Editorial: Allies Keeping Allies in the Dark

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U.S.-led coalition forces have been fighting side by side in Afghanistan for a decade, and in Iraq since 2003. One would think that by now, America and its closest allies in those arenas would be routinely sharing the classified intelligence data that are so critical to effective coordinated operations. But according to senior U.S., British, Canadian and Australian military officers, that isn’t happening.

During a panel discussion at the recent Geoint 2011 conference in San Antonio, these officials said improvements in data sharing in the last two years are not enough to enable the coalition partners to fight as effectively as they could. The problem, they said, is that each nation has its own rules governing intelligence data, with standing restrictions against sharing with other nationalities. The U.S. military, which has access to the world’s most sophisticated collection platforms, typically needs to get permission from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency or National Security Agency to share data owned by those organizations.

Some officers have been forced to take matters into their own hands, circumventing the rules to share data at considerable risk to their careers.

This situation is completely unacceptable. Allied forces facing enemy bullets, mortars and bombs must not be further imperiled by bureaucratic inertia and rules that make no sense in a coalition environment.

As the coalition leader, the United States should take the lead and give intelligence data sharing authority to senior commanders in the field, something that likely can be accomplished via agreement among Pentagon and intelligence community leaders. These camps have had their past differences on policy matters, but this is one area where none should exist. U.S. allies could follow suit by redrawing their own data sharing restrictions so as not to exclude allied forces based on nationality alone; data could instead be restricted to forces involved in a particular military operation.

It does not matter that operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are slated to wind down. It is never too late — or too early, for that matter — to eliminate stovepipes that are unnecessarily tying the hands of allied forces.