Need to share

The underpants-bomber case once again illustrates that information doesn’t flow freely enough within the network of agencies concerned with terrorism.

So it turns out that the intelligence community knew about the underpants bomber’s strange behavior – his father phoned it in – but never told TSA.  This, once again, makes Amy Zegart’s point:  the Cold War world, where the key thing was keeping secrets and the key principle was need-to-know,  is behind us.  Now the key thing is figuring out what the bad guys are doing, and the key principle has to be need-to-share. But the agencies are still fighting the last war.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

18 thoughts on “Need to share”

  1. Well… you are right, but it isn't that easy. The culture in the IC is changing over time. For example, Intellipedia would have been unthinkable under the culture of the 80's or 90's. Even with the progress that has been made, however, there are still real issues about releasability, flows of data from "high" to "low" and the need to protect sources and methods. Plus, classified information isn't unitary: there's a big difference between SIPRNet and JWICS, between S and TS. You can't just hand TS data to someone with an S clearance–no matter how much they need it. On top of all this, it can be *hard* to overcome the (important) acculturation that goes on in the IC about keeping secrets. Heck, it's even hard to talk about things anyone could look up for themselves on Wikipedia when the topics veer close to classified information.

    One thing is for sure: need-to-know is most definitely *not* behind us and never will be. Some things really are so sensitive that highly restricted access at a level more granular than the classification is totally appropriate. The flaw in the old way of thinking was to apply this restriction too frequently and in cases where it wasn't genuinely needed. Congress pass a law back in (I think) 2004 that instructed the DNI to start reforming the IC and increase the sharing of data. Need-to-know is moving toward responsibility-to-provide (http://www.dni.gov/reports/IC_Information_Sharing_Strategy.pdf)–and the momentum is in the direction of greater sharing–but that doesn't mean it's trivial to overcome the obstacles to sharing classified info.

  2. By the way: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/30/us/politics/30s

    It'll be interesting to see how this order ripples through the IC. Most classified info expires after 25 years, but there are things over 25 years old that are still classified because of capabilities or technical knowledge that remain unique to the United States. Other info might remain classified because it was provided by another government, and by agreement or treaty the info is classified indefinitely. The text of the executive order in sec 3.3 (b) (1) seems to indicate this kind of data is exempt from automatic declassification at 25 years, and 3.3 (c) (2) (B) seems to say that such information will instead be declassified after 50 years. (Text of the order is here: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/execut

    This is very interesting, and it's quite a big change.

  3. What keeps coming to mind in all of these issues of how to deal with terrorists is the central question: Is this a military problem or a law enforcment problem?

    Armies and military style intellegence are not being as effective as good police work. Think of the old post office wanted posters. Did displaying pictures of wanted criminals hurt the effort of catching them? Obviously secrecy plays into the terrorists hands.

  4. "the Cold War world, where the key thing was keeping secrets"

    This argument seems to be claiming that the USA's intelligence activities

    are competent, but outmoded. That seems far too generous: back in the

    Cold War they never kept any secrets worth a damn from the USSR; towards

    the end, they didn't realize the USSR and its empire was about to collapse;

    and then this whole fracking Islamist-terror mess is largely blowback from

    inept US covert activities in various Muslim countries, from toppling

    Iran's democracy to propping up dictatorships in Egypt and Saudi Arabia

    to funding and arming the mujahideen in Afghanistan.

    A simpler theory is that the USA's intelligence operations are consistently

    and thoroughly incompetent (with a sprinkling of corruption and pure evil

    here and there – the guys installing bloody dictators abroad have never

    had much respect for democracy at home).

  5. Richard Cownie FTW.

    I'm always disappointed (but not surprised) that most people have no idea who Mohammad Mossaddegh was.

  6. It's not that they didn't tell TSA. They considered telling TSA and determined that that would be too extreme a response. Which is consistent with the direction they'd received from the president. This all goes to the top.

  7. "A simpler theory is that the USA’s intelligence operations are consistently and thoroughly incompetent…"

    An even simpler theory is that you are conflating political decisions made by elected leaders and their appointed bureaucrats with the intelligence gathering and analysis work done by a lot of very smart and dedicated members of the IC, the great majority of whom are competent and professional. Whatever you think about CIA activities, there's no basis to take the mistakes you think they've made and use them to paint the people at the NSA, NRO, NGA, and the rest of the alphabet soup of IC agencies as clueless incompetents. That error in thinking, along with your rather bizarre belief that we "never kept any secrets worth a damn from the USSR," gives me the impression that you have only a very superficial understanding of the topic at hand.

    I didn't read anything at all into Mark's argument about the USA's intelligence activities being outmoded. His comment was about the IC culture of keeping secrets even from other agencies who need to know, and how that has to change if we want to be able to act on the intelligence that we collect.

  8. "Whatever you think about CIA activities, there’s no basis to take the mistakes you think they’ve made and use them to paint the people at the NSA, NRO, NGA, and the rest of the alphabet soup of IC agencies as clueless incompetents"

    Well, dude, the track record is bad. Very bad. If you want to blame it all on the upper

    levels – political leadership and political appointees – then go ahead. It's pretty

    damn hard for us on the outside to know who to blame, because of course much of the

    huge venture is secret – from the taxpayers, if not so much from the Russians – and

    the democratic oversight has generally been pretty crappy, apart from a brief period

    of sanity between the Church Committee and Iran-Contra.

    For sure there are some good people. But there's a crazy structure, a shocking lack

    of accountability (did *anyone* lose their job for failing to detect 9/11 ?), and

    even the perverse incentive that agencies which have the worst failures get the

    biggest increases in funding. It's a mess. Yeah, there can be good players on a

    lousy team; but it is what it is. If you're proud of toppling Mossadegh and Iran-Contra

    and funding the ISI and mujahideen, and the whole horrible detainee abuse mess and

    the black prisons, go ahead and say so. If not, don't blame me for looking at what's

    gone into the black box over the past 60 years and what's come out, and saying it stinks.

  9. Thomas says:

    "It’s not that they didn’t tell TSA. They considered telling TSA and determined that that would be too extreme a response. Which is consistent with the direction they’d received from the president. This all goes to the top."

    Do you have anything to back that up, aside from Beck or Coulter's rantings?

  10. Barry, don't you read the newspapers? Which part are you confused about? Here's the Secretary of HHS on Sunday, defending the indefensible:

    NAPOLITANO: Well, there is no suggestion that — he was on what’s called a tied list, which has half-a-million-plus names on it. And there is no suggestion that that was not shared information. The issue was, was there enough information to move him to the more specific lists, which would require additional examination or indeed being on no-fly status. And to date, it does not appear that there was any such information to move him from that tied list, which was shared and everybody had it, but to a more specific list which would require different types of screening at the airport.

    After the fact she was still defending the decision! And she still has her job! What would it take to convince you? This kind of incompetence isn't an accident, it's purposeful. There's a reason that these people thought that there needed to be more specific information to move a Nigerian national to the no-fly list. We have to be careful to get the line between the civil liberties of Nigerians properly calibrated against the interests of American citizens, or something absurd like that.

  11. "If you’re proud of toppling Mossadegh and Iran-Contra and funding the ISI and mujahideen, and the whole horrible detainee abuse mess and the black prisons, go ahead and say so."

    Of course I'm not proud of any of those, and I exercised my vote against those who did that kind of thing. Obama's failure to clean up that mess, stop asserting state's secrets privilege, and stop covering up for those who committed torture are exactly why I won't vote for him again. What was done under previous administrations was wrong and I make no excuses for the Obama administration's foot-dragging about bringing accountability back into the system. The bottom line, though, is that it's a political matter and has precious little to do with the professionals who work for the agencies and contractors who show up every day to build the systems and collect the information that the leadership uses to make policy decisions.

    From my point of view, intelligence activities can be boiled down to three tasks: figure out what's going on, figure out what it means, and figure out what to do about it. The IC is (in my opinion) very good at the first two and getting better all the time. How the third task plays out is entirely dependent on whom we elect and the appointees they install into agency leadership roles. In other words, it's not that the IC sucks at what it does, it's that our political system seems incapable of electing a government that can make wise decisions.

    Saying that things like funding the ISI happens because our IC is incompetent is like saying that we haven't made progress in Afghanistan because our soldiers can't shoot straight. You have to put the blame where it belongs: on the politicians.

  12. "How the third task plays out is entirely dependent on whom we elect and the appointees they install into agency leadership roles"

    I think politicians – who of course are mostly not intelligence professionals – are

    just about totally dependent on the nature of the briefings they receive. And that

    intelligence professionals bear an extremely heavy responsibility for giving the

    right kind of briefings and the right kind of advice. And of course only a very

    small subset of politicians get any kind of information – and then once they've got

    it they can't discuss it. It's a crazy system, with crazy institutions and crazy rules.

    Not surprising the results are crazy.

  13. "I think politicians – who of course are mostly not intelligence professionals – are just about totally dependent on the nature of the briefings they receive."

    Of course you think that. The professionals in the IC don't get to tell the other side of the story on Meet the Press. They don't get to be the Anonymous Source in the Washington Post. They don't get to leak classified information to Robert Novak. You see, the professionals can actually lose their clearances, jobs, and even freedom for breaking secrecy–and there's no powerful friend standing by to make sure that they get off with a slap on the hand like Scooter Libby.

  14. Thomas says:

    "Barry, don’t you read the newspapers? Which part are you confused about? Here’s the Secretary of HHS on Sunday, defending the indefensible:"

    Sounds like somebody covering for a governmental screw-up, which is rather different than 'Which is consistent with the direction they’d received from the president. This all goes to the top.'.

    Perhaps you should read your own posts a bit more carefully, or write them a bit more carefully.

  15. "Of course you think that. The professionals in the IC don’t get to tell the other side of the story on Meet the Press. They don’t get to be the Anonymous Source in the Washington Post."

    Sure. The intelligence community is, as I said, a black box. The taxpayers will find out the truth

    about what has been going on in 2000-2009 maybe, just maybe, if we're lucky, after 25 years.

    More probably after 50 years; and never, for the most sensitive issues. Given the opacity of

    the black box and the impossibility of figuring out what's happening inside and why, we can

    judge it on indisputable recent events – the failure to stop 9/11, the failure to stop the undie

    bomber, the failure to catch bin Laden, the big messes in Afghanistan and Iraq after we've dicked

    around with them repeatedly over the last 30 years. And we can judge it on events from the

    distant past, like the failure to spot the dissolution of the Soviet Empire until it happened.

    It's not good. But then – and it seems Amy Zegart's book goes into this – it was set up with

    such crazy institutions and turf wars that it was never likely to be good. But you're not

    going to get away with the "trust us, we can't tell you about it but we're doing good stuff"

    dodge. That just doesn't fly: the IC was doing dumb stuff in the 50s, it was doing dumb stuff in the 60s,

    it was doing *terrible* stuff in the 80s, it was no great shakes in the 90s, and it got simply

    evil in the 00s. Why in heaven's name should we trust you guys now ?

  16. Barry, one needn't defend the indefensible to spin a screw-up like this. But that's what we saw from the administration–a full throated defense of their balancing the (trivial) civil liberties of Nigerians against the lives of Americans. (And we've seen a further defense of it from administration apologists in the blogosphere today. See TPM and Yglesias, among others.) Do you think that cabinet secretaries get ahead of the president on big issues like this? Really? I mean, Napolitano isn't an idiot like Biden; she's perfectly capable of mouthing whatever talking points were given her. This is the rationale they'd settled on, because this is what they believe(d).

  17. According to the NY Times ( http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/31/us/31terror.htm… ), there WAS a failure by the CIA to send on to other agencies a report it had compiled on Abdulmutallab based on his father's information — on the grounds that the data provided by his father was simply not incriminating at all in the eyes of anyone but his father:

    "Some officials criticized the C.I.A. for withholding some of the information about Mr. Abdulmutallab, saying it might have prompted a broader investigation into him and possibly would have led to putting him on a watch list.

    "One intelligence official said that the C.I.A. should probably have shared the cable, but he said there was nothing that the C.I.A. knew at the time that suggested Mr. Abdulmutallab was planning to carry out a terrorist attack.

    " 'You had a young man who was becoming increasingly pious and was turning his back on his family’s wealthy lifestyle,' the intelligence official said. 'That alone makes him neither St. Francis nor a deadeyed killer.

    "'Every piece of data, of course, looks different when you know the answer, as everyone does now.' "

    So: to what extent was the CIA's (and other agencies') failure to see a threat on the basis of Daddy's information actually justified? The old man may have known a lot more about his son's lifetime behavior — and sudden changes in it — than he could possibly have communicated in a convincing manner to anyone but himself.

    As an additional complication, yesterday NBC News announced on its broadcast (although I haven't yet found it on its website) that the al-Qaeda conversations intercepted by the NSA actually provided the first two names of "the Nigerian" referred to in the messages: "Umar Farouk". If so, then obviously either somebody there failed to share that information with the CIA and the State Department, or one of those agencies failed internally and disastrously in putting pieces together.

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