The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and other U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies had pieces of information before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that, had they been shared, might have led to the unraveling of Al Qaeda’s plot. For example, in July 2001, an FBI agent in Phoenix, Arizona, wrote a memo to bureau executives in Washington warning of the “possibility of a coordinated effort by Usama Bin Ladin” to train terrorists in U.S. flight schools. No one in the FBI’s Osama bin Laden or Radical Fundamentalist unit saw the field agent’s memo until after 9/11. Had they seen the memo in a timely manner, the 9/11 Commission said, it could have “sensitized the FBI so that it might have taken the Moussaoui matter more seriously.” A month after the Phoenix memo was written, the FBI’s Minneapolis office was kept from notifying the Federal Aviation Administration of an agent’s assessment that Zacarias Moussaoui planned to hijack an airplane. Moussaoui was training to fly commercial aircraft; the FBI suspected him of jihadist beliefs; and in August 2001 the CIA described him as a possible “suicide hijacker,” but the CIA made no connection between him and intelligence reports that warned of possible Al Qaeda hijackings. The 9/11 Commission used these examples to argue for improving communications among agencies. “The culture of agencies feeling they own the information they gathered at taxpayers’ expense must be replaced by a culture in which the agencies instead feel they have a duty to the information — to repay the taxpayers investment by making that information available,” wrote the commission in its report.
The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 created the powerful new position of director of national intelligence to oversee and coordinate the work of the nation’s intelligence agencies. The act also established the National Counterterrorism Center as the focus of anti-terror efforts, putting the activities of a host of agencies under a single roof. And the legislation mandated action to facilitate effective sharing of terror-related information — an effort aimed at creating what became known as the “Information Sharing Environment” (ISE.) In March 2006, President Bush appointed Ambassador Thomas McNamara as program manager for the role and located his office under the new director of national intelligence. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has acknowledged the substantial progress represented by these steps, but nonetheless has placed the goal of establishing appropriate and effective information-sharing mechanisms to improve homeland security on its high-risk list. The GAO reported in 2007 that “more needs to be done to address [the] problems and the obstacles that hinder information sharing.” McNamara has now issued a plan to guide development of the ISE, and has completed some of the tasks laid out by the plan, but GAO said in June that the scope of the ISE must be better defined and that performance measures must be developed. The Department of Homeland Security press office did not respond to a request for comment, but Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said in an October 2008 speech: “We have made remarkable progress — most of it in secret — over the last few years. . . . We are very focused on integration, collaboration, information, and data-sharing in a collective way.”
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