February 6, 2009 By Corey McKenna
U.S. intelligence gathering is pretty good. Investigations post-9/11 showed that information had been known that could have stopped the hijackers at several points. The point where it breaks down is in the sharing. The result is the worst attack against civilians on U.S. soil in history. Sharing intelligence may have helped those indicators stick out by connecting the dots. Legislation passed by the House earlier this week may make sharing the necessary intelligence more common.
On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that seeks to reduce the over-classification of intelligence information and increase the amount that gets shared. "Though hard to believe, sheriffs and police chiefs can't readily access the information they need to prevent or disrupt a potential terrorist attack because those at the federal level resist sharing information," U.S. Representative Jane Harman said. "Over-classification and pseudo-classification -- stamping with any number of sensitive but unclassified markings -- remain rampant."
The 9/11 Commission and others have observed that the over-classification of information related to homeland security interferes with timely sharing of accurate and actionable information. It also increases the cost of information security and needlessly limits public access to information.
Therefore, DHS should assume that all information that is not properly classified or designated as controlled unclassified information and otherwise exempt from disclosure should be made available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act.
"Classifying information for the wrong reasons -- to protect turf or to avoid embarrassment -- is wrong," Harman said. The problem, which has worsened since 9/11, causes considerable confusion about what information can be shared with whom both within the Department of Homeland Security and with the agencies federal, state, local and tribal partners as well as the private sector and general public.
"The next attack in the United States will not be stopped because a bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., found out about it in advance. It will be the cop on the beat who is familiar with the rhythms and nuances of his or her own neighborhood who will foil that attack," Harman said.
To increase the amount of information shared between federal government and the states and local governments the bill directs the department to issue unclassified versions of any classified reports that "would reasonably be expected to be of any benefit to a state, local tribal or territorial government, law enforcement agency or other emergency response provider."
The bill also directs the Homeland Security Secretary to look into an electronic employee identification number that would be attached to every classified document as it is created. That way, the secretary would be able to monitor which documents have been classified by a particular employee or contractor, look at the circumstances under which it was classified, address the over-classification of documents and assess the impact the problem has on information sharing.
The bill would also direct the Homeland Security Secretary to establish a process whereby department employees would be able to challenge decisions to classify reports with "incentives for successful challenges resulting in the removal of classification markings or the downgrading of them."