Sunday, July 17, 2005

Homeland Security's Intelligence Gap

The New York Times

Homeland Security's Intelligence Gap


THE results of Secretary Michael Chertoff's top-to-bottom analysis of the Department of Homeland Security are in, and the reviews are following close behind. The critics fall, predictably, into two camps: those who think that the changes are merely cosmetic, essentially rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic; and those who think that they represent a first step in the right direction.

Because the edifice was constructed on a solid foundation, I count myself among the optimists. But one essential building block seems to be very much misplaced, which could delay the sharing of information about possible terrorist attacks with the potential targets themselves.

Mr. Chertoff is bringing a much-needed dose of strategic thinking to the monumental task of securing the homeland. Inarguably, he stresses that we cannot protect ourselves against every conceivable threat. Instead we should focus our resources on those threats that are likeliest to materialize and that would have the greatest consequences in terms of death, injury and economic loss.

The cornerstone of this sound strategic structure, however, is intelligence. Only if the relevant section of the department has complete and timely access to all available information concerning dangers to American targets can it distinguish between likely threats and unlikely ones.

To date, the department's intelligence group, called the Information Analysis Unit, has largely been on the outside of the intelligence community with its nose pressed against the glass. The multiagency federal entity that synthesizes all intelligence concerning threats into a coherent whole, the National Counterterrorism Center, is led by the Central Intelligence Agency. The Terrorist Screening Center, which consolidates the various terrorist watch lists compiled by federal agencies, is led by the F.B.I.

It was little surprise, then, that the presidential commission on American intelligence failures, headed by Judge Laurence H. Silberman and former Senator Charles S. Robb of Virginia, concluded that Homeland Security had difficulty getting answers to "hot questions" from the F.B.I. and the counterterrorism center. And now, with the creation of the office of director of national intelligence and the attendant reorganization of the entire community, Homeland Security has moved even further down the intelligence-community totem pole.

The one strength to date of the Information Analysis Unit has been its close structural ties to an even lesser-known division of the Homeland Security Department: the so-called Infrastructure Protection Unit. This division is in charge of preparing energy suppliers, financial networks, food producers, operators of computer systems and telecommunications networks, the transportation industry and other providers of services vital to our national security for possible terrorist attacks. This is a complicated job, not only because of the scale involved but also because 85 percent of the potential targets - from cellphone service towers to nuclear power plants - are not owned by the government but are in private hands.

Under the old system, intelligence gleaned by the information analysis group could be communicated in a timely fashion to the infrastructure unit so that protective measures could be taken quickly. The 9/11 attacks showed what can happen when this communication between intelligence and preparedness breaks down: our intelligence system was "blinking red" with information about a serious threat to aviation in the summer of 2001, and yet our airports, airlines and transportation agencies had not been sufficiently warned to take steps to protect themselves.

The good news is that Mr. Chertoff's reorganization will elevate the intelligence component of his department. The chief of the information unit will report directly to the secretary, and will have more power and responsibility for overseeing intelligence-related activities throughout the department. He will also work directly with the office of the director of national intelligence and with the information-gathering agencies in other departments to ensure that Homeland Security is more than a bit player in the intelligence community.

Unfortunately, under the new plan the intelligence unit will be decoupled from the infrastructure protection group, which will be folded into a larger group within Homeland Security exclusively focused on preparedness. The problem with this is that the preparedness unit needs to know what to prepare for. There's where intelligence comes in.

To put the issue in perspective, an attack on a single chemical plant in northern New Jersey could endanger the lives and health of millions. If the intelligence analysts who learn of a threatened attack are in the same part of the department as those whose job is to warn the plant's owners and advise them of how they should safeguard it, word can go out quickly and we can save lives and dollars. Now, apparently, there will be an organizational disconnect between intelligence and preparedness. What good is ringing the alarm bell if the intended victim can't hear it?

The Department of Homeland Security has been a frequent object of criticism, much of it deserved. Mr. Chertoff deserves credit for trying to give it a strategic direction. But if this plan creates a gap between those on the lookout for attacks and those responsible for preparing the potential targets, we will have made ourselves only more vulnerable to our enemies.

Clark Kent Ervin, inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security from 2003 to 2004, is director of the Homeland Security Initiative at the Aspen Institute.