More is better
Just about three years ago, the 9-11 Commission issued its final report on the attacks that rocked America. Chief among the findings was the assessment that government agencies, particularly the CIA and FBI, failed dismally in sharing vital information that might have prevented the attacks.
For instance, the CIA learned in January 2001 — nine months before the attacks — of potential links between Khalid Al Mihdhar — an al Qaeda operative and one of the hijackers of American flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon — and those responsible for the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole while it was harbored in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 sailors and injuring 39 others.
Yet, the agency didn’t share the information with the FBI, according to the report; similarly, the FBI wasn’t notified a year earlier when al Mihdhar received a U.S. visa. Consequently, al Mihdhar wasn’t on the FBI’s radar screen. It’s impossible to know whether that knowledge would have put into motion a sequence of events that would have prevented the carnage of 9-11. But it wouldn’t have hurt. As the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes wrote in the classic “Don Quixote” four centuries ago, “Forewarned, forearmed; to be prepared is half the victory.”
The 9-11 Commission was of a similar mind-set when it issued its final report. It noted that, “the U.S. government has access to a vast amount of information. But it has a weak system for processing and using what it has.” The report recommended that the federal government move from a “need to know” mentality to one driven by the “need to share.”
I thought about all of this as I read this edition’s cover story, in which Senior Writer Donny Jackson writes of fusion centers, which purport to aggregate information from various databases and make the information easily accessible, a concept that Paul Wormeli, executive director of the Integrated Justice Information Systems Institute, describes as “actionable intelligence.”
Of course, as with any government-centric initiative, policy and funding challenges currently are retarding the growth and evolution of the fusion center concept. But there seems to be a groundswell of opinion that information sharing is an imperative in a post-9-11 world, so the policy and funding hurdles likely will be cleared eventually — hopefully in time to prevent the next 9-11.
The 9-11 Commission went a bit further, recommending a national counter-terrorism center to replace and effectively consolidate the various fusion centers that already exist at the federal level. Given the silo mentality that afflicts government at all levels, such an initiative seems like too much of a leap, at least for now. But providing the financial, legislative and bureaucratic support needed to advance the fusion center concept would be a giant step in the right direction.