9-11 panel told of IT failures, hopes

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States

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Although information technology did not take center stage during last week's 9-11 Commission hearings, it emerged as a bridge between intelligence failures of the past and anti-terrorism efforts of the present and future.

Before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the FBI lacked the proper technology to compile case information, and the intelligence community was not well suited to communicate, officials testified before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, which is known as the 9-11 Commission.

Technology improvements in the past few years have become a cornerstone of improving law enforcement and intelligence activities to manage future terrorism threats, they said.

"It was clear as of Sept. 11, 2001, however, that we needed an integrated IT infrastructure to manage our information," FBI Director Robert Mueller said in a statement before the panel. Since the attacks, the FBI has invested in skilled employees and robust applications, which "are enhancing our ability to collect, store, search, analyze and share information," he added.

One point of contention has been the Aug. 6, 2001, President's Daily Briefing (PDB), a memo that warned of potential terrorist threats in the United States. Technology was a sideshow during these debates. But perhaps Bush administration officials would have reacted differently if they had seen a complete picture, witnesses testified.

As the commission scrutinizes what went wrong with U.S. intelligence capabilities before Sept. 11, 2001, technology has emerged as an underlying necessity for sharing intelligence information and preventing attacks, said Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post investigative reporter and author of several books on the FBI and the CIA.

"It's critical," Kessler said. "There has been so much [attention] on meetings and the PDB, but the real way to look at it is how to get all these dots together. [Technology] would not have prevented [the terrorist attacks], but if [the information] was brought together, they could have ratcheted up concern and opened more investigations."

The Terrorist Threat Integration Center was created nearly a year ago to do just that. Using integrated databases and search tools, intelligence analysts from several agencies can make sure the right information is in the right hands, TTIC Director John Brennan testified.

TTIC analysts have direct access to 14 government networks, and officials plan to add 10 more networks, Brennan said. During the next year, officials will build the technology infrastructure for faster search capabilities.

"A key objective of TTIC is to develop an integrated information technology architecture so that sophisticated analytical tools and search capabilities can be applied to the many terabytes of data available to the federal government," Brennan said. "We need to create new knowledge from existing information."

Kevin O'Connell, director of the Intelligence Policy Center in the National Security Research Division of Rand Corp., cautioned that the strong technology component in the U.S. intelligence community should support human information gathering. There should be an equal focus on processing the data as there is on collecting it, he said.

"People are still at the core of the intelligence business, and technology needs to help them," O'Connell said. "We need all of it employed creatively in a way that continues to gives us an intelligence advantage over our adversaries."

O'Connell said potential terrorists likely have similar technology capabilities, and the U.S. intelligence community's advantage lies in how the analysts use and share this information. It's not as easy as merging databases, he said, because the law enforcement and intelligence communities often approach the information differently.

"There are a number of ways to [achieve] better intelligence sharing," he said. "What is yet to be understood is the analytic issues associated with data shared. Even if we share better, there are still going to be nuances in that interaction."

Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said technology didn't get enough attention in the commission's discussions. Officials should be working on how to use technology to better link analysts rather than debate if the president received a certain memo or whether to create a separate agency for domestic intelligence, which is one option under consideration.

"The president, the attorney general [and] the director of the FBI are not going to prevent a single attack," Dempsey said. "You've got to promote information sharing at the operational level, and the technology can do that."

To some extent, TTIC might even be impeding that information sharing, he said, because the information seems to flow upward to intelligence chiefs and the president rather than out to analysts in the field. "That's where the technology can help," he said. "We're not there yet."

Inadequate technology at the FBI before the attacks also took center stage as former officials detailed the years that elapsed with little attention to upgrades. Kessler said the culture dates to 1993 when former director Louis Freeh came on board and removed the computer from his desk.

"The first thing he did was tell the FBI to take the computer off his desk and stash it somewhere," Kessler said. "It just got worse and worse."

Freeh told the commission that he continually asked for IT funding, but Congress and FBI officials were unable to agree on funding plans. Congressional spending restrictions held up the FBI's efforts to upgrade basic technology needs, he said.

In 2000, Freeh hired IBM Corp. executive Robert Dies as assistant director for the FBI's Information Resources Division to help develop the Trilogy modernization program. When it is completed this summer, the program will update the bureau's outdated technology. "Dies told us that, given the enormity of the task at hand, his goal was merely to 'get the car out of the ditch,'" the commission staff said.

For Wayne Crews, director of technology policy at the Cato Institute, the recognition of technology's role in counterterrorism will continue to take on new dimensions as the government's capabilities grow.

The emergence of programs for data mining and airline passenger screening spurs debate on privacy and security, he said. These debates will continue as federal officials decide how to use technology to protect against terrorism while avoiding possible infringements of civil liberties, Crews said.

"So far, the terrorist attacks have taken place in the physical world, and now the question is [if] technology is putting us at even more risk. Are physical things too dependent on technology?" he asked.

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