SALT LAKE CITY — Why is the government of the most technologically advanced nation in the world lagging in its computer technology to catch threatening terrorists?
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III tells us his agency is hopelessly behind the times in its communications technology and it will be two or three years before it will be at cutting edge. Unfortunately, that may be after the next major terrorist attack.
Other federal agencies like the Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service are striving to replace their ineffective computer systems, but experts say it could take them five to 10 years.
Such torpor would not be tolerated in the fast-moving private sector, where systems development is measured in weeks and months, not years.
Is it not reasonable to recruit some of the private sector's technology geniuses to slice through this bureaucratic inertia and build an effective defensive computer network with wartime urgency? Are there not dollar-a-year patriots from Silicon Valley who would give the government a year of their time to fix the system? Bill Gates, where are you when your country needs you?
What the US seems to need is a quick, innovative, six-month fix to build a stopgap shield against terrorists.
Intriguingly, a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) task force, chaired by Richard Holbrooke and Carla Hills, has just researched a plan to implement such a program.
The task force offers this illustration of the present danger:
A merchant ship with a shadowy record in the Persian Gulf is due to arrive in a US port on the same day as a tanker filled with highly volatile material (say liquid natural gas). Some crew members with links to Islamic extremist organizations are on a CIA watch list. The shipping agent forwards a manifest whose contents do not square with the home port or recent ports of call.
Under the present system of inter-agency communication, none of these red flags would pop up in more than one US agency. The Coast Guard might have some basic data about the merchant ship and the tanker. The Customs Service might know something about the cargo manifest, but only when the ship reached port. The Immigration and Naturalization Service might know nothing about the crew, except the names offered. None of the frontline inspectors in any of these agencies would have access to intelligence from the FBI or CIA. These agencies operate with different systems that do not talk to each other. There is no integrated information system that could spot a suspect pattern and issue an alert.
These fragmented systems, says the CFR task force, are the legacy of an open economy and naive assumptions about US immunity to terrorism on its own soil. In 2000, the year before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, 489 million people, 127 million vehicles, 11.6 million maritime containers, 11.5 million trucks, 2.2 million railroad cars, 829,000 planes and 211,000 vessels passed through US border inspection systems. The State Department issued 100,000 temporary work visas and 280,000 student visas. Between 7 and 8 million illegal immigrants are currently in the US, half of whom have overstayed their tourist or student visas.
Says the CFR task force: "The intelligence systems that are supposed to track these border activities have been patched together over time, hosted on creaky systems, and are gradually running out of steam." Plans to upgrade them are bedeviled by bureaucratic infighting and congressional foot-dragging.
I don't pretend to understand the technological ramifications of the CFR plan to plug the technology gap. But I am impressed by the list of technology companies, academics, and other experts who worked on it. They say the counterterrorism plan, drawing heavily on volunteers and donated services from the private sector, could be in place in six months for a total cost of $25-50 million. If these experts think there's a way to short-circuit the bureaucracy's own tortuous programming, it's worth examining.
Longer term, the US must improve its educational system. The National Science Foundation reports that 50 percent of doctorates in mathematics and computer science are awarded to non-US citizens. This diversity of geographic origin has served America well over the years, but should these noncitizens stop coming, or hasten their return to their homelands, the US population alone might not be able to produce the experts required in the next decade.
We need a heightened sense of awareness to the needs of America in its war against terrorism.
John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor and editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.