May 24, 2002 | Commentary on Department of Homeland Security
Last summer, an FBI agent in Phoenix alerted FBI headquarters
that Osama bin Laden may have sent terrorists to American flight
schools and recommended the agency investigate the visa
applications of foreign students seeking to study at flight
At about the same time, an FBI agent investigating accused "20th
hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui in Minneapolis noted that Moussaoui
had requested jet aircraft simulator training for John F. Kennedy
International Airport in New York, possibly with an eye toward
crashing an airliner into the World Trade Center.
Could the tragedies of Sept. 11 have been prevented if the two
FBI agents had talked? What if they'd compared notes with CIA
agents who heard from foreign intelligence sources that bin Laden
was planning conventional hijackings? What if the agent in
Minneapolis had known the CIA had added Moussaoui to its watch list
It's possible the attacks couldn't have been prevented under any
circumstances. But perhaps they could have. Perhaps Ziad Jarrah,
already on a terrorist watch list not made available to local or
state police, would have been detained and questioned instead of
issued a $270 ticket and released when he was stopped for speeding
on a Maryland highway two days before the attacks. If so, he
wouldn't have been on hand to pilot the plane that crashed into the
countryside in Pennsylvania.
Either way, it's like the warden said in the movie "Cool Hand
Luke": "What we have here is a failure to communicate."
FBI Director Robert Mueller took a step toward solving the
problem when he announced plans to build a new Office of
Intelligence, one with "strategic analysis capability … and
[the] capacity to gather, analyze and share critical national
We have plenty of people to analyze information now. What we
need are people who can see all pieces of the puzzle, identify
what's important and inform those who need to know.
We need all the various government agencies, from the FBI, the
CIA and the Drug Enforcement Administration to the Centers for
Disease Control, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the
Coast Guard -- all of which either fight terrorism or respond to it
-- to step forward and cooperate.
We need the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to be able to
determine if anyone seeking to board an airplane has been
identified as a potential terrorist. We need our embassy staff in
Yemen to be able to find out if someone applying for a visa to
enter the United States has links to terrorism.
But this sounds simpler than it is. The CIA and the Defense
Intelligence Agency, for instance, gather information by whatever
means necessary, from wiretaps not necessarily approved by judges
to aggressive interrogation by foreign intelligence services. But
they can't spy on U.S. citizens, and their information often can't
be disclosed in open court for fear of compromising informants or
revealing how the information was acquired.
Conversely, the FBI and other agencies gather information to
further criminal prosecutions, which means they compile proof for
the express purpose of presenting it in open court -- and they
typically don't start to investigate until a crime has been
But difficulties between the two means of acquiring information
have been worked out in cases involving spies, and they must be
worked out now to stop terrorists.
Today, the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) operates what
passes for America's version of "intelligence fusion." But when The
Heritage Foundation assembled its Homeland Security Task Force
immediately after Sept. 11, nearly every expert declared this
arrangement unsatisfactory and recommended a more muscular fusion
center be assembled -- and quickly.
Will there be another Sept. 11-style attack? Mueller has warned
Americas to look out for suicide bombers. Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld told soldiers in Afghanistan recently that the next attack
could result in tens of thousands of deaths, if not hundreds of
Vice President Richard Cheney says additional terrorist strikes
are simply a matter of when, not if. Which means the matter of
assembling an intelligence fusion center also should be a question
of when. And the "when" should be now.
Michael Scardaville is a policy analyst in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.