More than eight years after lack of collaboration among intelligence agencies contributed to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the Central Intelligence Agency is facing new allegations that it failed to share vital information that could have thwarted last week’s attempted bomb attack on Northwest flight 253.
President Obama yesterday scolded the United States Intelligence Community for “a systemic failure” because intelligence agencies apparently never shared all of their information about the suspect before he boarded the plane and was ultimately subdued by passengers. The National Security Agency reportedly had information that Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen were preparing a Nigerian to commit a terrorist attack against the United States. And the Central Intelligence Agency had reportedly met with the father of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab , the suspect, at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria. The suspect’s father apparently informed the CIA of his son’s radicalization. Had there been greater collaboration among agencies, President Obama has said that the suspect’s name would have appeared on the so-called No Fly List, which likely would have prevented him from boarding the Northwest plane.
According to the lead story in today’s Wall Street Journal, officials of the National Counterterrorism Center which acts as a clearinghouse for terrorism data, have indicated that the CIA failed to share all of its information with other agencies.
The problem is that terrorists are often highly collaborative, but the Intelligence Community has lagged behind in embracing collaboration. The 911 Commission Report recommended a reorganization of the 16-agency Intelligence Community under a Director of National Intelligence. The report also recommended increased information sharing among agencies to thwart future attacks. Subsequently, President Bush signed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 which established the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the National Counterterrorism Center, and called for “open-source intelligence.” In 2007, ODNI implemented a 100-day plan and a 500-day plan for Integration and Collaboration among agencies.
As part of the new commitment to collaboration, the Intelligence Community adopted A-Space, modeled after MySpace and Facebook, so that analysts could share information across agencies. The community has also adopted Intellipedia, a cross-agency wiki.
On the sixth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, I gave a speech to the Intelligence Community. The speech was sponsored and hosted by ODNI. In the speech and during subsequent meetings with senior intelligence officials, I insisted that it would take much more than tools and a top-down collaboration initiative for the Intelligence Community to actually collaborate. Our research at The Culture of Collaboration® Institute indicates that in any organization, people may buy into collaboration as a concept, but in practice it’s a totally different story. Therefore, reducing fear of collaboration and changing behavior are crucial to cultural shift.
Clearly, intelligence requires protecting classified information just as corporations must protect trade secrets. But aside from keeping outsiders from obtaining information, many career intelligence officers have been conditioned to embrace secrecy within their community. This fosters information hoarding, intra-agency rivalry and intelligence failures. It takes more than new tools and technologies and more than even an act of Congress to abandon this deeply-engrained conditioning.
Sharing information among agencies is undoubtedly necessary, but thwarting attacks requires much more. Even if agencies make information available to one another, people need to know how to act on that information. Therefore, I will reiterate here two major points on which I’ve counseled senior intelligence officials:
1) Favor on-the-fly decisions over chain-of-command decisions.
2) Encourage spontaneous interaction over scheduled encounters and meetings
The White House and intelligence officials can talk ad nauseam about sharing information. If, however, analysts and other intelligence personnel are expected to run decisions “up the flagpole” and are inclined to schedule meetings rather than connect with colleagues and hash out issues on the fly, it will remain difficult to thwart attacks.
As I noted in The Culture of Collaboration book, "the in-box culture is dead." And if asynchronous information sharing persists without the necessary real-time cultural components, intelligence failures will continue. The cultural shift necessary to prevent security lapses like the one aboard Northwest flight 253 involves moving beyond information and data sharing—and embracing real-time collaboration.