Terrorism: Improving Intelligence, Undermining Response

Sept. 23, 2004
As I put together our latest issue of Homeland Response, the 9/11 Commission report and a warning about potential Al-Qaeda attacks on five U.S. financial

As I put together our latest issue of Homeland Response, the 9/11 Commission report and a warning about potential Al-Qaeda attacks on five U.S. financial institutions dominate the news.

The 9/11 Commission completed its report with plenty of blame to pass around to the Clinton and Bush administrations. It was also critical of the intelligence services.

The FBI reined in aggressive agents and could not find two hijackers, Khalid Al-Midhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, even though Alhazmi was listed in the San Diego telephone directory and Midhar used a credit card in his own name. The CIA, meanwhile, could not penetrate Al-Qaeda and withheld information. No one told the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to put terrorists on a no-fly list.

No agency made terrorism a priority. With no reward for pursuing terrorists, managers did not take risks and spend resources to run down often fruitless leads.

Because they saw only part of the picture, agencies often ignored valuable leads. In April 2000, for example, Niaz Khan walked into an FBI office and announced he was an Al-Qaeda member sent here to hijack a jet. The FBI didn't believe him. But it might have if the CIA had shared details about Al-Qaeda's plans. The National Security Agency intercepted calls from Al-Qaeda to one hijacker but never knew he was in our country. Perhaps the FBI could have told it.

The evidence was all there to thwart the 9/11 attacks before they happened, but it was scattered in different offices and agencies around the country. The 9/11 Commission's recommendations address that problem, recommending a center to focus on terrorism and building computer systems to share data among government agencies. As we report in this issue, biometrics may play an important role in future computer databases.

The commission also seeks a White House staff intelligence czar with the budgetary power to force agencies to cooperate. The Bush administration, which at first opposed the reorganization, now supports an intelligence chief but without budgetary power. Without real power, though, the position is just another layer of bureaucracy.

The other big news burst on August 1, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warned that Al-Qaeda had cased five financial institutions for potential attacks. The warning was specific, detailed and terrifying because it was based on computer files captured in Pakistan only 2 weeks earlier.

The announcement galvanized New York City, where three of the buildings are located. People showed up at work alert and resolved not to give into fear.

Then more news began to trickle out. DHS had failed to note that the files were at least 3 years old. Only one picture in one file had been updated or accessed since before 9/11. Democrats shouted that the emergency had been timed to shift attention from their nominating convention. They pointed to DHS Secretary Tom Ridge's gratuitous praise of President Bush during the threat announcement. Skeptics noted that many DHS alerts have come at politically expedient moments.

Resolve changed to confusion. People did not know what to think, and why should they? They were not told the full truth, and the missing information was very important. Ridge's decision to play the moment for political gain only served to raise more questions about the nature and timing of the warning.

I do not want to believe that anyone would manipulate terror alerts for political gain. But DHS cannot afford to provide anything less than an unbiased and complete assessment. It must disclose all, not just some, of the facts. It must honestly admit what it does not know. And it should never grandstand about terror. Otherwise, people will stop taking terror alerts seriously.

Ironic, isn't it? Just as the 9/11 Commission is illuminating how to better assess intelligence about terrorism, we're undermining our ability to respond to such improved information.

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