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US security drowns in data

world Updated: Jul 21, 2010 01:21 IST
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Not far from Dulles International Airport are two five-storey ice cubes belonging to the new $ 1.8 billion National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which analyses images and mapping data of the Earth.

Across the street is Carahsoft, an intelligence contractor specialising in speech analysis and data harvesting.

Dozens of such buildings are coming up in the Washington region. It is home to nearly half of the post-9/11 US national security agencies.

Inside all such buildings, there are SCIF rooms (sensitive compartmented information facility). Some are as small as a closet; others four times a football field’s size.

SCIF size has become a measure of status in Top Secret America.

Inside the SCIFs are low-paid employees carrying their lunches to work to save money. They are the analysts, the 20- and 30-year-olds making $41,000 to $65,000 a year.

But half of them are inexperienced, having been hired in the past several years.

Contract analysts are often straight out of college and trained at corporate headquarters. When hired, a typical analyst knows little about priority countries — Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan — and is not fluent in their languages. Still, the number of intelligence reports they produce on these key countries is overwhelming.

The ODNI doesn’t know how many reports are issued each year, but in trying to find out, the chief of analysis discovered 60 functional classified analytic websites that were supposed to have been closed down for lack of usefulness.

The problem with many intelligence reports, say officers, is that they simply re-slice the same facts already in circulation.

Even the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), where the most sensitive information is supposed to be fused together, gets low marks for reports that are neither original nor not better than what the other agencies are churning out.

In a secure office in Washington, a senior intelligence officer scrolled through some of the classified reports he is expected to read every day: CIA World Intelligence Review, WISe-CIA, Spot Intelligence Report, Daily Intelligence Summary, Weekly Intelligence Forecast, Weekly Warning Forecast, IC Terrorist Threat Assessments, NCTC Terrorism Dispatch, NCTC Spotlight.

It’s too much, he complained. Picking up an intelligence report, he said, “Why does it take so long to produce? Why does it have to be so bulky? Why isn’t it online?”

The ODNI’s solution? Yet another publication, a daily online Intelligence Today. A staff of 22 culls more than two dozen agencies’ reports and 63 websites, selects the best information and packages it by originality, topic and region.

Policymakers now ignore the data ocean and rely on personal briefers who retread their own agency’s analysis, re-creating the very problem that lies behind an inability to thwart the attacks: a lack of information-sharing.

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