Agencies are patching holes in national security

Thursday - 1/21/2010, 7:16am EST

WFED's Jason Miller

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Government progress in fixing the holes in information sharing and intelligence coordination across all agencies was front and center Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers held four hearings trying to get to the bottom of what went wrong and how are agencies heeding President Obama's call to repair systemic and human errors that led to the Dec. 25 attempted terrorist attack.

"Our intelligence agencies did not adequately integrate and analyze information that could have prevented the Christmas Day attempt," says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which held one of those hearings. "[T] he recent White House review found that the government 'had sufficient information to have uncovered and potentially disrupted the Dec. 25 attack.'"

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee says there are some things the government is doing that are not working.

"We must take a hard look at the systemic failures that occurred with this latest attack," he says. "I am not interested in knocking down the new walls of homeland security we have built since 9-11, but in repairing and reinforcing them so they better protect the American people from terrorist attack."

The entire intelligence community is busy trying to repair and reinforce those walls.

FBI director Robert Mueller, who testified before the Judiciary Committee, says the bureau has set up Strategic Execution Teams (SET) to assess and standardize their intelligence program.

Mueller has restructured the FBI's field intelligence groups (FIGs) to function as the hub of its intelligence program.

The FBI also is part of a governmentwide effort to improve information sharing.

"The President directed us to look at the criteria that are utilized to put people at various levels of the terrorist watch lists," he says. "The President also wants us to look at, and Adm. [Dennis] Blair [director of national intelligence] is looking at other mechanisms using information technology to enhance our ability to better connect pieces of information from various databases."

He says using technology to better connect the dots has been ongoing since Sept. 11, but there are more data sets to work from now.

Mueller says the selectee list of who is a terrorist is an example of one of those registers the FBI and others are trying to improve criteria.

"It requires generally the person be part of a terrorist organization and associated with terrorist activity," he says. "The issue there is what is the nexus to terrorism? Proving someone is a member can be an inhibitor to putting someone on the list. There are certain areas we are looking at which would change the criteria that would expand the number of persons and appropriately so who are on a particular list."

Along with the criteria, Mueller says the FBI is exploring how to expand the number and types of identifiers used in the databases. He says as of now, the FBI relies on names and date of birth.

"At the same time we are changing the criteria to add persons we are concerned about, we have to continue to develop identifiers, whether it is fingerprints or other biometrics," he says. "We would be much able to identify the particular person who is carrying that name and trying to get on the airline. There is a substantial interagency effort underway to expand our biometrics, whether it be the use of fingerprints, retina and the like."

The FBI is not alone in changing its processes. The State Department is updating its procedures for its Viper Visa list to call attention to more information in the assorted databases, including the no fly and selectee lists.

State also is standardizing revocation procedures for visas. It has scrubbed the database since the Dec. 25 attempted attack and revoked seven visas in less than a month of people suspected to be terrorists or having terrorist associations, says Patrick Kennedy, the undersecretary for management.

State is implementing a new visa processing system that will further integrate data collected in the United States and overseas.

"We are restructuring our IT infrastructure architecture to accommodate the unprecedented scale of information we collect and to keep us agile and adaptable in the age of intensive and growing requirements for data and data sharing," Kennedy says.

For its part, DHS continues to focus on the five areas the President detailed after the initial review of the attempted attack. It will focus on aviation security, new technology to detect explosives, strengthening the air marshals and research and development of technology of aviation security technology.

David Heyman, DHS's assistant secretary for policy, says among the improvements is changing the Secure Flight Program for the Transportation Security Administration will now match passenger data against the no-fly and selectee lists instead of the airlines.

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