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Inadequate IT contributed to 9/11 intelligence failure

Inadequate IT contributed to 9/11 intelligence failure

An antiquated IT infrastructure and cultural turf battles among the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and various intelligence agencies resulted in a lack of information sharing and analysis that contributed to the national security community's failure to head off the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to the results of a congressional investigation.

The 900-page report of the long-awaited joint inquiry by the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence into the 9/11 attacks was released Thursday.

It found that despite the collection of a massive amount of intelligence and clues that a major terrorist operation against the U.S. was under way, significant deficiencies in IT and political battles between the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA) over which agency should control the use and development of certain technologies allowed critical clues to be overlooked.

Commenting on the report, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) said he believes that, given the clues that were available, the attacks could have been prevented. "If people want to place blame, there is plenty of blame to go around," he said.

The report specifically blames the failure by government agencies, particularly the FBI and the NSA, to ensure that their agents had adequate IT support. It cited, for instance, the absence of a centralized counterterrorism database.

FBI field agents from Phoenix, Minneapolis and New York all cited the FBI's technology problems as among the top three things they would like to see fixed to improve counterterrorism efforts. "The FBI is a member of the intelligence community," the report quotes an FBI agent as saying. "We have to be able to communicate with them. We have to be able to have databases that can be integrated with them, and right now we do not. It is a major problem."

That lack of IT capability was a major problem for the FBI's pre-Sept. 11 investigation into potential al-Qaeda plans, according to the report. In fact, when a Phoenix FBI field office agent drafted an e-mail in July 2001--known now as the infamous "Phoenix Memo"--he had no reliable way of querying a central FBI system to determine whether there were other reports on radical fundamentalists taking flight training in the U.S.--or whether other FBI field offices were investigating similar cases. Another agent had expressed similar concerns.

In addition, congressional investigators found that because of the limitations of the FBI's Automated Case File (ACS) system, a number of addressees on the Phoenix communication, including the chief of the FBI's Radical Fundamentalist Unit, weren't aware of the communication before the attacks occurred.

The FBI deployed the ACS in 1995 to replace a system of written reports and indexes. However, FBI agents told congressional investigators that the system was limited in its search capacity, difficult to use and unreliable. The system was so difficult to use, in fact, that FBI officials informed Congress that as of Sept. 26, 2002, 68,000 counterterrorism leads dating to 1995 remained outstanding and unassigned.

Concerns about the security of the ACS also hampered its use. Before Sept. 11, 2001, many FBI field agents didn't include sensitive information in the ACS because they believed the system wasn't secure, the report found. In addition, many agents who did include information in the ACS blocked access to it in order to limit the number of FBI personnel who could obtain the information. "Given these limitations, ACS does not provide assured retrieval of complete, authoritative information on any subject," the report concluded.

The chief of the Radical Fundamentalist Unit described the FBI's situation for congressional investigators as "a setup for failure in terms of keeping a strategic picture of what we are up against.

"Communications coming into our building from NSA, from CIA, cannot be integrated into our existing databases," the FBI official said. "So if an analyst is working, say, on a subject in a Phoenix division and they run that person's name through our databases, they will not retrieve information on that person that other agencies may also have. It is required of them to get up, walk over to a ... different computer that has access to a different database and search that name in that database; and the two databases will never come together and be integrated."

FBI Director Robert Mueller, however, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 23 that the bureau is only months away from completing work on a massive upgrade of its global IT infrastructure, including desktop upgrades for all of its field offices around the world and ongoing software upgrades, based primarily on analyst applications and tools.

Congress also singled out the NSA, the electronic eavesdropping arm of the Pentagon, for its inability to provide adequate IT tools for its analysts. More important, however, congressional investigators were surprised to learn that many of the problems at the NSA persisted well after the attacks.

"NSA could not demonstrate its current analytic tools to the Joint Inquiry and could not identify upgrades that will assist NSA analysts in identifying critical intelligence amidst the large volumes of information it collects," the report concluded. "In the absence of such tools, NSA language analysts must still conduct the bulk of their work with pencil and paper. Many develop their own personal databases on index cards that cannot be made readily available to counterterrorism analysts at other agencies," according to the report.

And despite the NSA's US$282 million Trailblazer contract, signed in October 2002 with San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp. to help the agency upgrade its data collection and analysis capabilities, Congress warned in its report that the implementation of Trailblazer remains three to five years away and "confusion still exists at NSA as to what will actually be provided by that program."

Aside from the lack of IT infrastructure and tools, information-sharing and timely collection of intelligence was also significantly hampered by what congressional investigators characterized as a turf war between the CIA and the NSA over control of certain technologies.

"While CIA and NSA have had many successful joint counterterrorism technical operations, the Inquiry was told that overlapping targets and greater use of similar technologies caused friction between the two agencies in some instances," the report said. Intelligence officials told congressional investigators that while individual relationships and cooperation between the CIA and the NSA at the working level had often been very good, relationships at the mid- and upper-management levels of those agencies were often strained.

"CIA perceived NSA as wanting to control technology use and development, while NSA was concerned that CIA was engaged in operations that were NSA's responsibility," the investigation concluded.

According to the report, NSA Director Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden told members of the joint inquiry that "the old divisions of labor are impractical -- the new electronic universe requires more and more cooperation." He added that he "would not be surprised if someday the closeness of this relationship would require organizational changes."

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said he believes that if all of the information available to the intelligence community prior to Sept. 11, 2001, had been stored and mined in an all-source "fusion center," then "maybe things would have been different."

Recommendations from the congressional report on the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks:

- Make better use of future technologies to exploit terrorist communications. - Improve and expand use of data mining technologies and analysis tools. - Develop a multilevel security operating system that gives analysts access to different classifications of data on one system. - Use existing IT to modernize intelligence reporting and trend analysis. - Develop an all-source intelligence fusion center within the Department of Homeland Security. - Solve the FBI's "persistent and incapacitating information technology problems."

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More about Australian Computer SocietyFBIFederal Bureau of InvestigationNational Security AgencyNSAPhoenixScience Applications International

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