July 15, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Getting Smart on Intelligence

With the partisan rancor that sometimes crept into the hearings held by the 9/11 commission, many expect reaction to its final report to make for great political theater.

But the nation doesn't need more fodder for cable news debates. It needs a blueprint for making us safer. A helpful report would listen closely to evidence presented and offer four critical recommendations.

1) Fix the national intelligence system. Even before the World Trade Center and Pentagon fires burned out, Congress and the Bush administration realized we might have prevented the attacks if our intelligence agencies had been better linked. Policymakers began to consider how best to accomplish this. That's one of the reasons we now have a Department of Homeland Security, with its Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate. In addition, the president established the Terrorist Threat Integration Center and the Terrorist Screening Center, responsible for integrating various terror watch lists.

But more needs to be done. Some lawmakers have suggested Congress amend the National Security Act of 1947 to create a director of national intelligence who would be the president's principal advisor on intelligence and have oversight responsibilities for the entire intelligence community. The 9/11 Commission should embrace this recommendation and push for consolidating the agencies mentioned above and putting them under the oversight of Homeland Security. This would make DHS the center of domestic intelligence.

2.) Be "patriotic." The PATRIOT Act, most notably, brought down the "wall" between intelligence and domestic law enforcement. This wall served a laudable and noble purpose before the day of the transnational terrorist: to keep the FBI and other agencies from spying on Americans. Today, though, the PATRIOT Act is an effective tool in the hands of those who seek only to keep terrorists at bay. Even the American Civil Liberties Union concedes that not one person has reported a government abuse of the act.

Several key provisions of the act are set to expire in 2005. Given that it works -- people from the left and right have praised its effectiveness -- and hasn't led to abuse, Congress should re-authorize those provisions and keep the safeguards and strong criminal and civil penalties for misuse.

3.) Use technology to protect rights and people. One constant theme the commission addressed was the inability of law enforcement to "connect the dots." We can do better. Today, it is nearly impossible to live one's life without leaving an electronic trail of transactions, banking records, etc. We have no reason to follow this trail for law-abiding citizens or even run-of-the-mill criminals. But this trail could hold the key to identifying terrorists and using those IDs to spark closer investigations.

The commission should endorse the use of information technologies that enable this sort of inquiry. It should be used only to establish patterns that a Senate-confirmed official would then use to urge further investigation. Further, it should protect private personal data to the maximum extent possible, provide information that can lead only to further investigation and provide strict oversight procedures and severe penalties for misuse.

4.) Congress, reform thyself. Congress has yet to establish a system of its own for overseeing anti-terrorism. Rather than the mishmash of committees with jurisdiction over various aspects of counter-terrorism and homeland security, the commission should suggest both houses establish standing committees to oversee homeland security, border security and counter-terrorism.

The 9/11 Commission has worked diligently. It has seen, in the words of its members, every document it has asked for. It has interviewed everyone from the general public to President Bush. It has the information to make homeland security work in America without forfeiting civil liberties. It's time to put that information to good use.

James Jay Carafano, a 25-year veteran of the armed forces, is a senior research fellow in defense at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org). Paul Rosenzweig, a senior legal research Fellow in Heritage's Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, is an adjunct professor of law at George Mason University.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

Paul Rosenzweig
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire