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July 28, 2003

What the Joint Inquiry into 9/11's Report Says About Today's Needs

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The report of the Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001 describes a systematic failure of the United States intelligence community to respond to the then emerging terrorist threat.

While it offers no smoking gun, the report's main value is as a reminder of what the intelligence community needs to do to maximize its effectiveness in combating terrorism. The Bush Administration and Congress should heed the lessons ingrained in the Joint Inquiry's report and apply them to current debates about intelligence policy - as new programs are coming online, others are being developed and Congress considers the future of potentially valuable research and development efforts.

Intelligence Failures
The Joint Inquiry was formed by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in February 2002 to analyze what information related to the attack was available to the intelligence community prior to September 11, 2001, any systemic failures that resulted in lost opportunities and offer recommendations on improving community operations.

In compiling its report the Joint Inquiry reviewed relevant documents, held public and closed hearings and interviewed numerous members of the intelligence community.  Broadly, the Joint Inquiry found that the intelligence community had a significant amount of information related to the attacks, but it lacked specific information about the time, method or place. That said, the report did indicate that failures in intelligence community processes denied the federal government potential opportunities to stop the plot.

Select Findings
The Joint Inquiry divided its findings into three categories:

  1. Factual findings focused on the chronology of events leading to the attack.
  2. Systemic findings directed at specific points of failure.
  3. Other findings encompassed a variety of relevant, but indirectly related facts.

A number of these conclusions - particularly those covering the failures in the systems and operations of the intelligence community - offer important lessons for a variety of current policy debates. Specifically, the report found:

  • The intelligence community failed to capitalize on the United States' technological advantage. The Joint Inquiry found that the NSA failed to develop and utilize analytical tools for making sense of the vast amount of intelligence it collected. In fact, this forced some analysts to rely on manual methods, such as storing information in card files or translating by hand. Even at the FBI, which had replaced its written reports with the electronic Automated Case System in 1995, still required analysts to manually sift through electronic files to find information relevant to their investigation instead of having it automatically routed to them (in addition any information collected as a result of an investigation through the foreign intelligence surveillance act was not included in the system). This technological collapse was culminated in the failure to develop a single database for counterterrorism data.
  • Failure to bring data on terrorism from all sources into one central repository or to share relevant information with all agencies with a counterterrorism mission including those outside of the intelligence community. The report found that counterterrorism intelligence collected by the FBI was rarely transmitted to the CIA's Counterterrorism Center nor was the FBI able to reliably call on the CIA for assistance in counterterrorism investigations. Similarly, FBI agents working at the Counterterrorism Center were not given full access to information.

    In addition, collected data was not transformed into actionable information or preventive measures by other agencies. This failure is most vividly illustrated by the CIA's failure to put known terrorists on the State Department and other terrorist watch lists, which prevented the State Department from denying terrorists' visas or INS from refusing entry into the United States. In fact, the Joint Inquiry concluded that there was no system for putting suspected terrorists on a watch list, despite the importance of such tools in denying terrorists an opportunity to attack, survey or fundraise. Another example includes the FBI's failure to inform the FAA of its investigation into terrorist flight training despite the obvious relation to aviation.
  • The Joint Inquiry also found that the process the FBI relied on for obtaining warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (the body of law that governs the domestic investigation of agents of foreign governments and terrorist organizations on national security grounds) was hampered by an overly adversarial court and cumbersome processes, that required extraneous information and banned certain agents from appearing before it. Similarly, policy guidelines existing prior to 9/11 strove to separate foreign intelligence from domestic, which prevented the development of a coordinated counterterrorism effort.

Lessons & Solutions
The Bush Administration and Congress should heed the lessons ingrained in the Joint Inquiry's report and apply them to current debates about intelligence policy. Specifically, they should:

  • Continue to invest in the research and development of data-integration and data-mining technologies, including the Terrorism Information Awareness program.  The United States should not continue the trend of ignoring its technological advantage. Successfully implemented, data-integration and data-mining technology has the potential to solve a variety of problems in communication and analysis identified by the Joint Inquiry. Research such as that being conducted at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency can be used to integrate all federal terrorism databases into a virtual single database, ensure that analysts can find or receive necessary information in those databases, and replace inadequate watch lists, which are plagued by human error.

    Unfortunately, the United States Congress is on the verge of cutting off funding for this crucial area of research. The current version of the Defense Appropriations Bill (H.R. 2658), recently passed by the Senate, eliminates funding for Terrorism Information Awareness despite its early success in improving intelligence sharing within the Army's Intelligence and Security Command. In adding this provision the Senate ceded security to political correctness in a manner eerily reminiscent of the negligence of the pre-9/11 era. (For more on the Senate's flawed amendment see, Senate Should Restore TIA Funding by Paul Rosenzweig, Michael Scardaville and Ha Nguyen.)
  • Ensure that the CIA's new Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC) functions as an all-source intelligence fusion center.  On May 1, 2003 the CIA opened the TTIC as an interagency office dedicated to improving intelligence sharing. Unfortunately, this center is not providing the participating agencies with rapid access to all the raw intelligence collected by the intelligence community. If this trend continues communication failures are likely to persist. As a result, the President should direct the Director of Central Intelligence to use technology to ensure that all agencies represented at the TTIC have access to the full scope of intelligence related to international terrorism.
  • Define the Department of Homeland Security's role in the intelligence community.  When Congress passed the Homeland Security Act (P.L. 107-296) in November of 2002, it included an information analysis component, which it envisioned would function as an intelligence fusion center. Since the President established TTIC to fulfill this role, the exact purpose of the DHS's intelligence assets is unclear, a problem exacerbated by the slow pace of its construction. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge must more clearly define the purpose of his intelligence arm. Secretary Ridge should ensure that his intelligence assets have access to the all terrorism related intelligence, including raw data; have information systems capable of accessing and storing highly classified data; and have the ability to turn raw intelligence or analytical data into actionable information and preventive measures. In addition, this arm of the Department of Homeland Security should be responsible for ensuring local law enforcement and, through the infrastructure protection directorate, the private sector receive the information they need to guide their investments in security.
  • Increase oversight of FISA related powers enumerated in the USA Patriot Act. The USA Patriot Act should relieve many of the obstacles in the domestic intelligence process and in integrating foreign and domestic intelligence. However, without sufficient oversight and scrutiny it will be difficult to evaluate their impact and any necessary changes. As a result, Congress should commit itself to more closely following the FBI's implementation of the USA Patriot Act.

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