Information-sharing guru becomes chief leak plugger

December 2, 2010

The U.S. government’s man in charge of efforts to plug future WikiLeaks-style mega-dumps of government secrets is a veteran intelligence officer who previously spent years trying to figure out how government agencies could more widely share sensitive information.

Earlier this week, Russell Travers moved to the White House, where he will head an interagency committee assigned to assess the damage caused by recent WikiLeaks exposures and come up with ways to prevent future large-scale leaks. AUSTRALIA-WATER/

Travers’ previous assignment was as a senior official of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), a branch of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) which was set up after 9/11 to ensure that government agencies did more to share sensitive intelligence on terror suspects amongst themselves – an assignment which makes him one of the government’s foremost experts on sharing classified information.

While there are still mysteries surrounding WikiLeaks’ activities and its sources, the available evidence suggests that one of the reasons that the whistleblowing website was able to get hold of so many U.S. government secrets was that since 9/11, such secrets had been much more widely shared between government agencies.

One early result of post-9/11 intelligence reforms was the establishment of an interagency unit called the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC), whose first chief was veteran CIA officer John Brennan, who now serves as top White House counterterrorism adviser to President Barack Obama.  Brennan brought in Travers, a veteran Defense intelligence official, to help him sort out the information sharing problems.

TTIC later morphed into the NCTC, which became part of ODNI after Congress created the “intelligence czar” post.

Before the White House tapped him to take charge of the government’s response to WikiLeaks, Travers was deputy director in charge of TIDE, a classified NCTC database containing the government’s most comprehensive collection of information on potential terrorists.

Not every aspect of information sharing from this database has worked perfectly. The issue resurfaced with a vengeance in the wake of the attempted bombing last Christmas Day of a U.S. bound airliner by a Nigerian man who had stashed explosives in his underpants.

It turned out that a few weeks earlier, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s father had visited the American Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, where he expressed concern to officials, including a CIA representative, that his son might have hooked up with Islamic extremists in Yemen.

The father’s report was entered in TIDE. But analysts deemed the information insufficiently alarming to cause Abdulmutallab’s name to be included on a “no fly list” which would have stopped him from boarding the plane.  After the attempted bombing, intelligence officials discovered other clues among masses of secret intelligence which might have fingered Abdulmutallab as a suspect.

Travers was summoned to testify before Congress about information sharing problems discovered in the wake of the Christmas Day near-miss. He insisted to a Senate committee that the incident did “not raise major information sharing issues” since “key derogatory information (on Abdulmutallab) was widely shared across the U.S. Counterterrorism Community.” But he acknowledged that “The ‘dots’ simply were not connected.”

In his new post, while brainstorming ways to plug leaks, Travers will now have to use his expertise in information sharing to try to figure out just how much sharing is too much.

CORRECTS: Travers testimony to Senate committee instead of House.

Photo credit: Reuters/Will Burgess (tap drips water as it leaks in Sydney)

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