EDITOR'S DESK: The best way to share intelligence

Tom Temin

The debates over renewal of the U.S. Patriot Act, the reorganization of the Homeland Security Department and the brick-by-brick makeover of the FBI have at least one common element. The government continues to twist and turn over how to get usable wisdom out of vast and varied data sources.

A coherent policy, much less a system, for sharing data has yet to emerge, nearly four years after 9/11. States and large cities all have their own security command centers. DHS has 10 or so intelligence offices. The National Counterterrorist Center, which predates 9/11, reports to the CIA. The Terrorist Screening Center belongs nominally to the FBI. Intelligence czar John Negroponte reports to the president, and he has the Information Sharing Environment office. That office is headed by John Russack, who was intelligence director at the Energy Department.
In all cases, these centers comprise people tasked from several agencies'or lashed to them, depending on your perspective.

So, information sharing is a bowl of spaghetti. The main aim of counterterrorism, namely, preventing it, remains elusive.

One of my favorite thinkers is Esther Dyson, publisher of the influential Release 1.0 newsletter. When I spoke with her at a conference this spring, she mentioned that she'd visited some of the government's anti-terror data center sites, including the CTC. Esther's comment: 'In the end, the best way to share is people knowing and trusting each other.'

I would take it a step further. Building trust and information sharing systems go hand in hand. As Esther noted, the only feasible way for various government databases on crime and terror to combine usefully is via link and search mechanisms, not database joins.

If a link leads to something potentially useful, the finder will have to request the detailed information from the owner. That exchange can lead to increased personal trust, which can in turn aid the next spiral of system development. Over time, that's how the so-called cultural issues among agencies will resolve themselves.

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