An Intelligence Committee Agenda Part IV: Homeland Intelligence

on January 15 | in Homeland Security, Oversight

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The Intelligence Authorization Act of 2015, which became law on December 19, 2014, included two minor provisions that hint at major problems within our homeland intelligence enterprise. Sec. 324 requires the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Intelligence & Analysis (I&A) to submit an annual report describing DHS intelligence activities. Sec. 328 asks I&A, in consultation with the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), to take a closer look at information sharing practices with State, local, and tribal partners.

These provisions should serve as useful launching points for the intelligence committees to conduct a comprehensive review of our disjointed and shoddy homeland intelligence efforts.

Prior to 9/11, the big three-letter foreign intelligence agencies had unique missions and valued added. The goal after 9/11 was therefore to sharpen their capabilities and to sync them up properly to ensure maximum effectiveness. That goal has largely been accomplished.

The challenge on the homeland intelligence front was different—it involved establishing entirely new organizations or significantly modifying the missions of established organizations. Success here has been far more mixed, with some bright spots, some weak points, and—you guessed it—a colossal amount of waste and duplication of effort.

The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) is one of those bright spots. NCTC was established under a different name (the Terrorist Threat Integration Center) and a slightly narrower mission, in May 2003 in response to recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. It was codified in law by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) of 2004, with a mission to lead and integrate the country’s foreign and homeland counterterrorism efforts.

Other elements of the intelligence community greeted the creation of NCTC with an intense amount of skepticism, and NCTC initially failed to satisfy the mission identified in the IRTPA. But over time, similar to the narrative Aki told us about last week regarding the ODNI, this particular organization has found its footing, primarily by focusing on its unique role to integrate homeland and foreign counterterrorism threat streams. Rather than truly leading the country’s CT effort, as its IRTPA mandate essentially calls for, NCTC adds value by serving as a force multiplier and information conduit for other intelligence agencies.

The FBI’s post-9/11 progress has been more uneven. Although it has had numerous impressive CT successes over the last dozen years, the bureau has yet to completely make the transition to being a true “intelligence agency.” Former FBI Director Mueller made this transition a top priority. But he primarily tried to force change by modifying the organizations structure (creating, for example, the National Security Branch, the Directorate of Intelligence, and the Cyber Division) rather than finding ways to change its distinctive culture borne from a century of law enforcement.

The FBI’s basic organizational instincts remain investigative rather than intelligence-focused. Its agents gather information to make cases rather than to develop a comprehensive picture of an emerging threat and of how to address that threat. More importantly, the FBI is still the clear weak point when it comes to information sharing across the intelligence community. It continues to gather information for its own purposes rather than to contribute to a whole-of-government CT effort.

This is where DHS I&A comes in. As described above, the FBI cannot be trusted to do sophisticated intelligence analysis and then to share that analysis with both state, local and tribal officials. Instead that role has been outsourced to I&A, which attempts to compensate for FBI weaknesses but which is not up to the task because its analytic cadre is weak and because its mission remains confused.

I&A was established by Sec. 201 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to “access, receive, and analyze law enforcement information, intelligence information, and other information from agencies of the Federal Government, State and local government agencies to—(A) identify and assess the nature and scope of terrorist threats to the homeland; [and] (B) detect and identify threats of terrorism against the United States.” Note how similar this is to NCTC’s mission; I&A was initially focused on terrorism and focused on integration and analysis of all-source counterterrorism information.

When NCTC was established in 2003, this left I&A without a clear reason to exist. In response, I&A expanded its mission beyond terrorism while focusing to a greater extent on filling a facilitator role with State and local law enforcement officials. In short, when NCTC took over I&A’s turf, I&A tried to take over some of the FBI’s turf. It has largely failed to do so, despite the FBI’s intelligence weaknesses, but continues to try nonetheless.

Senator Coburn, the former Ranking Member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, release a report just last week that was highly critical of I&A. It found that, “After twelve years, evidence suggests that the core initiatives of the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) are yielding very little value for the nation’s counterterrorism mission, and do not provide much useful intelligence or meaningful information sharing at the state and local level.”

This has left the country’s homeland intelligence efforts in a terrible mess, with duplication of effort across multiple federal agencies and with too little to show for that effort. This is best demonstrated by the often-debated distinction between DHS I&A-supported Fusion Centers and FBI-run Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs). And this problem has been exacerbated recently; as each relevant agency has sought to claim its piece of the ‘cyber’ homeland pie, confusion about roles and responsibility in real space has now extended to cyberspace.

Various legislators have taken this on piecemeal and made tweaks on the margins to the institutional arrangements that were set up after 9/11. But new committee leadership and current budgetary challenges might offer an opportunity to think about homeland intelligence more strategically.

Streamlining the country’s homeland intelligence efforts might offer the best opportunity to trim some fat from the IC without having to worry about a loss of important capabilities. It is time for the congressional intelligence committees, in partnership with relevant homeland security committees, to do some hard thinking about what role, if any, DHS I&A, should have.

Photo by Elvert Barnes.

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