Thursday, June 20, 2013

How a CIA-FBI Tech Fiasco Spawned the NSA Scandal

Of all the startling disclosures to emerge from the unfolding NSA data-collection scandal, perhaps the most shocking is this: As the Washington Post reported on June 8, the material collected from Internet company servers is electronically “pushed” to classified FBI computers in Quantico, Virginia, and then “shared with the NSA or other authorized intelligence agencies.”

Wow. Who knew the FBI had computers that could communicate with other agencies?

The last time the topic came up, back in 2007, things didn’t work that way. That’s when we learned that the FBI and CIA had incompatible computer systems that couldn’t interface to share information or even communicate. It caused a flurry of tut-tutting and then disappeared from view.

The story of the computer glitch was contained in a pair of documents released several months apart, scrubbed versions of secret reports by the two agencies’ inspector-generals’ offices, examining the intelligence failures that led up to the September 11 attacks. The FBI report was completed in November 2004 and released in June 2006; the CIA report was completed in June 2005 and released in August 2007.

The computer disconnect was part of a larger problem described in similar terms in both reports: a deep-rooted inability of the CIA and FBI to share information. The result was that they missed clues that would have lit red lights all over Washington, long before the attacks, if somebody had managed to put two and two together. One expert, former CIA staffer Robert Baer, writing in Time magazine in 2007 about the CIA disclosures, called the communication breakdown “the smoking gun” that let the attackers slip through.

Partly the failure was a reflection of radically different organizational cultures. Things that seemed important to one agency didn’t interest the other. As one observer put it, the CIA looked for intelligence, while the FBI gathered evidence. Moreover, the CIA tracked suspects operating overseas, but dropped them when they entered the United States and became the FBI’s problem—without always telling the FBI.

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