Department of Homeland Security officials told Congress Wednesday that the agency’s various components have made large strides in sharing intelligence information both with one another and with agencies outside the department. The next big challenge is getting their IT systems to do the same.
Intelligence leaders in DHS say changes they’ve made internally and changes the Congress has ordered it to make have gone a long way toward breaking down structural stovepipes that led some of its legacy component agencies to cling tightly to their own intelligence information.
But Caryn Wagner, DHS’ chief intelligence officer, told the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence that one major roadblock to information sharing is the lack of interoperability between the disparate information systems that hold Homeland Security’s intelligence data.
She said they are largely based on the legacy systems DHS inherited when it absorbed two dozen agencies, and that integrating them remains a big challenge.
“The department has a great deal of data. It’s immigration data, travel data, cyber data, all resident in different little stovepipes,” she said. “We’re working very diligently with the components and the department’s chief information officer to work through how to do a better job of making sure we have appropriate access to our data and that we’re not having to redo functions multiple times and check individuals multiple times against multiple databases. We have a ways to go before we get to that goal, and that’s something that we’re still ultimately working on.”
Wagner said DHS is retrofitting databases and networks so that they can interoperate across DHS’ various intelligence activities, and that the department is trying to plan future systems in such a way that they are collaborative by design.
Technological challenges aside, Wagner said DHS has come a long way toward sharing intelligence on a day-to-day basis.
This year, Homeland Security will produce its first departmentwide analysis program to make sure DHS components aren’t conducting redundant intelligence analyses and that collaborative analyses are planned for ahead of time. She said DHS also is exploring the possibility of a departmentwide intelligence doctrine at the suggestion of one its components, Customs and Border Protection.
A working group also is setting up the first DHS-wide policy for Homeland Intelligence Reports, the department’s primary method for distributing information to outside intelligence community and law enforcement entities.
That and other major pieces of DHS intelligence coordination is happening under the auspices of the Homeland Security Intelligence Council (HSIC), which Wagner described as a board of directors made up of the intelligence chiefs from DHS’ major components and which she chairs. The body meets monthly to discuss big-picture intelligence coordination, such as DHS’ forthcoming departmentwide counterintelligence strategy.
“It’s something that we’ve unfortunately been lacking in the past,” she said. “We created a counterintelligence working group under the HSIC, which is made up of the department counterintelligence representatives, and in some cases, these representatives are the first-ever in their components. This group is going to report back to the HSIC on the strategy and develop plans for the implementation of a new counterintelligence strategy across the department.”