May 28, 2002 | WebMemo on Department of Homeland Security

Let Congress Do Its Job and Protect the American People

This week, Democrats, along with some Republicans on Capitol Hill, called for an independent special commission of bipartisan specialists to investigate the administration's handling of intelligence warnings administered prior to September 11. It would be a serious error to create a committee of this nature. President Bush was correct in insisting that the House and Senate Select Intelligence Committees examine any breakdown in the intelligence community leading up to September 11.

A special commission needlessly duplicates the role of the existing congressional intelligence committees and undermines the legitimacy of the committee structure. An investigation of this magnitude undeniably falls under the jurisdiction of the Intelligence Committees. The delicate nature of such an investigation requires appropriate experience and knowledge in handling classified documents as well as protecting the individuals responsible for collecting intelligence. Creating a special commission will only serve to create a politically motivated witch-hunt and monopolize valuable resources and time of decision makers who need to be free to address future attacks because the U.S. remains vulnerable to terrorist threats.

By allowing the investigation to continue under the guidance of the Intelligence Committees, bipartisan specialists familiar with intelligence gathering can quickly address the problem and adopt a solution, drafting new legislation if required and appropriating any necessary funds. Members of the Intelligence Committees will have open access to classified documents that outline the events leading up to September 11, access not readily available to an ad hoc independent commission, nor should it be.

The fact that an intelligence failure occurred surrounding the events of September 11 and that the problem existed prior to 9/11 is undisputed. Change is needed in the intelligence community, and fast. This is a problem that has needed to be addressed for quite some time. The problems in the intelligence community did not occur overnight, nor was this the first time information did not make its way into the appropriate hands. Each agency insists on maintaining its own narrow "stovepipe" of information.

In the past week criticism has been focused largely on the inability of the White House to interpret isolated pieces of information to predict the attacks. However, even if specific information were readily available, an accurate assessment of a terrorist threat would not be possible because agencies within the intelligence community do not share existing information across departmental and agency boundaries.

These breakdowns in intelligence reinforce the need for an intelligence fusion center, operated in a cooperative effort by all U.S. government agencies with an interest in counterterrorism. An all-source intelligence fusion center will have the capability to query and collate intelligence information from all U.S. government agencies. Such a fusion center should be run by the Department of Justice, but should operate under the guidance of the Homeland Security Director in his assigned role to "identify priorities and coordinate efforts for collection and analysis of information."

On a daily basis, intelligence analysts are flooded with fragments of information and left to unscramble the hidden meaning like a puzzle. Furthermore, they remain isolated from each other and the valuable information that other intelligence and law enforcement agencies might provide. The end result is a hodgepodge of information advanced to the highest authority without being collated.

To protect the American people the Congress should create a centralized intelligence fusion center that can use advanced data-mining technology to check and collate all federal and public information.

Larry M. Wortzel. Ph.D. is Director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Larry M. Wortzel, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy