President Barack Obama meets with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, right, in the Oval Office, Sept. 9, 2010.

President Barack Obama meets with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, right, in the Oval Office, Sept. 9, 2010. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Obama Pushes for Greater Intel Sharing in New Strategy

Risky or not, the new national security strategy pushes for greater information sharing between intelligence agencies, at home and abroad.

This story has been updated.

In the new National Security Strategy unveiled Friday, President Barack Obama said better information sharing across intelligence agencies is one of his key requirements to protecting the country from everything from ISIL to infrastructure-crippling cyber attacks.

The administration is working to “better integrate” the intelligence community, or IC, across agencies and foreign intelligence services.  

One example of that integration is the Intelligence Community, Information Technology Enterprise, or IC ITE, first unveiled by National Intelligence Director James Clapper in 2012. According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI, the IC ITE moves the intelligence community “from an agency centric IT architecture to a common platform where the community easily and securely shares technology, information, and resources.”

Wide information sharing between agencies can also present security risks—since the more agencies share information, the more people have access to sensitive data.

The IC ITE, lays the vision for an integrated intelligence enterprise throughout the IC’s 17 agencies. In essence, IC ITE changes the business model for intelligence agencies by mandating shared services. Instead of each agency building out each of its own systems, select agencies—either one or two of the larger-budgeted agencies—are charged with the responsibility of governing its major components.

The Role of Amazon in the National Security Strategy

If it sounds like a fancy way to say “cloud,” it is. The Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency are leading IC cloud computing development, with the CIA securing a $600 million contract with Amazon Web Services to build a cloud now usable for all the IC agencies. The NSA’s privately-hosted cloud—based on its internal cloud model—was launched in 2013. 

The other components of the IC ITE are: The IC desktop, an IC-wide applications mall and network requirement and engineering services. The Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA, and National-Geospatial Intelligence Agency, or NGA, have jointly piloted shared desktop capabilities across their agencies for many thousands of users and those capabilities will soon spread throughout the IC.

(Related: Can You Have a Transparent Spy Agency?)

NSA also has the helm in leading an apps mall for IC agencies. The mall is based on its Ozone Widget Framework. And the National Reconnaissance Office, or NRO, is directed by IC ITE to optimize how disparate networks within the IC connect. The NRO, then, takes on a provider role in the IC for networks requirements and subsequent engineering activities, just as the CIA will for cloud services. 

Intelligence community leaders expect to save money both through consolidation and its cost-recovery model, with a net effect being improved national security.

Information Sharing vs. Terrorism

Information sharing as a strategy has already resulted in several important breakthroughs for the Obama administration, law enforcement and the national security community in recent weeks.

Expedited information sharing among agencies was key to the FBI’s linking North Korea to the recent Sony Hack, according to officials—specifically among NSA, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI,. Adm. Michael Rogers, NSA chief and commander of Cyber Command, said, “We partner with the Department of Homeland Security and FBI in various areas and this is one such area…We were part of a broad interagency effort, not in the lead role—the Federal Bureau of Investigation was the overall lead. Yes, we were part of a broad government attempt to understand exactly what happened.”

Interagency information collaboration was also key to the FBI securing the identity of Jihadi John, the infamous masked Islamic State terrorist who killed James Foley and other hostages. FBI officials have not released the suspect’s identity. Intelligence from the Defense Department and foreign intelligence and law enforcement agencies was essential to identifying the fugitive, according to Stephen L. Morris, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services division. That effort was aided by in-person collaboration and interoperability between systems.

“Bottom line, you have to have something to search,” Morris told Defense One, at the recent Biometrics for Government and Law Enforcement conference in Washington. “This is where collaboration and interoperability are key. The FBI absolutely could not do its mission if we didn’t have interoperability with DHS and interoperability with DOD, because they have holdings in their biometric repositories, biometric information that they’ve collected lawfully… data that may be a piece that we don’t have. Maybe we have a finger print on an individual but they have a finger print and a passport photo.”

In the future, intelligence agencies will share even more biometric information taken from borders and at battlefields around the globe. The department of Homeland Security announced last month that they would be updating their Automated Biometric Identification System and would begin collecting iris scans and facial recognition scans at the border. Integration between that system and Department of Defense biometrically-enabled watch list, or BEWL, could yield better real time data about who is passing through critical checkpoints and whether or not they’ve ever interacted with U.S. troops.

Interagency information sharing will also include real time data about the online behaviors of millions of computer users. Last month, the Obama administration unveiled a cyber security proposal that federal agencies “to ensure that cyber threat indicators are shared with other federal entities in as close to real time as practicable.”

Update: The White House has also announced a new $35 million agency, the Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center, to better coordinate and digital data and intelligence amongst agencies. 

As previously outlined by Defense One, there are aspects of the proposal that are controversial, such as a provision that allows private companies to share user data with the government in possible violation of privacy act.

The idea of sharing citizen biometric data between intelligence agencies could prove to be a tricky sell. Wide information sharing between agencies can also present security risks, since the more agencies share information, the more people—the next Edward Snowden, perhaps—could have access to sensitive data. That can increase the likelihood of leak or data theft. Regardless, the national security strategy makes clear that information sharing between agencies will grow in years to come.