Central Intelligence Agency

Posted 2002-09-10 Print this article Print

A year after Sept. 11, law enforcement far too often finds itself left alone on the front line of defense.

: Soft and Vulnerable">

Central Intelligence Agency: Soft and Vulnerable

Inside the CIA's Langley, Va., headquarters, the Counterterrorism Center, which opened in 1986, fills acres of space, according to descriptions of its interior. Time magazine reporters earlier this year were given exclusive access to the center and reported that the space is so vast and confusing that intersections of aisles are festooned with street signs like Saddam St. and Usama Bin Lane to help guide visitors through the maze.

Since Sept. 11, the center has doubled its staff to more than 1,100 analysts and agents. According to the Time article, 2,500 cables detailing anti-terrorism intelligence activity around the world are sent to the center every day. It also publishes 500 terrorism intelligence reports a month, many of which are sent to 80 other government agencies. Three times a day, center officials have a videoconference with the White House's National Security Council.

Every day at 5 p.m., about 40 senior officers and CIA Director George Tenet meet and go over the day's terrorism intelligence. The center also publishes the "Threat Matrix," a daily terrorism report sent to President Bush and about 200 other officials.

But communications inside the agency is a different story.

Ross Stapleton-Gray, an agent with the CIA from 1988 to 1994 and now a technology security officer with the University of California, was deeply involved with the CIA's critical infrastructure during his six-year tenure at the agency. When he left, he says, communicating with anybody outside of his immediate sphere of colleagues was difficult.

"If I'm in the building, I can get an e-mail to the other end of the building, but if I want to get an e-mail to a researcher at a university, it's hard electronically," he says. "You were always at a technological disadvantage because you'd never built the systems to trust outsiders. It's the M&M model—you've got this hard outside shell, but once you're inside it's soft and vulnerable."

He says it's going to take lots of management commitments and lots of technology to make the sharing go smoothly.

But things at "The Company" are scheduled to improve.

The CIA's Intelligence Technology Innovation Center plans to spend more than $27 million on data mining tools and other technologies aimed at making sense of the seas of data the CIA harvests every day, from wireless phone calls to Web site information to radio broadcasts to e-mail traffic.

Among other things, the intelligence center plans to develop "data-mining on the fly" technologies that use sophisticated speech recognition and language translation software that quickly converts languages such as Arabic or Chinese into English text.

Through the center, the National Science Foundation expects to get about $8 million a year for the next three years to develop better ways to use technology to perform intelligence analysis. The CIA also is paying about $3 million for software from the Attensity Corp. that transforms rough data into tables that show cause-and-effect relationships and illustrate links between individuals, groups and trends.

Another important piece of the anti-terrorism puzzle is the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, which is now the busiest division of the agency. CIA officials are working to keep the center independent of the Department of Homeland Security. And the CIA says they are trying to tear down the long-standing walls that have existed between the agency and the FBI.

While it would be unfair to describe the relationship between agencies like the CIA and FBI as adversarial, it would be a stretch to describe it as cordial. Law enforcement and intelligence-gathering agencies occupy separate universes in the federal bureaucracy. Historically, there has been a disconnect and they have gone their separate ways and not traded information.

"Building all of the most modern technology systems in the world will not change the current lack of interaction between these agencies, absent a commitment by management at all levels to change ingrained habits of hoarding and protecting and shielding information," says David Colton, vice president for strategic initiatives at the Information Technology Association of America. "While technology is important, it is in fact a small component to this larger change that is required in human processes."

The FBI, for instance, is a product of the Depression. It was set up to investigate and prosecute domestic crime after it was committed. The CIA grew out of intelligence failures that led to the Pearl Harbor bombing. The agency's mission: to harvest information within large enemy states. Prosecuting criminal cases has never been important to the CIA.

These different purposes and missions have nurtured the establishment of entirely different legal regimes for law enforcement and intelligence gathering, says Rindskopf-Parker, now dean of the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, Calif. When she first went to work at the NSA, she says, she was "stunned about what I didn't understand and didn't know."

Most agents and staff at a security or law enforcement agency, she says, tend to understand how their own complicated world works, but not how their comrades on the other side of the fence do their jobs.

At the FBI, for instance, reams of information that could be of interest to an intelligence-minded analyst—ranging from snippets of conversations picked up on wiretapped phones to records of groups of suspected thugs meeting for a backyard barbecue—are not used, because the information is not helpful in a criminal prosecution. Due to this prosecutorial imperative, the FBI has largely failed to develop the kind of analytical tools and skills that are essential in finding and stopping terrorists, Rindskopf-Parker says.

Where CIA analysts are skilled at piecing together disparate pieces of information into patterns or pictures, FBI agents instead are skilled at gathering evidence to present at trial in a courtroom.

Paul Wallner, a Washington consultant and former head of the Department of Defense's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance infrastructure division, says agencies must constantly buy new technologies that can manipulate data, voice, audio and video information if they want to have a shot at making ever-larger mountains of information useful. In the future, the most useful tools will revolve around software and analytical tools that will help federal agencies spot patterns of activity among terrorists and red-flagging activity that could be worrisome, even if it doesn't involve known criminals.


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