Security Data Must Be Shared Among 16 Agencies

After the September 11th terrorist attacks, changes were made to make sure important intelligence is shared within the U.S. government. Yet the attempted airliner bombing on Christmas Day suggests that the overhaul didn't work. The challenge is coordinating among the CIA, FBI, NSA and others — an alphabet soup of more than 16 U.S. intelligence agencies.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Madeleine Brand.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep. We have here a list of a few of the federal agencies charged with keeping us safe.

BRAND: NCTC.

INSKEEP: NSA.

BRAND: CIA.

INSKEEP: NSC.

BRAND: DHS.

INSKEEP: DOD.

BRAND: FBI.

INSKEEP: DOS. Post-9/11 reforms were supposed to streamline and coordinate the intelligence that all these agencies gather.

BRAND: But the new system obviously failed on Christmas Day when a would-be bomber boarded a plane bound for the U.S. President Obama briefs the nation today on how this near disaster occurred. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly joins us now to talk about what the incident says about the sprawling U.S. intelligence community.

Hi, Mary Louise.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Hi, Madeleine.

BRAND: Well, paint us a picture, if you will, of how all these agencies, this alphabet soup of agencies, are supposed to work together post-9/11. I understand that representatives from them actually sit down together pretty regularly.

KELLY: They do. And this is a big change since 9/11, is that they all physically sit together at one of those acronyms you mentioned, the NCTC, which is the National Counterterrorism Center. On the operations floor there, 24/7 youve got people from CIA, from FBI, from the big military intelligence spy agencies. So that is where the dots are now all supposed to get connected.

And I should mention, later today the White House is releasing a version of its first findings on the Christmas Day attack. Were expecting the president to announce some more of the steps hes taking to strengthen the system. So well be watching for that and any changes that he may choose to announce.

BRAND: Right. Well, walk us through what happens now with a hypothetical incident. Lets say the CIA gets a tip about someone at a terrorist training camp in Yemen. What is supposed to happen?

KELLY: Okay. So what should then happen is that the CIA in this case would forward what they know to the NCTC - the National Counterterrorism Center. They should help work to get him into the governments terrorist database if this person isnt there already. That should trigger checks by other agencies. For example, a big one this time around, does this person have a U.S. visa? And then it would be the NCTCs call whether to put this person on a no-fly list.

Sometimes it seems just to take a while for the system to catch up with itself. For example, an interesting twist today is that the L.A. Times is reporting in the case of Abdul Mutallab - this is the alleged bomber on Christmas Day - U.S. border enforcement officials actually did discover his extremist links in the terrorist database, but while he was airborne, while he was on that plane to Detroit, and that they were apparently planning to question him when he landed. By then, of course, it wouldve been too late.

BRAND: Right. Well, one of the recommendations from the 9/11 commission was a better computer system, computer systems that actually talk to each other between the various agencies. Has that been changed? Have those systems been upgraded?

KELLY: I think its fair to say IT remains a huge challenge in the intelligence world. To give you some perspective on that, I remember visiting the NCTC several years ago and sitting down doing an interview with the senior manager there and noticing that he had this row of hard drives lined up under his desk. And the reason was that to do his job he needed access to 28 different computer networks and none of those networks talked to each other. So he was spending his day bouncing from one network to another.

When I was out just a few weeks ago at NCTC, I asked the current director whether this is better, has it changed. And he said its better. Technologys better, but its still a big challenge.

BRAND: Well, clearly the system didn't work on Christmas Day. Is there a sense that this reorganized intelligence community works at least better than it did before 9/11 in other incidents?

KELLY: I think there is a sense that things are better. Theres been a number of successes recently against homegrown terrorists. And I think intelligence officials would point to those - the case of Najibullah Zazi, for example - as evidence that the cooperation is working better between federal agencies, between local law enforcement. That things are better.

Again, an incident like Christmas Day underscores theres a lot of work still to be done.

BRAND: Could it be, Mary Louise, that there is just too much bureaucracy, that more is actually less?

KELLY: I think that that is the sense now. We have since 9/11 created this Director of National Intelligence, the National Counterterrorism Center, the NCTC we've been talking about. I think before 9/11 the thinking was, you all these different spy agencies but no one focused on running the overall intelligence effort. One way to think about it is, you had a lot of spokes on the wheel but no hub. Now a reasonable question is, do we have too many hubs?

BRAND: Mary Louis Kelly is NPRs national security correspondent. Thank you.

KELLY: Thank you.

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