Federal Agencies Still Failing to 'Connect the Dots' on Security Threats to U.S., Says GAO

By Edwin Mora | June 23, 2010 | 6:29 PM EDT

President Barack Obama speaks about the attempted airplane bombing for the second day in a row at a Marine Corps base in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2009. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

(CNSNews.com) – President Obama’s national security agencies “do not always share relevant information with their national security partners,” according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. 

The report shows that more than eight years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, federal agencies were still failing to "connect the dots" on intelligence pointing to security threats to the United States.
The GAO findings come approximately six months after President Obama acknowledged that the intelligence community failed to share information that could have properly identified the attempted Christmas Day bomber as a dangerous extremist, adding he would “insist on accountability at every level” for such a failure.
The June 19 report, prepared for the House Armed Services subcommittee on oversight and investigations, revealed that “the timely dissemination of information is critical for maintaining national security.”
John Pendleton, director of defense capabilities and management at the GAO and author of the report, said interagency collaboration challenges abound when it comes to national security.
“U.S. government agencies do not always share relevant information with their national security partners due to a lack of clear guidelines for sharing information and security clearance issues,” explained the GAO report. “Because of concerns about agencies’ ability to protect shared information or use that information properly, other agencies and private-sector partners may be hesitant to share information.”
When testifying before the House Armed Services subcommittee about the interagency collaboration challenges report, GAO’s Pendleton said, “A failure to connect the dots is often blamed after security lapses and this is often ultimately traceable to inadequate information sharing.”
“Certainly sharing information is important to connect the dots [of a national security threat],” Pendleton told CNSNews.com.
On Dec. 29, 2009, shortly after being briefed on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian charged with trying to blow up an American passenger jet on Christmas Day, President Obama told  reporters, “A systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable.”
Although he did not elaborate, he added that he would “insist on accountability at every level” for such a failure.
Noting that Abdulmutallab was linked to Al-Qaeda, the president said: “Had this critical information been shared, it could have been compiled with other intelligence and a fuller, clearer picture of the suspect would have emerged. The warning signs would have triggered red flags, and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America.”
On June 5, the president once again acknowledged that the government had had enough information to prevent the attempted Christmas Day bomb attack ahead of time, adding that the intelligence community did not "connect those dots.”
Interagency cooperation has become a theme. In May, the White House released a National Security Strategy, which said: “Collaboration across the government -- and with our partners at the state, local, and tribal levels of government, in industry, and abroad -- must guide our actions.” 
The report added: “We are improving the integration of skills and capabilities within our military and civilian institutions, so they complement each other and operate seamlessly,” added the report.
On May 18, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence underscored  that U.S. intelligence and national security agencies did not share information about Mr. Abdulmutallab.
Three days later, on May 21, the director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, resigned.
Speaking to CNSNews.com, the GAO’s Pendleton indicated that not sharing adequate information could hinder the national security agencies’ ability to respond to national threat.
“To share information as we begin to tackle problems that are not just military or not just diplomatic developments in other countries, also obviously the concern about terrorism and other threats bringing together what everyone knows is becoming very important,” Pendleton told CNSNews.com.
The GAO report pointed out that today’s threats require the collaboration of federal agencies not traditionally involved with national security.
“National security threats have evolved and require involvement beyond the traditional agencies of DOD (Defense Department), the Department of State, and USAID (the U.S. Agency on International Development),” revealed the report.
“The Departments of Homeland Security, Energy, Justice, the Treasury, Agriculture, Commerce, and Health and Human Services are now a bigger part of the equation,” it added.
According to the GAO, the national security agencies lack a workforce that is qualified to “quickly address a crisis.”
“Federal agencies do not always have the right people with the right skills in the right jobs at the right time to meet the challenges they face, to include having a workforce that is able to quickly address crises,” explained the report.
“Furthermore, agencies’ personnel systems often do not recognize or reward interagency collaboration, which could diminish agency employees’ interest in serving in interagency efforts,” it added.
Pendleton told CNSNews.com that the national security agencies are working towards improving their interagency information sharing.
The report noted, however, that the lack of collaboration among the national security agencies can result in wasteful spending.
 “Given the number of agencies involved in U.S. government national security efforts, it is important that there be mechanisms to coordinate across agencies,” explained the report. “Without such mechanisms, the results can be a patchwork of activities that waste scarce funds and limit the overall effectiveness of federal efforts.”