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The word “intelligence” can have multiple meanings.  If you were watching last week’s hearing (March 18, 2009) – “Homeland Security Intelligence: Its Relevance and Limitations,” held before the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment you will understand the word much better, especially in terms that Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) described as “what we want and what we don’t want.”

Three Warning Shots

Chaired by Rep. Harman, the hearing began with three very pointed warning shots taking aim at DHS’ Information & Analysis (I&A) Division; the White House/new Administration; and anyone thinking privacy and civil liberties infringements will be ignored in pursuit of terrorists.

In her opening statement, Rep. Harman talked about the need to do intelligence the right way and to illustrate what she meant by the wrong way, she laid into DHS’ I&A Division for still operating its National Applications Office (NAO).  In spite of specific Congressional language blocking funds and operations for the NAO to operate, I&A still has it in place which did not please Rep. Harman in any shape or form.  She specifically referenced the advice she had given to new DHS Sec. Janet Napolitano during her February 25th appearance before the House Homeland Security Committee to “shut it down”, and until it is lights out for the NAO, she (and other Members) won’t be satisfied.

The second shot went straight at the White House and its personnel process, specifically who the new Administration taps to lead DHS’ I&A shop.  Rep. Harman expressed her frustration and displeasure that her calls (and those of House Homeland Chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS)) to put a person from the state and local community in charge of I&A were not acted upon.  She shared that Members of the Homeland Security Committee knew a selection announcement for the I&A Deputy position was forthcoming and that person would have state and local experience, but the fact the top job was going to someone without these qualities did not make her or others happy.

Her third shot, and probably the one that echoed loudest throughout the hearing, addressed the need to share and match information and intelligence collected from federal, state, local, tribal and private sectors with one another while strictly adhering to constitutional, privacy and civil liberty principles and practices.  Her fellow Members (both Republican and Democrat) as well as her witnesses, from the law enforcement communities and civil liberties groups backed her up on this point.

Rep. Harman also offered another pledge at the hearing’s opening, “When it comes to intelligence sharing, we need to shut down what doesn’t work and support what does.  We need Intelligence done the right way; not the wrong way.”

There should be no illusion that Rep. Harman will be even remotely shy about those things she thinks are done right or wrong in these areas.

Remembered in “Name;” Forgotten in Resources and Operations

All of the witnesses offered compelling examples of the improvements that have been made in existing information sharing practices and the positive differences that have resulted.  Of any of the presenting witnesses though, the most compelling and frustrating testimony came from Gary Edwards, Chief Executive Officer of the National Native American Law Enforcement Association (NNALEA).

Mr. Edwards shared that he and other Native Americans “are the most experienced in protecting the homeland beginning their efforts in 1492.”

He also shared that there are over 100 million acres of reservation land that they secure that holds oil, natural gas, railways, pipelines and other critical infrastructures..  Significant portions of these acres cross borders into Canada and Mexico, but he and his reservation knew they had a responsibility to safeguard infrastructures, populations and the homeland from those who want to do America harm.

The challenge to fulfilling those responsibilities was the fact that Tribal communities were “many years behind our non-tribal counterparts.”

He detailed the fact that they did not have the training, communications tools or the funding to play their part in securing the homeland.

In describing the communications challenges that many of the reservations have he said, “We have to become operable before we can be interoperable.”

He pointed to the challenges that Native Americans have encountered in securing homeland security dollars from the states and the lack of engagement and inclusion in those efforts.  He mentioned that the word “tribal” does get included “on paper” when describing the various partners that had to work together, but when it came to “practice” they had been “forgotten.”

Mr. Edwards described the existing gap between the millions of acres and the peoples who live on them to the rest of America as a “huge hole,” but if given the appropriate resources and the opportunity to be included in intelligence sharing and other planning and programs, it could be closed.  That, he argued, was in everyone’s homeland security interests.

Every Congressional hearing has witnesses that detail the needs and requirements of certain things.  Few, though, express it with the poignancy and integrity that Mr. Edwards offered this week.  His testimony was probably some of the most impressive I’ve heard.  His professional and personal plea for “his people” to be included in regional fusion centers (as well as create tribal fusion centers) was met with pledges of support from the attending Members.  It will be interesting to see if their words translate into action.

The word is “balance”

The final noteworthy point of last week’s hearing was the use of the word “balance.” Each of the attending Members and the witnesses from law enforcement and civil liberties groups used that word at least twice, either in their opening statements or during the ensuing question and answer session.

As diverse as all of those presenters and their respective experiences were, each honed in on describing the efforts that intelligence collection and sharing had to have in relation to civil rights and civil liberties, individual privacy and constitutional provisions.  They all used the word “balance” to describe what had to be achieved and that no one at the witness table wanted to turn a blind eye to or be complicit with infringing upon or violating the constitutionally guaranteed rights of Americans.

While never stated in these exact words, both sides of the political aisles on the Subcommittee and both panels of witnesses expressed another message very clearly – ”we won’t be doing things the way the previous guys (Administration) were running things.”

In communicating that message, Founding Father, Ben Franklin was quoted and referenced several times by Rep. Harman, other Members and the witnesses – “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”

It would seem that those hallowed words of the past are the embraced metric that will be used to guide the future of intelligence collection and sharing by Rep. Harman and the Members of her Subcommittee.  Words and actions that Mr. Franklin would undoubtedly be proud to see implemented.

The difficulty in achieving that metric and its required “balance” is the challenge the new Administration and Congress will have to wrestle with.  That is a match that will never end in an ever evolving threat stream.

Even Ben Franklin could agree with that point.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More