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What spies need: more computers, nominee says

By Pam Benson, CNN National Security Producer
  • Nominee for intelligence director calls for better technology
  • Cultural roadblocks also stand in way of information sharing, he says
  • He says people must be "willing to accept a new vision of greater information sharing"
  • He says he would help create more integrated intelligence system

Washington (CNN) -- Improved technology would go a long way in helping intelligence analysts connect the dots and prevent terrorist attacks, according to the man who is nominated to become the nation's chief intelligence officer.

But James Clapper acknowledges that there are also serious cultural roadblocks as well as legal issues that stymie efforts to share pertinent information across the intelligence community.

Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who is the Defense Department's chief intelligence officer, has been chosen by President Obama to be the nation's fourth director of national intelligence.

The intelligence community was faulted last year for failing to connect bits of information within various agencies that might have prevented the deadly attack at Fort Hood, Texas, and the attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight headed for Detroit, Michigan, on December 25.

At his confirmation hearing this week, Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee that there are technological fixes to help sift through the immense amount of terrorist-related data that the intelligence community receives each day.

"What is needed from a technology standpoint is a very robust search engine that can range across a variety of data, data constructs in order to help connect the dots. We are still spending too much manpower to do manual things that can be done easily by machines," Clapper said.

National Counterterrorism Center Director Mike Leiter has said that approximately 5,000 pieces of information flow into intelligence databases each day.

The center was created after the September 11 attacks to analyze and integrate all terrorist-related information collected throughout the government. Its analysts use 30 databases and have access to approximately 80 others maintained by individual agencies and departments. Sorting through those databases to find the bits and pieces that might identify a potential terrorist attack is a monumental task.

An intelligence official who isn't authorized to speak for attribution said it is a "humanly impossible task. ... You need to leverage (information technology) to take the load off the analyst's brain."

But finding the data can also be hampered, not only by the sheer number of databases that exist within the intelligence community but by individual agencies that seek to limit access to their secrets. Clapper said those cultural barriers have to be brought down.

"To operate like a true 'information enterprise,' (intelligence community) elements have to accept some level of risk and strike a responsible balance between information access and protection of sources and methods," he said. "The backbone of the effort relies on people willing to accept a new vision of greater information sharing."

However, an agency might have to protect information because of privacy concerns. Information about American citizens or people living in the U.S. must be handled differently than that about people overseas. For example, the National Security Agency, which monitors telephone, e-mail and computer communications, has to meet very stringent legal standards.

Clapper said the "NSA is understandably very conscientious about the protection of potential data on U.S. persons. They're very, very sensitive to compliance with the (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), as they should be. ... That is one inhibitor to full and open and collaborative sharing that we might like."

In response to a Washington Post series this week that criticized the continued problem of information sharing within the intelligence community, the office of the director of national intelligence issued a statement noting the progress made but indicating that significant challenges remain. "Complex technical, legal and institutional barriers remain such as multiple information systems and legal regimes to protect privacy and constitutional right."

Clapper told the senators that if he is confirmed, he will pursue improved technology and provide the leadership to create a community-wide integrated intelligence system.