September 11 and Today

Last week's report by Congress's joint commission on September 11 revealed plenty of blame in the federal government's failure to detect and perhaps prevent the terrorist attacks.

The CIA had crucial information on two 9/11 hijackers who were in the US and had connections with Osama bin Laden. But it didn't tell the FBI. The FBI ignored warnings from an agent that some suspected terrorists were overly interested in flight training. The FBI had an alleged plotter in custody and didn't search his belongings, which would have uncovered his Al Qaeda connections. The Pentagon resisted military action against bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan. Congress and the administration ignored repeated CIA requests to increase funding for its anti-terrorism efforts.

But of greater concern now is whether the steps Congress and the president have taken since then are sufficient to prevent a recurrence. There is reason to doubt.

At the heart of the pre-9/11 problems was the pervasive inability of federal agencies to coordinate. This isn't new: After Pearl Harbor, when the Army and Navy were found to be hardly on speaking terms, Congress created the Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to ensure coordination. In the 1970s, Congress gave the CIA director a second hat - director of central intelligence - to force the intelligence community to share information and analysis.

It became clear after 9/11 that the latter effort was not entirely successful. Agencies such as the CIA and FBI continued to withhold information from one another. To help counter that, Congress in 2002 created the Department of Homeland Security, to which it transferred several border-defense agencies. And President Bush created the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC) to ensure that intelligence branches share data and that someone looks at the bigger picture.

Already, however, turf battles and egos are getting in the way. Congress wants Homeland Security to receive raw intelligence and analyze it independently; the White House has set up a process whereby Homeland Security simply accepts TTIC analysis. A Washington Post report says Homeland Security is having trouble recruiting intelligence professionals; they would rather work at the higher-profile FBI, CIA, or TTIC.

The recent flap over what the government knew and believed about Iraqi attempts to purchase uranium from Niger likewise doesn't give confidence that the intelligence agencies and the White House are working well together. The Defense Department's disregard for the work the State Department undertook to prepare for governing Iraq is symptomatic of how each often acts as though the other were a greater enemy than the external threat to national security.

The American people are poorly served by such nonsense. Only the president, with help from the national security adviser, can demand that agencies cooperate - and take action when they don't. President Bush and his successors must keep a watchful eye on this perennial problem. The country can't afford otherwise.

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