Senior leaders in the U.S. government simply don’t understand state-of-the-art data technology, and until they do, intelligence fusion and cybersecurity efforts will falter, former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen said Thursday.
“We are going to have to re-learn how to learn in the senior management of this government or we’re not going to solve these wicked problems, especially as they relate to IT and technology, because our senior folks do not—I repeat do not—understand,” Allen said in his first public remarks since stepping down last fall as national incident commander of the BP oil spill response.
Delivering a keynote address at the annual Armed Forces Communications and Electronics (AFCEA) Homeland Security Conference, Allen recalled his efforts to establish a cloud-based, searchable system to fuse intelligence regarding narcotics crossing the southern U.S. border. He based the idea on a system established by the Pentagon to fight improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I told all the members of the Interdiction Committee...your homework is to go home and create your own iGoogle account. There are still senior people in this government who don’t know what that is. ‘Cause all we’re trying to do with this cloud computing and unstructured metadata and search engines that you can use to make searches is create the front-end iGoogle capability for our law enforcement and our intelligence operators—our interdiction people— to use. If you understand that, if you understand that everyone else around the world is using it, you’re saying, ‘Why isn’t the government doing it?’ The reason the government’s not doing it is they won’t get together and cooperate. And if we don’t do that, we’re in a stern chase and we’re going to fall further behind.”
Asked by an audience member for the solution to officials' ignorance, Allen said, “Handcuffing them to their 14-year-old kids."
“We have a pedagogical problem,” Allen said. “There is a learning gap in technology in this country. I see it every day. I will go into senior leaders in this administration and start talking about these issues, and I can tell within 10 minutes whether that was a futile conversation.”
Allen said the learning gap stretches into the realm of online social media, which has proven a social and operational force in events such as the response to last year’s Haiti earthquake and the current political upheaval in the Middle East. He invoked White House science advisor’s John Holdren’s argument regarding society’s options for responding to climate change: it can suffer, manage it , or adapt to it. The same applies to the social media revolution and its impact on homeland security, he said.
Asked if attempting to manage the realm of social media is a viable option, Allen said, “Let’s ask President Mubarak.”
“There are going to be social behaviors that are produced via social media whether we are involved or not,” Allen said. “There is no barrier to entry. They are going to aggregate. So are we going to ignore that? If you could crowdsource in a business opportunity, why wouldn’t we think about crowdsource to see if there’s somebody sitting on a roof that needs to be taken off by helicopter? We’re stuck in a paradigm that we’ve got to get into a community network with long regulations that somebody’s monitoring to go get help. Well, that’s not the way people work.
“And you need to understand also that if you’re not putting information out there, everybody else will, whether it’s right or wrong,” Allen added. “I think we all know now that the duty for the veracity of the information on the Internet is decided by the reader. So if we don’t like what’s happening, we better put the right stuff out.”