Senators call for more efforts in anti-terror tech

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), describing the federal government as "woefully behind" in technology to fight terrorism, is calling for a new Manhattan Project to spur innovation.

"It is incredible to me how far behind we were" on Sept. 11, 2001, he said during the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearing today on a report by an independent commission investigating the terrorist attacks.

"You must have seen this as you looked at the antiquated computer system of the FBI, for example, incapable of word search, incapable of e-mail, incapable of access to the Internet, incapable of sending photographs over their computer system," Durbin said, noting that photographs of the hijackers had to be sent by overnight express to the regional offices of the FBI.

For example, he said, an effort in 1999 sought to get the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service — which has since been divided into three agencies and moved into the Homeland Security Department — to share fingerprints of suspicious people. But an inspector general's report states that such an effort would take several years to complete.

"The inspector general told us last year [that] he thought that by the year 2008, they would be capable of doing that, a mere nine years after identifying this priority" Durbin said. "So understand my skepticism when you start talking about biometric screening."

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, better known as the 9-11 Commission, released its final report last week. In it, the commission calls for greater information sharing among federal, state and local agencies; better transportation security technologies; and use of biometric identifiers at border crossings and elsewhere.

Durbin said officials should consider an example of President Franklin Roosevelt set during World War II, when he assembled experts from government, industry and academia for the Manhattan Project, a secret project to develop the nation's first atomic bomb. They did that in 1,000 days, he said.

"We are now 1,053 days after [Sept. 11] and we have to ask ourselves, 'Where is the Manhattan Project in technology for our government?'" he said. "It's something I've been preaching on here in this committee with little or no success. There's bureaucracy fighting me off: 'Please stay out of this. We do this ourselves.' And yet the reality of sharing fingerprints and even envisioning biometric screening says to me that we need to be as bold in our thinking as Franklin Roosevelt was about the atomic bombs when it comes to the technology to fight this war on terrorism."

Lee Hamilton, vice chairman of the commission, who testified along with Chairman Tom Kean today, said Durbin's fingerprint example is a classic illustration of what's wrong in the federal government.

"How do you deal with that?" Kean asked. "Well, you have to make these agencies share their information across agency lines. And you can only do that if you have an integrated technology system."

He also said that a national director of intelligence — a position the commission recommended — would oversee the entire federal intelligence community, be housed in the White House, and speak with the authority of the president and the ability to establish information technology policy.

"If you got him stuck out here somewhere in centerfield, he's not going to have the authority," Kean said.

After the hearing, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) said he agreed with Durbin's assessment about the need for better and more innovative technology.

"Modern [IT] gives us access to enormous amounts of information, but we haven't figured how to process it, cull from it what's most important and instantly share it," he said. "Part of that is the tech. Part of that is the attitude."

He said the report makes a strong point that we have to go from "a Cold War model, which was you only share on a need-to-know basis, to the war on terrorism model, which is a need-to-share basis. The burden has to be on anyone who'd say, 'I can't share this,' and there's still too much of that going on."

The committee is holding a series of hearings on the commission's recommendations during the summer recess, when Congress generally doesn't meet. Several House committees are also scheduling hearings on the recommendations.


  • Workforce
    Shutterstock image 1658927440 By Deliris masks in office coronavirus covid19

    White House orders federal contractors vaccinated by Dec. 8

    New COVID-19 guidance directs federal contractors and subcontractors to make sure their employees are vaccinated — the latest in a series of new vaccine requirements the White House has been rolling out in recent weeks.

  • FCW Perspectives
    remote workers (elenabsl/

    Post-pandemic IT leadership

    The rush to maximum telework did more than showcase the importance of IT -- it also forced them to rethink their own operations.

Stay Connected