Multiple law enforcement and intelligence agencies try to keep tabs on foreigners who could pose a national security threat if they enter the United States, but they have often struggled to provide timely information to the people vetting these travelers until the individuals already had arrived in the country.
Lori Vislocky, 35, has helped solve this problem by replacing a decentralized and ad hoc set of processes with an integrated vetting system that delivers classified and sensitive information to security screeners who need it, automatically flagging individuals who may pose a threat to national security, prior to their travel.
“She’s built an enduring capability that’s going to provide for the security of the nation,” said Paul Good, chief of the Mission Innovation Group at the National Counterterrorism Center.
Vislocky, the technical director of the government’s new National Vetting Center, led the design and implementation of a classified information technology system, which was created in response to a 2018 presidential memorandum. The new system obtains and compares a wide array of law enforcement and intelligence information regarding potential travelers to the U.S. so screeners can vet them within hours, if not minutes.
The old system took weeks—sometimes months—and followed no consistent timetable or method for delivery.
Customs and Border Protection, the first agency to use the National Vetting Center, now can quickly identify individuals who apply for admission under the Visa Waiver Program and reject or flag those who pose a national security risk,
In the past, information about travelers and applicants often would come through antiquated, unreliable channels such as spreadsheet attachments in emails or, “in some cases, old-fashioned floppy discs that were moved in batches 30 days after the fact,” said Ben Stefano, the DHS chief data and analytics officer.
What Vislocky and her team did for national security, on a limited budget and in less than a year from concept to execution, was “groundbreaking and revolutionary,” said Melissa Smislova, the acting DHS undersecretary for intelligence and analysis.
The government’s challenge was ambitious because of the sheer number of people it must screen. Prior to the COVID-19 slowdown, more than 40,000 applicants a day—about 14 million per year—came from countries with agreements with the U.S. that allow travel without a visa.
Under the presidential order, DHS had to design and operationalize a system enabling screening “with a very short turnaround, worldwide,” said Monte Hawkins, director of the National Vetting Center. “The system had to be built from scratch. Lori was able to bring this together in such a way that this process can occur 40,000 times a day without failure,” he said.
Vislocky’s feat was all the more remarkable because she had to build consensus among multiple agencies unaccustomed to working with one another, while meeting the needs of security screeners. She also had to protect the privacy and civil liberties of the individuals whose information is evaluated.
Her efforts continue to bear fruit, as more agencies are now lining up to receive support from the National Vetting Center, including the Department of State and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“There were obstacles with the oversight offices that didn’t believe the data would be protected. There were obstacles with the operators who didn’t want to share, or they thought someone was stealing their data,” Smislova said. “Lori kept her eye on the mission and methodically and persistently kept moving forward.”
Vislocky’s colleagues said she brought a combination of policy and technical skills to the job, and an ability to sit down with the operators, the lawyers and the privacy professionals, and speak to each of them in their own language.
Vislocky previously worked as a DHS intelligence analyst where she specialized in al-Qaeda and Pakistan-based militant groups, regularly authoring intelligence assessments for the President’s Daily Brief. In 2014, she combined her analytic and technical training to help DHS establish the department’s top-secret level cloud computing environment.
Vislocky admits she suffered from “imposter syndrome” when the National Vetting Center project was launched.
“Being on the younger side and a female in technology, I was sometimes going to those meetings feeling a little nervous about people taking me seriously,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be a part of this. It can help improve our national security landscape; it can help transform how we do our business by doing it more effectively, more efficiently and at a lower cost over time.”
Vislocky overcame those worries, eagerly seeking the challenge and adopting the philosophy of “running toward” and not away from the fire “because I want to be where the action is and where the work is really needed.”