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Intelligence Tries A New Public-Private Partnership

October 15, 2009
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Nontraditional partners and approaches characterize homeland security efforts.

The U.S. intelligence community is seeking to bring citizens into the homeland security quest through new efforts at tapping potential intelligence information from new sources. This thrust aims to provide mechanisms for collecting information that resides outside the realm of conventional sources.

These possible sources range from everyday information collected by civilian organizations to observations by ordinary citizens. Just as mass transit riders have been educated to report any suspicious packages, so can private sector professionals learn the value of information they may glean to help the fight against terrorism.

This effort also aims to address private sector needs for homeland security. Many industries either are not fully aware of their vulnerabilities and needs, or they are unaware of the intelligence community resources available to them—or both. This applies particularly to businesses that historically have not worked with the intelligence community, but even traditional elements of the critical infrastructure.

Linda Millis is the director of Private Sector Partnerships in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). She explains that the mission of the ODNI private sector office is to promote, facilitate, oversee and leverage the partnerships currently offered by the intelligence community. However, the office is expanding those efforts and is establishing two-way communication between the community and the private sector. Of particular interest is a variety of information that collectively represents a large untapped resource to intelligence analysts.

“Some of the information that we can use for our analysis is outside the intelligence community, residing in the private sector,” Millis relates. “What we’re looking at are ways we can tap into some of that expertise.”

Her office continues to work with elements of the intelligence community that have private sector partnerships. This helps facilitate the spread of good ideas across the community. But the bulk of her outreach involves the private sector. These dual efforts place Millis in the role of an advocate for the private sector within the intelligence community and an advocate for the intelligence community in the private sector.

Millis points out that the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks took place because of a failure to integrate domestic information with foreign intelligence. That failure has cost the intelligence community the trust of the U.S. populace; she views her office’s efforts as one of many ways to help restore that trust—and to prevent another major terrorist attack. “One of the DNI’s goals is to work to restore trust for the intelligence community and to be as transparent as we can about what we do,” she says. “That way, we can earn back the trust of the American people.

“It’s a simplistic explanation that we did not connect the dots,” she says of that attack. “It’s much more complicated than that. We have to link entire communities that don’t always speak the same language and don’t always have the same understanding of a mission. So, we have to bring together entire communities. It’s much more complicated than connecting the dots.”

Millis emphasizes that this effort is not geared to establishing a corps of citizen spies. “Our goal is not to turn everyone into an intelligence collector,” she states. Nor does it seek to circumvent privacy laws or violate civil liberties. The main thrust is to educate the private sector as to how it may possess information that could be invaluable to intelligence efforts to protect the nation from another devastating terrorist attack. That information would be added to the intelligence product only when appropriate and only through normal channels such as local law enforcement.

For a new type of outreach to the private sector, Millis has created a trade association partners group. This group comprises association presidents or executive directors representing a wide variety of industries. She emphasizes that this group consists of businesses that are not traditional intelligence community contractors, so they tend to be new to the community’s needs. However, by belonging to trade associations, these businesses have organized themselves into groups along their capabilities.

Among the nontraditional private sector businesses that could be part of this effort are shopping malls, for example. Security officers in these malls might observe behavior or might glean some information that could result in a successful investigation. Just as a traffic stop might lead to the discovery of a terrorist network, a mall security officer might detain someone who inadvertently prompts authorities to discover a hidden threat.

Instead of visiting malls and meeting with security guards, Millis would use a mall trade association to set up a meeting with mall executives. She might bring in officials with the ODNI/Justice Department Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, who would explain how their businesses could communicate vital information to the appropriate authorities.

Another group of private sector members encompasses the critical infrastructure and key resource sectors in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Groups such as biotechnology and pharmaceutical businesses have expertise that the intelligence community can use for its analyses, even though they may not be regular contractors. Meeting with these organizations helps leverage outreach, Millis states.

The private sector office also is beginning a pilot program that will form teams of industry experts and intelligence community analysts. Combining these two groups will help build relationships and facilitate two-way information exchange. Industry representatives will come from areas of national security interest, such as biotechnology, cyber operations or nuclear power.

The trade association partners’ group will help identify the appropriate industry experts, Millis offers. These experts likely would be mid-level personnel, and the intelligence analysts would tend to be senior-level, experienced personnel. Analysts should glean a better understanding of those industries from this teaming effort, she adds.

But the crux of this effort will be to mine the private sector for information that can be integrated with foreign intelligence to generate a valuable homeland security product. For example, the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative is standardizing how people can report suspicious information to state and local law enforcement to be forwarded to higher authorities. Millis relates that this information moves up the chain through the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); and when it is identified as potentially having a foreign nexus, it is integrated into international intelligence.

The intersection between domestic and foreign intelligence information is very critical, she continues. It does not overlap very much, and it is highly complicated. Foreign intelligence sources and methods must be protected, and domestic intelligence cannot be used in a way that violates domestic laws protecting privacy and civil rights.

She points out that whenever she conducts an outreach meeting, she has a privacy and civil liberties officer with her. This is to ensure that those issues are considered up front, not as an afterthought. “We pay equal attention to protection of privacy and civil liberties as well as protecting our sensitive intelligence sources and methods,” she declares. “It’s not necessarily a tradeoff. We pay attention to both, and we can do both.”

Millis observes that most of the suspicious activity reported by state and local law enforcement actually comes from private sector organizations or individuals. In some cases over the past few years, terrorist attacks were forestalled after individual citizens reported suspicious behavior to authorities. This information was combined with other data either already available or collected after further investigation, and the suspects were prosecuted and convicted before they could carry out their attacks.

The ODNI private sector office would be working with law enforcement personnel as it meets with private sector organizations. It effectively would be educating the private sector in partnership with the DHS and the FBI.

This information sharing thrust is a two-way effort, and Millis’ office wants to keep the private sector as well-informed as possible. “Through the Department of Homeland Security, the private sector is one of our customers,” she declares. “We have to understand that business and its information needs.” These needs can include both warnings of imminent terrorist attacks and advice on security measures against new potential threats.

Millis relates that her office is finding that many private sector businesses do not always understand what information they can expect. So, they also need to know the appropriate questions that they should ask to receive the information that they need. The office will meet with them so it can provide the information that they need to help them do what is necessary.

“Our role is to make sure that whatever is relevant intelligence information is fed to the Department of Homeland Security, which has the legal mandate to share terrorism information with the private sector,” she says.

Millis emphasizes that her office is not involved with acquisition in any way. Her currency is information that can help businesses protect, or intelligence analysts prevent, terrorist attacks.

All of these outreach efforts are necessary, but they are not an end in and of themselves. Millis says that she wants to move beyond outreach efforts to true partnerships. These partnerships would be characterized by more of a shared responsibility and understanding of mission.

For example, the private sector/analyst group is a pilot program. Millis would like to institutionalize it to create a bank of experts with which interested parties could meet on a regular basis. This would give them an established relationship with established experts.