Homeland Intelligence: The Unique Community Within the Community

| Todd Rosenblum
Todd Rosenblum
Former Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas' Security Affairs

The increasing rate of international and domestic terror threats to and in the homeland highlights the importance to our security of the nation’s least understood community: the homeland intelligence enterprise.  Although the homeland intelligence enterprise contains a large and diverse collection of assets from across the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and several other federal and non-federal stakeholders, it remains a small player in the planning and prioritization of the larger Intelligence Community (IC).  The homeland intelligence enterprise does not look like, act like, or adhere to the same rules as the larger national intelligence enterprise.  It is different and unique, and that’s largely okay.

Some bridging is desirable, but the structural differences between the homeland intelligence enterprise and the larger intelligence community will keep them more like friends than family.  As someone with a long career as a senior official in both worlds, this is not a bad thing.

The nation’s modern intelligence community was established in 1947 after World War II, given formal budget alignment in 1973 and official roles and missions in 1981.  The IC underwent its biggest reorganization in 2004 with the passage of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act.  Back in 1947, Congress authorized the establishment of a Central Intelligence Agency led by a Director who concurrently served as the nation’s chief intelligence advisor to the President, Director of the broader intelligence community, and leader of the CIA itself.  Then in 2004, Congress directed the establishment of a Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to be the nation’s senior intelligence official responsible for intelligence community affairs, programs, plans and priorities.  CIA remains the nation’s premier organization in overseas human intelligence gathering, covert action, and analysis of intelligence trends, but it no longer acts as community manager. 

The Congress’ and executive branch’s remake of our national intelligence community did not stop with the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, however.  The landmark Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act authorized the establishment of several new offices that were equally radical and consequential.

Ceding to the clever bureaucratic demands of the Pentagon, Congress also approved an overseer for the vast defense intelligence enterprise, led by a new Senate-confirmed Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (USDI).  This structural change increased unity of effort for war-fighter intelligence, while simultaneously undermining the concept that the DNI was the person who established priorities for the nation’s largest intelligence agencies.

Congress also established a National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) to be led by a dual-hatted Director that reports directly to the President and the DNI.  NCTC was created in response to the CIA’s exclusive focus on terrorism overseas, and the perceived shortcomings of the FBI in effectively fusing intelligence collected overseas by CIA and others with its vast domestic law enforcement data gathered in investigations and operations.

Finally, Congress and the Bush Administration established a first ever homeland security intelligence enterprise, led by a Senate-confirmed Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis at DHS.  Despite strong opposition from the FBI, because it viewed itself as the center of the disaggregated homeland security intelligence enterprise, Congress tapped this new Under Secretary to coordinate, prioritize and synthesize information collected by the many homeland security components within the new DHS, such as the Transportation Security Agency, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, among others.  The DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis also assumed leadership for information sharing and aggregation between DHS, the private sector, and state and local law enforcement. 

In one bold stroke, the FBI lost its exclusive hold on identifying threats and interdicting terorrism at home to the NCTC, and as de facto head of domestic intelligence to the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis. Congress later authorized the establishment of individually state-run fusion centers for information sharing and coordination on all threats and hazards to the homeland.  In other words, Congress demanded greater information sharing and partnerships with states, localities and the private sector.  It established a homeland intelligence community within the larger national intelligence community.    

These changes were not just a reshuffling, but an elevation of the homeland in national intelligence priorities.  They introduced a host of new authorities and rules to the heretofore sacrosanct, cardinal rules that, except for rare and proscribed cirumcumstances, intelligence officers do not “touch” the homeland or American citizens.  The homeland was law enforcement.  The homeland was different titles, authorities, missions and cultures.   It was something to be avoided by law and practice.

Having served as an Intelligence Officer at the CIA and a Professional Staff Member on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I can speak directly to how engrained the overseas focus was – and still is – in the mindset of our national intelligence community.  The CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency may scuffle over whether strategic, national intelligence or support to the war-fighter should be higher priority, but viewing resources as a zero sum game, neither argued for directing more national intelligence assets toward the homeland.

Nevertheless, the United States now has a far larger and more effective homeland intelligence enterprise than ever before.  This community uses vast amounts of legally collected, retained and shared data to better identify international and domestic threats inside the homeland.  Federal, state, local and private sector elements are exponentially closer and working in partnership with the homeland intelligence enterprise like never before.  That said, the FBI, NCTC and DHS Office of Intelligence Analysis are largely working through roles and missions, but true collaboration and information sharing between them is still a developing endeavor.

More broadly, there are critical issues keeping the homeland intelligence enterprise somewhat distant from the larger, DNI-led national intelligence community.  First among them is the reality that much of what we call the homeland intelligence enterprise is really investigative data supporting tactical operations, not the strategic, predictive work that is the bread and butter of the IC.

This is not meant to disparage the importance of homeland intelligence enterprise, but merely to reflect that it is focused more on law enforcement investigations and forensic analysis than predictive support to policy makers. Homeland intelligence enterprise work is data intensive and operational (e.g. it is the collection of passenger traveler information, and time urgent assessments of whether to let someone into the United States).  It is about sharing information with the right partner in the right amount of time.  Rarely is it long-term and predictive. 

Homeland intelligence enterprise work is most often unclassified, lawfully collected data points and largely made up of information on U.S. persons.  It can – and is – shared with the larger intelligence community under strict rules intended to protect the privacy and civil liberties of all Americans. 

But there are important reasons why the homeland intelligence enterprise must remain connected with the larger intelligence community.  Although only a small percentage of homeland intelligence information is data gathered via traditional overseas intelligence statecraft, it often comes from overseas counterparts sharing traveler information that cannot be shared with the nation’s foreign intelligence organizations, like the CIA. 

Homeland intelligence enterprise data is vital to the detection and prevention of terror threats to the homeland.  Physically locating persons of interest for terrorism inside the United States is most likely going to be done by local authorities.  Identifying, interdicting, and responding to terror threats in the homeland must not occur outside the national intelligence community, it must be a part and parcel of that community.

The homeland intelligence enterprise also benefits from being part of the broader national intelligence community.  It needs to be held to the same standards for planning, prioritizing, sharing and quality as the larger, established national intelligence community.  The unique Homeland Security Intelligence Priorities Framework is not sufficiently connected to the National Intelligence Priorities Framework, and its intended implementation needs maturation. 

Recognizing historically that homeland intelligence enterprise work is largely tactical and focused on data sharing, it still has traditional intelligence analytic missions not done elsewhere in the IC, such as assessing border security, threats to critical infrastructure, and the impact of internet radicalization on American persons.  That said, the homeland intelligence enterprise has much room to grow in intelligence tradecraft, the dissemination of finished intelligence and broader collaboration.  The larger IC is a mentor of sorts to the homeland intelligence enterprise.

Finally, the law says this is to be one community, not two.  The symbioses and dependencies noted above make strengthening shared understanding of mission, assets and capabilities critical for stopping terror attacks in the homeland.  Forward is the only option.

The Author is Todd Rosenblum

Todd M. Rosenblum served as President Obama’s Acting Assistant Secretary and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs at the Pentagon, as well as Deputy Under Secretary of Intelligence for Plans, Policy, and Performance Management at the Department of Homeland Security. Over the course of a 27-year career, Rosenblum held positions with the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Department of State, and began his... Read More

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