Thursday, November 23, 2006

A new plan from the U.S. intelligence czar will use intelligence centers run by state police as the hubs for a national network of officials from different agencies and levels of government sharing information about terrorism.

In a move likely to rattle privacy mavens, the three-year plan for implementing the congressionally mandated Information Sharing Environment (ISE) also lays out policies designed to ease sharing with foreign governments, and proposes to widen the definition of shareable terrorism information.

The plan “provides a road map for the successful implementation of the ISE, and responds to the recommendations of the September 11 commission,” said Thomas McNamara, program manager for the ISE in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Enacted as part of the 2004 intelligence reform law, ISE tried to create a seamless “network of networks” connecting officials — and the terrorism-related information to which they have access — by changing rules across the increasing number of federal, state and local agencies whose mission includes protecting the United States from terrorism.

Mr. McNamara said the aim was to create “a virtual interstate system,” and that the law-enforcement “fusion” centers being set up in states and large municipalities would be the “nodes where information can be processed, condensed and evaluated.”

But such information includes personal data about Americans held by government agencies. In the wake of revelations that a Pentagon terrorist threat database contained reports about lawful anti-war protests, questions continue to be raised about the civil liberties and privacy implications of the seamless sharing of information envisaged by the ISE.

John Rollins, an analyst with the Congressional Research Service who formerly worked on information-sharing issues at the Department of Homeland Security, said concerns have been raised about regulations affecting the fusion centers.

He said federal regulations already governed the centers’ state and local databases, but it was not clear how much oversight the Justice Department planned to do.

Mr. McNamara argues that the new system will strengthen civil liberties and privacy “if it is done right.”

“There is already information sharing going on,” he said, adding that ISE systems could add oversight capabilities that would “track, audit and monitor the use of the system” to prevent abuse.

Two contentious areas on which his plan proposes to proceed are the sharing of information with foreign governments and private-sector firms.

The plan says that federal departments and agencies should begin to ensure that their so-called “systems of records” notices and routine disclosures required by the Privacy Act “provide for terrorism information sharing with foreign partners.”

It also calls for information sharing with the private sector that is “likely to entail issues requiring executive level decisions or legislative changes.”

Mr. Rollins called the plan “a good start” but said that more than five years after September 11, “all we have is a plan. … The real hard work starts now.”

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