In August 2013, a chemical weapons attack in Syria’s capital, Damascus, killed some 1,500 civilians and left two sides – the Syrian government and the rebels opposing President Bashar al-Assad’s regime – blaming each other for the destruction.
Within just nine days, that confusion ended when the White House released an intelligence assessment unequivocally linking the Syrian government to the attack, highlighting communications and other intercepts by U.S. spy agencies used to make the assessment.
Two weeks later, the United Nations reached the same conclusion in its own report. How was the intelligence community able to reach such a rapid, accurate analysis of such an attack on foreign soil?
The answer, according to Beth Flanagan of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, is integrated intelligence, or the increased ability for the 17 intelligence agencies to develop and share data and work on problems using the same platforms and environments.
Driven by the Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise — or ICITE (pronounced “eyesight”) — the IC has been shoring up the same kinds of intelligence gaps that preceded the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
At its core, ICITE is all about moving IC agencies toward shared services, such as cloud computing and a common desktop environment.
Speaking Tuesday at an event hosted by Defense One and the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, Flanagan, NGA’s ICITE mission lead, explained how ICITE allowed intelligence analysts from several IC agencies to rapidly “put the puzzle pieces together.”
“That’s the power of integrated intelligence,” Flanagan said. “The power of ICITE, of integrated intelligence, is reducing the time our analysts hunt and peck for data. It makes it easier for them to interrogate data and serve up conclusions to policy makers.”
Flanagan, a geospatial intelligence analyst by trade, said analysts usually spend “most of our time looking for the needle in the haystack.”
Through common services, platforms and collaborative tools ushers in by ICITE, analysts spend less time searching through data repositories and more time actually analyzing information, drawing up conclusions that senior policymakers and senior warfighters can use.
“We’re actually making the data and using the power of big data analytics, so the data will actually help find itself,” Flanagan said.“We’ve put in place the principles where it’s easier to serve up myriad of conclusions and make it less complex without taking humans out of the loop. (ICITE) makes it easier for them to interrogate data and serve up conclusions to policymakers.”
Flanagan’s example, she noted, dates back to 2013, just two years into the rollout of ICITE. She wouldn’t speculate how rapidly the IC could tackle an event similar to the Syrian chemical strikes today, but she said ICITE’s continued development bodes well for more effective intelligence integration in the future.
“The power of what we’re moving toward in the future, where data is an IC asset, we’re sharing data and using big data analytics, we’ll be able to reduce chaos and take advantage of things like the common desktop environment and common tools and platforms,” Flanagan said. “It’ll be easier for the workforce to do those things.”