June 18, 2013
Homeland Security Office Creates ‘Intelligence Spam,’ Insiders Say
Posted on Sep 6, 2011
By Andrew Becker and G.W. Schulz, CIR
This article was originally produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
In the days after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the White House and Congress demanded the government find better ways to “connect the dots” of terror threats to prevent a repeat of the carnage.
A year later, a new bureaucracy was created to gather, analyze and share intelligence related to terrorism inside the United States. Now called the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security, it was envisioned as the center of gravity in a new era of domestic security.
But despite a clear mandate from Congress and hundreds of millions spent on personnel and technology, the office has fallen far short of its mission and done little to improve the accuracy and quality of the nation’s intelligence data, according to an examination by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
The office stands as an acute example of the federal government’s decade-long struggle to bridge bureaucratic and communication gaps among federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies. It also illustrates the shortcomings of a heavy reliance on contractors, who for years made up the bulk of the office’s personnel.
For years, many of the office’s reports have been outdated, irrelevant or vague, or have regurgitated stories that appeared in the media, according to CIR’s review of internal records, intelligence reports and interviews with more than 70 current and former government officials, intelligence officers and contracting consultants.
At the same time, relatively few law enforcement authorities bothered to read the reports, according to documents and interviews. Some critics deride them as “intelligence spam,” according to interviews with several current and former government officials.
“Intelligence has value because it’s not accessible elsewhere,” said Chet Lunner, a former deputy undersecretary in the office who agreed the critics have a point. “They produce almost nothing you can’t find on Google.”
Since 2003, the office has published more than 21,000 intelligence reports, averaging about 300 a month in recent years, according to figures from the Department of Homeland Security. Because of the widespread distribution, and because of past controversies, the reports typically are stripped of sensitive detail. As a consequence, they sometimes lose their relevance for law enforcement officials.
In one report, the intelligence and analysis office warned law enforcement officials to be aware of suspicious vehicle fires – more than seven months after the attempted Times Square attack left a bomber’s car in flames, according to documents and interviews.
The Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin with the FBI about a man who allegedly told police he intended to kill doctors who perform abortions. But the one-page document relied on the same publicly available material that had been used in news reports in the days after the man’s arrest.
In another instance, the intelligence and analysis office wrote an ominous-sounding document called “Incendiary Devices: Potential Terrorist Attack Method.” But the report essentially described an old-fashioned Molotov cocktail made with a laundry detergent bottle. It said one indicator of trouble might be the presence of a “large number of matches,” along with the “Smell of gasoline.”
A report in 2009 went through 28 rewrites before it was released, according to documents and interviews.
The office is issuing so many reports that it has generated a long backlog. As of March 2010, the office had 144 overdue reports, nearly two-thirds of which were three months behind schedule, according to an October report [PDF] by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General.
Department officials confirmed there was still a backlog related to “non-critical” reports but declined to be specific.
Despite well-documented problems, the office has not instituted an effective internal review process to measure its own management performance. But it has set goals on the number of intelligence reports its analysts are supposed to produce.
No exact accounting for spending for the office is publicly available because the budget was made classified several years ago. Documents submitted to Congress show that at least $2 billion has been spent on the office and the Department of Homeland Security’s operations branch combined.
Congressional overseers for years have urged the intelligence and analysis officce [PDF] to replace contractors with government employees, fix its budget problems and improve the quality of its work to better serve law enforcement within the department and across the country.
But the office has not faced rigorous public scrutiny or accountability, in part because its operations are cloaked in secrecy, and because lawmakers and others do not want to be blamed for shutting it down in the event of another major terrorist attack, current and former government officials said.
“I stopped paying attention to (the office’s) analysis a long time ago because it had become redundant and therefore irrelevant,” said Louis B. Tucker, who recently stepped down as a staff director of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “It seemed for a while that they were just trying to justify their existence.”
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