Friday, January 7, 2011

WikiLeaks and the War on Terror, an essay by Fred Hitz

One can argue about the adverse impact of the WikiLeaks info dump on U.S. diplomatic relations, and about the bizarre system that allows a U.S Army enlisted man access to such a treasure trove of U.S. State Department secrets. What is not disputable, however, is the potential damage to high-level information sharing within the U.S. Government that might result if the State Department and other government agencies now decide that henceforth they will keep their sensitive information to themselves.

This is particularly risky if it should adversely affect the sharing of counter-terrorist information. Perhaps the biggest lesson learned from the 9/11 attacks is that information sharing between the FBI and CIA was not all that it should have been prior to the attacks. Clearly, the suicide attacks, themselves, were events that fell between jurisdictional cracks among the agencies of the U.S. Government charged with protecting us.

The 9-11 plot was hatched in the Middle East, Hamburg, Germany and Spain – for whom intelligence gathering is the jurisdiction of CIA. But the plot was designed to take place in New York and Washington, where, in most instances, jurisdiction shifts to the FBI. Nothing illustrates any better than 9-11, how critical it is that there be air-tight sharing of intelligence information between CIA and the FBI.

However, the 9/11 Commission, subsequently reported that, in several important instances, critical information had not been shared in a timely way between these agencies before the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. The report resoundingly concluded that, on questions of counter-terrorism, the U.S. Government needed to create a more efficient information-sharing environment; making it clear that, in the interest of greater national security, the silos that protected info all the way to the top would have to come down. Need-to-know would have to be replaced by need-to-share.

Congress responded to the 9-11 Commission’s conclusion by passing the Intelligence Reform and Ant- Terrorist Act of 2004, creating the National Counter-Terrorist Center and charging it with tracking terrorist activity. By all accounts, a real start has been made in intelligence sharing within the purview of the Center. Lifelong habits of compartmentalizing information within a single agency have been altered to permit a degree of information sharing, if, by doing so, it seems a terrorist attack could be prevented.

Knowing the way the U.S. Government reacts to an event like Wikileaks, however, it would not surprise me to see some backsliding from this laudable effort to share intelligence information. I note, for example, that the State Department is trying to withdraw its sensitive diplomatic traffic from full distribution to the Department of Defense. This, I suspect, is just the opening salvo. I expect to witness further diminution of info-sharing.

Maybe this is really what Mr. Assange is all about? He knows that the reactions to revelations about what U. S. diplomats really think about Prime Minister Berlusconi are small potatoes alongside a break-down in info-sharing on counter-terrorist issues.

Let’s hope our government keeps its wits about it on this set of issues.

--Fred Hitz teaches at the University of Virginia's Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. He retired from the CIA in 1998, where he last held the position of Inspector General. Mr. Hitz currently lives in Charlottesville.

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