from the Homeland Security Department to share information across agencies.

Agents from the CIA, FBI and other entities could use the shared network to quickly distribute information and seek "fuzzy links" to help connect disparate pieces of information that could reveal terrorist activities.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Markle Foundation President Zoe Baird said, "you heard a lot of talk about how we couldn't connect the dots. The information revolution that had taken place in the nation and much of the world had not taken place in government. Unfortunately, this far out after [the attacks] the government has not taken advantage of information technology to improve security."

The task force, which consists of private- and public-sector leaders such as retired Gen. Wesley Clark and former Netscape CEO James Barksdale, spent 18 months studying government information processes and how to improve the flow of information. The main problems, the panel claimed, are government reliance on paper, compartmentalization of information and the tendency not to quickly share information across agencies.

The database would allow agents to specify different levels of security clearances to access information. Even disparate elements within field reports could be given various security levels rather than relying on redacting information before sharing it.

In the example the panel demonstrated, information collected by CIA field agents in Afghanistan on terrorist "sleeper agents" at Northwestern University in Chicago could be analyzed by agents in the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC) and other experts, and shared with the FBI and local law enforcement in the Chicago area. The information could be pieced together via a database, with FBI field reports warning of a terrorist attack in the Chicago area.

"Today this will never happen," panelist Gilman Louie said. "You will never be able, as an FBI agent, to pull up information from a CIA database."

Panelists said that today's information tends to stay compartmentalized within agencies, and does not move quickly from one agency to the next. "There are tens of thousands of bits of info coming in every year," panelist Tara Lemmey said. "This has to happen quickly. Right now you have paper memos and packages that end up in a stagnant environment."

The panel also called on the president to order the creation of such a network. "One of the most important things that needs to be done very quickly is, there needs to be a presidential directive calling for the creation of a shared network," Baird said.

"Every day you delay," Louie said, "every day you want to study it more ... is a day you leave Americans vulnerable."

By Mathew Honan

March 22, 2004