Information Sharing:

Federal Agencies Are Sharing Border and Terrorism Information with Local and Tribal Law Enforcement Agencies, but Additional Efforts Are Needed

GAO-10-41: Published: Dec 18, 2009. Publicly Released: Jan 19, 2010.

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Information is a crucial tool in securing the nation's borders against crimes and potential terrorist threats, with the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the FBI, having key information sharing roles. GAO was asked to assess the extent to which (1) local and tribal officials in border communities received useful information from their federal partners, (2) federal agencies supported state fusion centers'--where states collaborate with federal agencies to improve information sharing--efforts to develop border intelligence products, and (3) local and tribal agencies were aware of the suspicious activities they are to report. To conduct this work, GAO analyzed relevant laws, directives, policies, and procedures; contacted a nongeneralizable sample of 20 agencies in border communities and five fusion centers (based on geographic location and size); and interviewed DHS and FBI officials.

Officials from 15 of the 20 local and tribal law enforcement agencies in the border communities GAO contacted said they received information directly from at least one federal agency in the vicinity (Border Patrol, ICE, or the FBI) that was useful in enhancing their situational awareness of border crimes and potential terrorist threats. Nine of the 20 agencies reported receiving information from all three federal agencies. Overall, where federal officials had discussed local and tribal officials' information needs and had established information sharing partnerships and related mechanisms to share information with them--consistent with the National Strategy for Information Sharing and best practices--the majority of the local and tribal officials reported receiving useful information. However, most local and tribal officials that reported federal agencies had not discussed information needs and had not established partnerships with them also said they had not received useful information. By more fully identifying the information needs of local and tribal agencies along the borders and establishing information sharing partnerships, federal agencies could be better positioned to provide local and tribal agencies with information that enhances their situational awareness of border crimes and potential terrorist threats. Federal officials at two of the five state fusion centers we visited were supporting fusion center efforts to develop border intelligence products or reports that contained information on border crimes and potential terrorist threats, as discussed in the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007. DHS recognizes that it needs to add personnel to other fusion centers in border states to, among other things, support the creation of such products, and is developing plans to do so, but cited funding issues and competing priorities as barriers. The creation of border intelligence products--such as those developed by two of the fusion centers we visited--represent potential approaches that DHS and the FBI could use to identify promising practices that other fusion centers could adopt. Identifying such practices is important because of the central role the federal government places on fusion centers to facilitate the sharing of information. Also, DHS had not obtained feedback from local and tribal officials on the utility and quality of the border intelligence products that its analysts in fusion centers have helped to develop. Additional efforts to obtain such feedback would support DHS and FBI efforts to improve the utility and quality of future products. Officials from 13 of the 20 local and tribal agencies in the border communities we contacted said that federal agencies had not defined what suspicious activities or indicators rise to the level of potential terrorist threats and should be reported to federal agencies or fusion centers. Recognizing this problem, federal agencies are participating in national efforts to standardize suspicious activity reporting. Until such efforts are implemented, defining suspicious activity indicators and current reporting processes would help better position local and tribal officials along the borders to identify and report incidents indicative of criminal activity associated with terrorist threats.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The National Strategy for Information Sharing identifies the federal government's information sharing responsibilities to include gathering and documenting the information that state, local, and tribal agencies need to enhance their situational awareness of terrorist threats. Overall, we found that where local and tribal law enforcement officials in border communities had discussed their information needs with federal officials in the vicinity, they also reported receiving useful information from the federal agencies that enhanced their situational awareness of border crimes and potential terrorist threats. However, officials from about one-half of the local and tribal agencies in the border communities we contacted reported that federal officials had not discussed information needs with them. We recommended that federal offices in border communities more consistently and fully identify the local and tribal agencies' information needs. To address information needs, Border Patrol developed a brochure to ensure that local and tribal agencies have access to the correct Border Patrol contacts. Also, through the framework of Operation Stonegarden, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies systematically identify their requirements annually and resources they need to enhance border security, and if approved, funding is made available to assist them. In addition, Border Patrol distributed a memorandum to the field entitled "Native American Program Standard Operating Procedure," which is intended to communicate tribal border issues within the federal government, among other things. Further, all Border Patrol sectors hold quarterly meetings with the local Native American Councils. ICE identifies local and tribal information needs through various venues--including presentations to law enforcement agencies and related memorandums of understanding--and participation on multi-agency task forces, including Integrated Border Enforcement Teams and Border Enforcement Security Task Forces. In addition, DHS's Office of Intelligence and Analysis has taken formal action to identify fusion center Standing Information Needs, which describe the types of data and information fusion center intelligence analysts need in order to develop timely, actionable, and relevant intelligence for their customers, including local and tribal agencies in border communities. Many fusion centers that support local and tribal law enforcement agencies along the borders have approved Standing Information Needs--including centers in Arizona, California, New York, and Texas--and DHS is continuing efforts to identify the needs of the remaining centers. Based on DHS's follow-up responses and related documentation, we consider this recommendation closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that local and tribal law enforcement agencies in border communities receive information from local federal agencies that enhances their situational awareness of border crimes and potential terrorist threats, the Secretary of Homeland Security and Director of the FBI, as applicable, should require Border Patrol, ICE, and FBI offices in border communities to more consistently and fully identify the local and tribal agencies' information needs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The National Strategy for Information Sharing identifies the federal government's information sharing responsibilities to include gathering and documenting the information that state, local, and tribal agencies need to enhance their situational awareness of terrorist threats. Overall, we found that where local and tribal law enforcement officials in border communities had discussed their information needs with federal officials in the vicinity, they also reported receiving useful information from the federal agencies that enhanced their situational awareness of border crimes and potential terrorist threats. However, officials from about one-half of the local and tribal agencies in the border communities we contacted reported that federal officials had not discussed information needs with them. We recommended that federal offices in border communities more consistently and fully identify the local and tribal agencies' information needs. To address information needs, the FBI coordinates it efforts with DHS to work with fusion centers to ensure that the needs of local and tribal agencies in a given border area are met. For example, the FBI Directorate of Intelligence and the FBI Chief Information Sharing Officer--in conjunction with DHS's Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) and the Program Manager for the Information Sharing Environment--have conducted a formal study regarding fusion center information needs, which revealed large overlap between FBI and local law enforcement needs. The results of this study were briefed to the Fusion Center Subcommittee of the Information Sharing an Access Interagency Policy Committee, within the Executive Office of the President. The FBI also utilizes other avenues of outreach to state, local, and tribal agencies, including those along the border, to identify information needs. These include the Joint Terrorism Task Forces, Law Enforcement On-Line, eGuardian, and Field Intelligence Groups. The FBI also builds on existing interagency relationships, such as the Terrorist Liaison Officer Program, to better identify local and tribal agencies' information needs. In addition, through yearly national and regional fusion center conferences, the FBI conducts coordinated needs and assessment analyses to ensure the requirements of local and tribal agencies in border areas are being met. Based on the FBI's follow-up responses and related documentation, we consider this recommendation closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that local and tribal law enforcement agencies in border communities receive information from local federal agencies that enhances their situational awareness of border crimes and potential terrorist threats, the Secretary of Homeland Security and Director of the FBI, as applicable, should require Border Patrol, ICE, and FBI offices in border communities to more consistently and fully identify the local and tribal agencies' information needs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Federal Bureau of Investigation

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that local and tribal law enforcement agencies in border communities receive information from local federal agencies that enhances their situational awareness of border crimes and potential terrorist threats, the Secretary of Homeland Security and Director of the FBI, as applicable, should require Border Patrol, ICE, and FBI offices in border communities to periodically assess the extent to which partnerships and related mechanisms to share information exist, fill gaps as appropriate, and address barriers to establishing such partnerships and mechanisms.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Federal Bureau of Investigation

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The National Strategy for Information Sharing recognizes that effective information sharing comes through strong partnerships among federal, state, local, and tribal partners. In addition, DHS's current strategic plans acknowledge the need to establish information sharing partnerships with state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies to help the agencies fulfill their missions, roles, and responsibilities. We found that Border Patrol and ICE had made progress in this area, but officials from several local and tribal agencies in the border communities we contacted reported that they had not established information sharing partnerships with Border Patrol or ICE officials in the vicinity. Where partnerships were not established, local and tribal agencies also were less likely to have received information that enhanced their situational awareness of border crimes and potential terrorist threats from federal agencies than in the localities where partnerships were established. We recommended that the Secretary of Homeland Security require Border Patrol and ICE to take steps to further establish such partnerships. In response, Border Patrol developed a brochure to ensure that local and tribal agencies have access to the correct Border Patrol contacts who serve as local and tribal liaisons. Also, through Operation Stonegarden, funding is made available to local law enforcement agencies along the border to enhance cooperation, coordination, and joint efforts between federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies. Through the Operation Stonegarden review process, local law enforcement agencies identify what resources they need from the federal government to enhance border security; detail how they will coordinate with Border Patrol on operations, intelligence, etc.; and make specific funding requests to execute their activities. In addition, Border Patrol distributed a memorandum to the field entitled, Native American Program Standard Operating Procedure. The program's objectives are to (1) establish, maintain, and improve relationships with tribal communities; (2) foster cross cultural understanding between tribal entities and Border Patrol; (3) educate tribal nations on the National Border Patrol Strategy and its overall mission; (4) communicate tribal border issues within the federal government as appropriate; (5) coordinate national and sector level training; and (6) work with international organizations. Further, all Borders Patrol sectors are to hold quarterly meetings with the local Native American Councils. Tucson, Yuma, and Swanton Sectors hold several meetings a month with the Tohono O'odham, Cocopah, and Skwesasne council members, respectively, to discuss various issues. ICE offers many different venues and task forces that now provide partnerships and can measure the extent of information sharing. Each venue or task force was created to address specific threats and regional needs. For example, Border Enforcement Security Task Forces (BEST) were created to address the threat of cross-border crime and its associated violence using a multi-agency approach working with other federal, state, local, and foreign law enforcement personnel. Also, the Alliance to Combat Transnational Threat (ACTT) uses a collaborative enforcement approach to leverage the capabilities and resources of DHS in partnership with numerous law enforcement agencies in Arizona to deter, disrupt, and interdict individuals and criminal organizations that pose a threat to the United States. ICE is also an active participant in the 15 Integrated Border Enforcement Teams (IBETs), which work to identify, investigate, and interdict individuals and organizations that may pose a threat to national security or are engaged in organized criminal activity along the Northern border. Based on DHS's follow-up responses and related documentation, we consider this recommendation closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that local and tribal law enforcement agencies in border communities receive information from local federal agencies that enhances their situational awareness of border crimes and potential terrorist threats, the Secretary of Homeland Security and Director of the FBI, as applicable, should require Border Patrol, ICE, and FBI offices in border communities to periodically assess the extent to which partnerships and related mechanisms to share information exist, fill gaps as appropriate, and address barriers to establishing such partnerships and mechanisms.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To promote future efforts to develop border intelligence products within fusion centers, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Director of the FBI should collaborate with fusion centers to identify and market promising practices used to prepare these products.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To promote future efforts to develop border intelligence products within fusion centers, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Director of the FBI should collaborate with fusion centers to identify and market promising practices used to prepare these products.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Federal Bureau of Investigation

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To promote future efforts to develop border intelligence products within fusion centers, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Director of the FBI should collaborate with fusion centers to take additional actions to solicit feedback from local and tribal officials in border communities on the utility and quality of the products generated.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Federal Bureau of Investigation

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had not obtained feedback from local and tribal officials on the utility and quality of the border intelligence products that its analysts had helped to develop, and that additional efforts to obtain such feedback would support DHS efforts to improve the utility and quality of future products. In March 2014, the department's Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) fielded a product and service satisfaction survey to a controlled population of known and likely I&A customers, including state and local partners in border communities. The survey asked customers about the types of intelligence products that they read (e.g., homeland security assessments and alerts or warnings) and to what extent the products were helpful in informing their actions and decisions in various categories, such as observing, identifying, or disrupting potential threats in the course of their daily duties. The survey also asked customers to rank the importance of border security intelligence products produced by the department against other categories of products (e.g., terrorism and cyber security) and to identify the border security topics that reflect their most important intelligence needs, such as alien smuggling, drug trafficking, and border violence. Based on the DHS's follow-up responses and related documentation, we consider this recommendation closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To promote future efforts to develop border intelligence products within fusion centers, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Director of the FBI should collaborate with fusion centers to take additional actions to solicit feedback from local and tribal officials in border communities on the utility and quality of the products generated.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  9. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Detecting the warning signs of potential terrorist activities and sharing the information with the proper agencies provides an opportunity to prevent terrorist attacks. In December 2009, we reported that most of the local and tribal officials in the border communities we contacted did not clearly know what suspicious activities federal agencies and fusion centers wanted them to report, how to report them, or to whom. We recommended that federal agencies collaborate with fusion centers to take steps to ensure that local and tribal law enforcement agencies in border communities are aware of the suspicious activities related to terrorism that they are to report and the process through which they should report this information. In March 2010, the Department of Justice (DOJ) established a program management office to support nationwide implementation of standardized processes for sharing terrorism-related suspicious activity reports among federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies. A senior executive from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is detailed to the office and serves as the Principal Deputy Director. Since 2010, the federal government has largely implemented the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (NSI) among fusion centers (see GAO-13-233). Federal, state, local, and tribal agencies have also established a "Functional Standard" that defines processes for collecting and sharing suspicious activity reports that have a potential nexus to terrorism. Among other things, the Functional Standard includes a set of behavior-based criteria for law enforcement officials to use to help them determine if a suspicious activity report has a potential nexus to terrorism--such as a breach or attempted intrusion, expressed or implied threat, or cyber attack--and should be shared with other NSI participants. The federal government has also emphasized the importance of training executives, analysts, and line officers and has recommended that all agencies that participate in the NSI receive training. As of February 2013, over 290,000 line officers had received training and federal agencies were taking actions to provide additional training to these officers. DHS also provides training to fusion center personnel on suspicious activity reporting analysis methods and tools. DHS's Privacy Office and Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties participate in NSI training. In addition to the NSI, DHS uses the dissemination of Homeland Security Standing Information Needs to communicate the types of information from local and tribal law enforcement agencies that are of interest to the department, including information on suspicious activities related to terrorism. Based on these actions, we consider this recommendation closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To maximize the utility of suspicious activity indicators as a counterterrorism tool, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Director of the FBI should collaborate with fusion centers to take steps to ensure that local and tribal law enforcement agencies in border communities are aware of the specific types of suspicious activities related to terrorism that they are to report and the process through which they should report this information.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  10. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Detecting the warning signs of potential terrorist activities and sharing the information with the proper agencies provides an opportunity to prevent terrorist attacks. In December 2009, we reported that most of the local and tribal officials in the border communities we contacted did not clearly know what suspicious activities federal agencies and fusion centers wanted them to report, how to report them, or to whom. We recommended that federal agencies collaborate with fusion centers to take steps to ensure that local and tribal law enforcement agencies in border communities are aware of the suspicious activities related to terrorism that they are to report and the process through which they should report this information. In March 2010, the Department of Justice (DOJ) established a program management office to support nationwide implementation of standardized processes for sharing terrorism-related suspicious activity reports among federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies. Since then, the federal government has largely implemented the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (NSI) among fusion centers (see GAO-13-233). Federal, state, local, and tribal agencies have also established a "Functional Standard" that defines processes for collecting and sharing suspicious activity reports that have a potential nexus to terrorism. Among other things, the Functional Standard includes a set of behavior-based criteria for fusion centers and other law enforcement officials to use to help them determine if a suspicious activity report has a potential nexus to terrorism--such as a breach or attempted intrusion, expressed or implied threat, or cyber attack--and should be shared with other NSI participants. Through DOJ's program management office, the federal government has also emphasized the importance of training executives, analysts, and line officers and has recommended that all agencies that participate in the NSI receive training. As of February 2013, over 290,000 line officers had received training and federal agencies were taking actions to provide additional training to these officers. Based on these actions, we consider this recommendation closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To maximize the utility of suspicious activity indicators as a counterterrorism tool, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Director of the FBI should collaborate with fusion centers to take steps to ensure that local and tribal law enforcement agencies in border communities are aware of the specific types of suspicious activities related to terrorism that they are to report and the process through which they should report this information.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Federal Bureau of Investigation

  11. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Detecting the warning signs of potential terrorist activities and sharing the information with the proper agencies provides an opportunity to prevent terrorist attacks. In December 2009, we reported that most of the local and tribal officials in the border communities we contacted did not clearly know what suspicious activities federal agencies and fusion centers wanted them to report, how to report them, or to whom. We recommended that federal agencies collaborate with fusion centers to consider developing, periodically updating, and consistently disseminating indicators of terrorism-related activities that focus on border threats. Since then, the federal government has largely implemented the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (NSI) among fusion centers, including centers in border communities (see GAO-13-233). Federal, state, local, and tribal agencies have also established a "Functional Standard" that includes a set of behavior-based criteria for law enforcement officials to use to help them determine if a suspicious activity report has a potential nexus to terrorism--such as a breach or attempted intrusion, expressed or implied threat, or cyber attack--and should be shared with other NSI participants. Further, DHS and the FBI routinely disseminate reports and bulletins to local and tribal officials in border communities that contain indicators of terrorism-related activities. Based on these actions, we consider this recommendation closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To maximize the utility of suspicious activity indicators as a counterterrorism tool, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Director of the FBI should collaborate with fusion centers to consider developing, periodically updating, and consistently disseminating indicators of terrorism-related activities that focus on border threats.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Federal Bureau of Investigation

  12. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Detecting the warning signs of potential terrorist activities and sharing the information with the proper agencies provides an opportunity to prevent terrorist attacks. In December 2009, we reported that most of the local and tribal officials in the border communities we contacted did not clearly know what suspicious activities federal agencies and fusion centers wanted them to report, how to report them, or to whom. We recommended that federal agencies collaborate with fusion centers to consider developing, periodically updating, and consistently disseminating indicators of terrorism-related activities that focus on border threats. Since then, the federal government has largely implemented the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (NSI) among fusion centers, including centers in border communities (see GAO-13-233). Federal, state, local, and tribal agencies have also established a "Functional Standard" that includes a set of behavior-based criteria for law enforcement officials to use to help them determine if a suspicious activity report has a potential nexus to terrorism--such as a breach or attempted intrusion, expressed or implied threat, or cyber attack--and should be shared with other NSI participants. In addition, DHS uses the dissemination of Homeland Security Standing Information Needs to communicate the types of information from local and tribal law enforcement agencies that are of interest to the department, including information on suspicious activities related to terrorism. Further, DHS and the FBI routinely disseminate reports and bulletins to local and tribal officials in border communities that contain indicators of terrorism-related activities. Based on these actions, we consider this recommendation closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To maximize the utility of suspicious activity indicators as a counterterrorism tool, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Director of the FBI should collaborate with fusion centers to consider developing, periodically updating, and consistently disseminating indicators of terrorism-related activities that focus on border threats.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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