May 24, 2002 | Commentary on Department of Homeland Security

Getting the Whole Picture

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 schools.

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 for terrorists?

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 security information."

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 committed.

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 thousands.

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.

About the Author

Michael Scardaville Policy Analyst
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy