Greater shared access to sensitive knowledge is proposed



By Mark Huband

Financial Times, 30 June 2004

Counter-terrorism officials plan to reduce the levels of secrecy applied to terrorist intelligence to expand the pool of law enforcement officers permitted to see sensitive information.

Lower ranking police officers and transport officials are among those who could be given greater access under the proposals.

The plan to expand what are called “tear lines” by security officials is being considered alongside moves to create a global terrorist threat assessment process that links new assessment centres created by Britain, the US and Australia. Tear lines are applied to hide sensitive sources or methods of intelligence collection, thereby allowing the information to be disseminated more widely. “It reflects the need to ensure that as many people as possible are sensitised to the threat,” a senior security official said.

John Brennan, director of the US Terrorist Threat Integration Center created last year, recently told the US commission examining the September 11 terrorist attacks that since 2001 there had been a 70 per cent increase in the use of tear lines in the US. In Britain a similar process is under way.

“A huge amount of effort is being put into having information declassified so it can be shared with people who have not been security vetted, such as lower ranking police officers,” said a senior UK official.

He added that there was also a need for countries to allow information they give in confidence to one ally to be passed on to third countries. “Some you can share, even at a high level of classification. Sometimes we go back to a first country and ask them to pass it to a third country, though sometimes you may not know why the other two countries won’t share,” he said.

All information on the terrorist threat to Britain now passes through the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre. Its structure and role is similar to its Australian counterpart, the National Threat Assessment Centre, as well as TTIC in the US.

The three centres are in the process of jointly creating a global threat assessment process that will operate constantly and allow a constant flow of information to be updated.

An early priority for JTAC was to build a relationship with its US counterpart. JTAC and TTIC now share draft reports, have video conferences once a week, share experts for specific issues and have secure e-mail links. In spite of the close ties, the three centres’ threat assessments are expected to reflect the different counter-terrorism strategies of their governments.

“The difference between the US and the UK is due to the different approach to risk. Since 9/11 the US has been very risk averse,” said a senior security official, voicing concern over how successful the streamlining of the global threat assessment process would be.

“The US vision is noticeably different from the UK vision,” the official said.

“The [US] Congress provided the Department of Homeland Security with the capability for intelligence collection and analysis. But President Bush then said there would be TTIC, even though the Homeland Security department had the role that TTIC has. Clearly there is a need to make clear who does what so that in-formation does not fall through the cracks,” he said.

The debate over how far to expand the pool of intelligence information has grown since terrorists bombed commuter trains in Madrid on March 11. The European Union created the post of counter-terrorism co-ordinator after the bombings. However, concerns that information sources might be compromised if European intelligence agencies moved away from bilateral information sharing and decided instead to pool their information has limited the role of the co-ordinator to discussion about policy.


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.