Lessons from pre-9/11 warnings
US reexamines its coordination of information amid revelations it had many pieces to the puzzle in advance.
WASHINGTON — Eight months after Sept. 11, it is becoming increasingly apparent that various arms of the US government had pieces of information that, if put together, might have provided sketchy advance warning of the terrorist strikes to come.
The White House now acknowledges, for instance, that the CIA told President Bush in August that suspected members of Al Qaeda had discussed the hijacking of airplanes. At the same time, FBI agents were increasingly suspicious of some Middle Eastern men training at US flight schools.
Yet the fact that the US didn't disrupt Al Qaeda's plans highlights the problems governments have always faced when trying to peer into the future and head off attacks in a dangerous world. Officials must sift through haystacks of misleading data, coordinate a multitude of competing agencies, and amid the press of other priorities actually imagine an assault could take place.
These new revelations have echoes of 1941, when information about a possible Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor floated around the US government but was never synthesized or acted upon.
Today, the disclosures raise a crucial question: Have recent reforms boosted Washington's ability to pull together information from its many agencies and thus disrupt future attacks?
"There are always these little indicators that come in of one sort or another that don't get enough decibels to receive attention," says former CIA Director Stansfield Turner. "Very, very, very often it happens that way. It happened that way at Pearl Harbor. It has been happening that way in many other instances."
IN this case, the White House says Bush's daily intelligence briefings in August while he was at his Texas ranch included concern that Al Qaeda would hijack planes.
But the world was speaking a "different language" in terms of terrorism before Sept. 11, said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer yesterday.
"The possibility of a traditional hijacking in the pre-9/11 sense has long been a concern of the government," he said. But "this was a new type of attack that was not foreseen." Indeed, he said the warnings did not suggest commercial airliners would be used as missiles and that the general assumption was that any attack would occur abroad, not in the US.
Still, the White House says it did quietly alert several government agencies to the threat.
Meanwhile, FBI agents were getting hints of the terrible plot. A classified memo drafted by the bureau's Phoenix office reportedly warned in blunt language that Osama bin Laden might be linked to Middle Eastern men taking lessons at US flight schools.
That memo was never shared with agents in the bureau's Minnesota office who were investigating French national Zacarias Moussaoui. He had been arrested in August after raising suspicions among his flight-school teachers.
Mr. Turner sees this as a painful and avoidable mistake.
"There was an error here, in that the Phoenix and Minnesota indicators and analyses never got brought together," he says. "If they had, it's more likely that ... an alarm bell would have risen high enough in decibels to attract somebody's attention."
The basic reason for the lack of coordination and communication is "a very large intelligence bureaucracy that is very compartmentalized," says Charles Peña, a senior defense analyst at the Cato Institute here. "People literally don't talk to each other." Besides turf battles, one reason intelligence agencies are tight-lipped is that they don't want to expose and thus lose their hard-won sources of information.
But ultimately, it has to be shared even if in a sanitized way that protects the source.
"If the CIA has information on potential hijackings, it has to get it to actual customs agents and airport security people," says Mr. Peña. Otherwise it doesn't do any good.
Indeed, since Sept. 11, the government has struggled to improve coordination.
One change: FBI data is now merged with CIA intelligence in the president's daily briefing.
Another: A new command center near Washington called the SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility) that was set up by White House Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge. It's one place the CIA, the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and others are able to coordinate and share information. It's not clear yet whether they actually will. If, however, this and other information-sharing initiatives succeed, more agencies will have more data.
Yet the agencies are already "swamped with data," says Jim Harris, who until recently headed the CIA's Strategic Assessments Group.
TO better sort through these haystacks of information, he says, more "analytic horsepower" is needed.
"If you've got enough expertise, you start to pick up patterns in the data." And patterns are key, because as the recent revelations demonstrate "government doesn't reverse course on the basis of an isolated report."
In the end, at least one thing has changed for sure: No one doubts the US actually can be attacked, although some worry that the US is too focused on previous terror tactics airplanes and anthrax and not on potential new ones. Still, the new vigilance makes a difference between, as Fleischer put it, "a nation that was at peace and a nation that is now mobilized for war."