Sensationalism and media frenzy have surrounded the release of classified information by Edward Snowdon and his subsequent search for political asylum outside the US. Not surprisingly, they have also clouded the underlying issues that created the rich environment that made his activities possible.
Following 9/11, it became shockingly clear that the legal and cultural silos which were in place and prevented the various intelligence agencies from sharing information with each other presented an enormous impediment to the development of actionable intelligence. Not only were the silos unbreachable by law, the cultures within the agencies and the turf rivalries between them were hardly conducive to collaboration.
The 9/11 Commission called attention to this serious flaw in our intelligence processing, and what they defined as “the pervasive problems of managing and sharing information across a large and unwieldy government that had been built in a different era to confront different dangers.” The ‘Patriot Act’ attempted to remedy the situation, but progress was painfully slow, as the recent intelligence failures that led to the Boston Marathon Bombing demonstrated.
Following 9/11, Fusion Centers were set up in nearly every state. It was thought that the problem of information sharing could be solved by creating intelligence units that could integrate federal, state, and local intelligence for the benefit of all levels of law enforcement. In the beginning, these centers were best known for absorbing intelligence from the various sources, but giving back very little. Local law enforcement was first frustrated and then angered that they were providing local intelligence to the centers, but receiving little or no feedback in return.
Shortly after 9/11, major contracting firms such as Booz Allen tried to break into the homeland security market, but with little background or professional knowledge in the field, they dropped out once they found no profit center there. Soon after, however, they discovered a new opportunity that the Patriot Act provided, and they leaped back into the market, supplying the government with contractors with top secret clearance to process intelligence. By the time Snowdon dropped his bombshell more than a decade later, 23 percent of Booz Allen’s total revenue, or $1.3 billion, came from intelligence work, and the government represented 98% of the company’s revenue.
Snowdon was planted at Booz Allen Hamilton for the express purpose of doing exactly what he did. Once in the company, he was tasked to move large quantities of intelligence data in between network systems to help facilitate the data sharing made possible in the post-9/11 era. He also moved large quantities of intelligence data to flash drives which he removed from the premises. When he was ready, he began turning data over to his contact at the British newspaper, The Guardian. It took only a few hours for the storm to break once the first leaks were published.
General Keith Alexander, Director of the NSA, later called Snowdon’s leaks “substantial” and “irreversible”. He explained that they had provided terrorists with a play book of NSA counter-terrorism strategies, and that there were already signs that terrorists have been changing their own tactics because of what they have learned.
It has been known for a long time, for example, that terrorists use our communications networks to develop their own plans. The Internet has been a haven for them for planning and executing their attacks. Through the Internet, for example, they can cross international boundaries undetected, and leap across continents to plan their future attacks from anywhere in the world. They can also hack into critical systems, steal identities and corporate secrets, and transfer money without leaving a trail.
The process works in reverse as well. Knowing the channels that they use, the NSA and other US government agencies can track known terrorists as they work the Internet communications. However, now that some of the NSA tracking programs have been revealed, many of these channels have dried up as terrorists develop other means of communications, planning, and money transfers.
Complex programs of US surveillance and counter-terrorism will now have to be redesigned and redeployed as old programs are scrapped, representing time irreparably and dangerously lost.
In the release of this information, the underlying sloppiness of US government management shows clearly through. The massive weight of the US government makes nearly every program it undertakes impossible to implement properly. In this case, it allowed public and private companies, whose management was driven by ROI, to bear the responsibility for processing highly sensitive, classified data, including the names of intelligence assets and details about highly secret programs, such as the NSA telephone and e-mail surveillance programs that raised such a furor when Snowdon released them.
The inability of the government to control its own programs and the farming out of sensitive intelligence processing to companies in the private sector, when the agency is apparently incapable of oversight, needs another hard look.
9/11 made us all a little paranoid. Counter-terrorism is now an important part of our lives, like it or not, and we had better learn not only how to live with it, but how to deal with it effectively. Snowdon proved that we still have a lot to learn. If the Boston Marathon bombing taught us nothing else, it should at least have convinced us that we don’t have a lot of time in which to learn.