Calling it an immediate “critical mission need,” the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is performing classified queries on its unclassified data to identify individuals supporting the terrorist activities of the Islamist jihadi organizations, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Al Nusrah Front and affiliated offshoots of these groups or individuals seeking to join jihad in Syria and Iraq.
DHS is sort of under the gun, you could say. With the FBI admitting it has terrorism investigations underway in 50 states, and attacks thwarted in recent months by numerous US residents and citizens who’d returned to the US who fought jihad in Syria and Iraq, the jihadi threat on US soil has increased exponentially.
“The ability to perform classified searches of unclassified data for this uniquely time sensitive purpose will allow DHS to better identify and track foreign fighters who may seek to travel from, to, or through the United States,” the department stated in the required Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) to explain its plan to expedite DHS’s ability to meet this “critical mission need through the use of an interim manual data transfer process.”
Saying the critical mission requires immediate “Discrete Counterterrorism Analysis and Risk Assessments,” DHS said it “needs to be able to perform classified searches of its unclassified data to better identify and track foreign fighters supporting these groups. These foreign fighters may transit from or through the United States, or they may seek to travel to the United States to participate in or support an attack on the United States or its allies.”
Specifically, DHS said its Intelligence & Analysis office will be comparing classified data against unclassified Customs and Border Protection data to identify individuals supporting the terrorist activities of ISIL, AQAP, Al Nusrah Front, affiliated offshoots of these groups or individuals seeking to join the Syria-Iraq conflict.”
Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis Francis Taylor told Congress in February that, “For some time, the US government, including [DHS], has been concerned that terrorist groups operating in permissive environments present a significant security threat to the United States and to our allies. Events in Australia, Canada and, most recently, in France and Belgium underscore that the foreign fighter threat is no longer a problem restricted to foreign conflict zones such as those in northern Syria or western Iraq. [ISIL] and other like-minded terrorist organizations have been effective in recruiting fighters from Western countries, as well as recruiting individuals for violent action at home for those who cannot travel to conflict zones.”
Taylor stressed, “The threat is real, it continues to evolve, and it is a present danger to everyone across the globe. It includes people radicalized to violence overseas, or potentially here in the United States. At present, we are unaware of any specific, credible, imminent threat to the homeland; however, recent events have demonstrated the need for increased vigilance both at home and abroad.”
DHS said the information “comparison” it’s performing “is a long-standing mission need; however, the specific threat has shortened the timeframe in which DHS must meet the need.”
And, “To meet this critical mission need, DHS will adopt an interim process that foregoes many of the automated protections of the DHS Data Framework, such as the tagging of necessary data sets in the unclassified data lake. By foregoing these automated protections, DHS will be able to expedite transfers of information from the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS), Form I-94 records and Passenger Name Records (PNR) directly from the unclassified DHS domain to the classified DHS domain through a manual process.”
The DHS Data Framework (“Data Framework” or “Framework”) is DHS’s “big data” solution to incorporate privacy protections while enabling more controlled, effective and efficient use of DHS data within DHS and with other US government partners as appropriate.
“Although the interim process deviates from the standard model of the Data Framework, [it’s] pursuing this process under the auspices of the Data Framework in order to utilize aspects of the framework’s policies, governance and transparency,” DHS said.
“Moreover,” the DHS PIA said, “the interim solution will only continue until the standard model is capable of meeting the mission need,” noting that “DHS remains committed to the standard model of the Data Framework for meeting DHS’s mission needs in the long-term,” and that the department will revert to the standard model once the technical capabilities are available.
“Consequently, regular development on the framework will continue and will not be affected by the use of the interim process,” DHS explained.
“Expediting the ability to perform classified searches of DHS’s unclassified data sets supports DHS’s efforts to counter the threat posed by foreign fighters by allowing DHS to use the information it receives from US government or foreign government partners—much of which may be classified—to identify high risk individuals traveling to, through or from the United States,” the department stated, noting that, “These high risk travelers may be the subject of intelligence analysis at DHS; be the subject of a referral to another agency for appropriate action (e.g., to the Department of State for visa revocation); have an application to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization denied; or may be referred for additional scrutiny(e.g., secondary inspection) when they travel to, through or from the United States.”