September 11, 2002 | Commentary on Department of Homeland Security

ed091102: Unfiltered Intelligence

Who knows more about the latest Hollywood blockbuster -- the people who read the reviews or the people who see the movie?

The second group, obviously. The others must depend on the reviewer, who decides what's worth going to see and what isn't. Second-hand information is never as good as first-hand information.

Yet second-hand information is all the forthcoming Department of Homeland Security would have to go on if some federal lawmakers have their way. The legislation being considered by Congress would let each intelligence agency decide what information is important enough to forward to the department -- and what it can keep for itself.

Such an arrangement would leave all of us pretty much at the mercy of the same intelligence-sharing snafus that left the government unable to "connect the dots" that pointed to the Sept. 11 attacks. The new department would be dependent on whole-hearted cooperation and voluntary openness from agencies that are legendary for their refusal to share data and analysis with others.

But the intelligence section of the new department can't function effectively without being able to dip into the raw intelligence information gathered by investigative agencies. This would allow department analysts to follow up on "curiosities" (such as a sudden flood of foreign visitors with an unusual interest in flying lessons), piece the information together and make independent judgments about it.

We're not talking about inundating the Department of Homeland Security with every report ever filed by every intelligence and law enforcement agency in the country. We're talking about enabling department analysts to pursue shadowy images of threat -- glimpsed dimly from reports submitted by others -- by going back to the original data files and seeing if they contain more information that can flesh out the threat or, perhaps, dispel it.

Therein lies a crucial weakness in the House and Senate homeland security bills. Without access to the raw intelligence in government databases, analysts in the department would remain dependent on others' judgment of what they "need to know." They would never gain access to all relevant information -- the very situation that reigned in the American intelligence community on Sept. 11.

We need to remember that information about many of the Sept. 11 terrorists and their movements existed in federal databases before that tragic day. But these databases weren't linked in any way, so the fact that we possessed such information didn't do us much good when we needed it most -- before an attack was launched.

Five of the attackers were on the watch lists of different federal agencies, and three of that five were on a CIA watch list. But who was watching them on Sept. 11? Three of the 13 who were in the United States on visitors' visas had seen their visas expire. Would this situation have gone unresolved for so long if one department charged solely with homeland security were aware of it? Perhaps, but surely we would have a much greater chance of preventing terrorist attacks if crucial information of this sort wasn't splintered among dozens of federal agencies.

The Department of Homeland Security needs more than just access to raw intelligence and law enforcement data, however. The new secretary should be allowed to draw analysts from the existing agencies so that he or she can take advantage of their different skills and knowledge.

The department also must be able to access other government databases, such as those at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the Bureau of Consular Affairs, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It can then "fuse" that information in a way that isn't being done today by any of the nation's intelligence or law enforcement agencies. And if we use special computer programs that can sift through information at high speed, we can speed up this process significantly.

As the department's analysts gain experience, their ability to "fuse" this information for those entrusted with our homeland security can only improve -- giving us what may turn out to be a crucial advantage over terrorists who would attack us in the future.

Unless we give the new department the ability to access and analyze raw intelligence data, we'll be no better off in the future than we were on Sept. 11. And wasn't that the point?

Dr, Larry M. Wortzel, a retired career Army intelligence officer, serves on the Homeland Security Task Force at The Heritage Foundation.

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