White House calls for IT boost to fight terrorism

The White House report on the failed bombing attempt of a U.S airliner on Christmas Day highlights the challenges U.S intelligence agencies face in correlating terrorism-related information gathered from multiple databases and sources.

The review, released yesterday, identified an overall failure by intelligence agencies to "connect the dots," despite having enough information at their disposal to have potentially disrupted the botched attack.

The problem, according to the report, was not a lack of information sharing between government agencies but a failure by the intelligence community to "identity, correlate and fuse into a coherent story all of the discrete pieces of intelligence held by the U.S. government."

In listing the various causes for this failure, the report noted that information technology within the counter-terrorism community "did not sufficiently enable the correlation of data that would have enabled analysts to highlight the relevant threat information."

Nigerian citizen Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate an explosive device while onboard an international flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Dec. 25. Though the plane landed safely, the incident sparked widespread concern over the intelligence lapses that led to his being allowed on the flight in the first place.

Prior to his having boarded the flight, Abdulmutallab's father had expressed concerns about his son's radicalization to U.S. embassy officials in Nigeria. Various other agencies had gathered information about Abdulmuttalab's visiting Yemen and meeting with operatives from an Al Qaida-affiliated terror group.

The report called on the director of national intelligence to "accelerate information technology enhancements" in areas such as knowledge discovery, database integration and cross-database searches. It also called for improved capabilities for linking biographic information with terrorism-related intelligence.

The report identifies what's been a challenge for some time within the intelligence community, said James Lewis, director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The office of the Director of National Intelligence, one of the agencies responsible for analyzing and integrating terrorism-related intelligence gathered by the U.S. government, has been struggling for years to accomplish its mission, Lewis said.

"In the past, the director of the National Counter Terrorism Center had 11 different computers because none of the computers could talk with each other," said Lewis, who led a CSIS-led group that submitted a set of cybersecurity recommendations to President Obama last January.

The DNI has been trying to address the issue by standardizing its technology acquisition but the task still remains a work in progress, Lewis said. in this particular case, "the dots were in several different places and we haven't brought them to a single place."

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld . Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan , send e-mail to jvijayan@computerworld.com or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed .

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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