Who can forget the classic line uttered by Commodore Perry during the War of 1812's Battle of Lake Erie: "We have met the enemy and they are ours!" Perry, then age 28, kicked serious British naval butt in that decisive victory.
Nearly two centuries later, the famed comic strip creator Walt Kelly twisted that line for the benefit of his seminal character, the possum Pogo. On an Earth Day poster in 1971, Pogo, looking at a polluted stream proclaimed, "We have met the enemy and he is us!" The same line was also used in a cartoon to lampoon the Nixon Administration, so the creator's use was to point a critical finger at things government, in Kelly's opinion, was doing wrong.
You, dear Reader, are probably asking, Why are we going through this lesson?
Because of headlines like the ones found in many IT publications this week: Feds look to local law enforcement to help stop terrorists.
Gee, what a revelation! Let me tell you a story about what happened here in Florida that had direct bearing on 9/11, could have even stopped 9/11, and still is not taken as seriously as it should.
You see, Mohammed Atta was a terrible driver. He turned out, regrettably, to be a much more capable pilot than a motor vehicle operator. He was such a bad driver that he was stopped and issued citations for motor vehicle moving violations in Florida not once, but twice, in just a matter of weeks!
His first ticket was in Broward County, the home of Ft. Lauderdale and its suburbs. Atta was living in Coral Springs at the time, a nice bedroom community in Northwest Broward. He failed to appear in court for his hearing (Geez, I wonder why?), and a bench warrant was immediately issued for his arrest.
Fast-forward to a few weeks later. Atta is pulled over again for a moving violation, this time in southern Palm Beach County, about 15 driving minutes from his first citation.
Here's the rub, as the Bard would say: Broward County did not put its bench warrants into any kind of an information system that could be searched by other law enforcement agencies. Thus, the officer in Palm Beach County was unaware of Atta's bench warrant in next-door Broward. He is issued yet another citation and is sent on his way.
The next time we saw Atta, it was via his drivers license photo, with those evil glaring eyes, in the immediate wake of 9/11. His incinerated body was hypothetically headed to paradise to comingle with those vestal virgins. I prefer to think he is damned for all Eternity in the pits of Hell.
As the press descended upon Broward County, the facts of Atta's infractions became known. I was amazed at the lack of outrage at this inability to share simple data between local governments.
What ideally should have happened is this: Once Atta failed to appear in Broward court, his bench warrant should have been entered into a statewide database that the Feds could have tapped into. That same database would have been connected into the NCIC and FCIC (for Florida) computer systems. In Palm Beach County, the officer who pulled Atta over a second time would have been made aware of the outstandng bench warrant. Gun drawn and having radioed for backup, the officer would have pulled Atta from the vehicle and brought him to the Palm Beach County Jail. His One Phone Call would have been made, and his car impounded.
At the impound yard, a curious investigator might have seen certain drawings, diagrams, blueprints, and notes. He might have seen flight manuals and textbooks and gotten more curious. A call to the FBI might have produced zip, zilch, nada, since the FBI and CIA were famously not talking regarding which baddie was and was not in the country at the time. So this is all just so much "woulda, shoulda, coulda."
We do know that the CIA-FBI feud was a major contributing cause of 9/11's horribly destructive event. But how many of you knew about this other one? A vertical failure.
If we learned anything about 9/11, it is what I have referred to with Colin Powell's Rules: Check Small Things. It will always be the small things that trip you up, be you a bank robber or a terrorist.
Unfortunately, since 9/11, nothing of real substance has apparently changed in the data-sharing arena. Part of that has to do with the inability of many local governments to post such previously-mundane bench warrant data into larger, searchable law enforcement computer systems. And the Justice Department has, to its credit, moved forward aggressively with its Global Justice XML programs and has all-but-required adoption of that schema as a condition of Federal funding for justice data projects.
But the largest part of the problem has to do with a lack of Homeland Security funding for data enhancement and data acquisition. While such glaringly obvious terrorist targets such as Fargo, North Dakota were busy buying antiterror armor and nuke-sniffing devices with earmarks courtesy of their US Senators, the rest of the nation was unable to get the funding for things that matter much more, with much higher returns on investment: New computer programs, more staff to input information, and better data query and retrieval devices for local law enforcement officers.
Let me tell you another story. While CIO at Florida's corrections agency, I fought for years to have a company out of Louisville called Appriss come in to hook into our mainframe. Appriss has this amazing product, called JusticeXchange. This company gets its hooks into city and county jail management and booking computer systems. It can then match arrest and booking data with State and Federal computer systems.
The benefit is that a probation officer can be electronically notiified if one of their probationers is arrested anywhere in America that Appriss operates (about 70% of U.S. jail management systems, as of two years ago). And it works. The Florida Department of Corrections finally gave the green light to the project, and used it first as a pilot to find some of the 40,000+ 'absconders" who are on the lam, as they say.
JusticeXchange found about ten percent of the absconders, who were either tucked away in other jails or were on probation in other states! That is more than 4,000 absconders. By the way, about a half-dozen were actually in Florida jails, under their own names! Human failings caused those names never to have been checked against other criminal databases.
Today, in Florida (or at least when I left Corrections), if any inmate or probationer got arrested for anything anywhere within Appriss' reach, a probation officer was electronically and automatically notified -- as was his/her supervisor -- within fifty minutes of the person being booked into a jail, and well before they might be able to bond out at First Appearance. If that does not underscore the power of information sharing, I cannot tell you what does.
We have spent tens of billions of dollars on reactive antiterrorism gear. I am sure that is important for the residents of Fargo and other towns. Yet we have spent a comparatively paltry sum of cash on solutions that actually might stop terror before it happens. And one of those ingenious things that actually worked, Seisint founder Hank Asher's brilliant MATRIX system, remains mired in controversy and politics. Hank showed me MATRIX just a few short weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Using law enforcement data and commercial data, all of the commercial data available in the public domain, Asher's query produced Atta's photo -- and about 80 others, many of them fellow 9/11 hijackers, many of them associates of the 9/11 hijackers.
It was simple data mining and algorithms, and none of the information was obtained illegally. But the prospect of such powerful data mining was apparently anathema to those who feign surprise at such matters. The politicians' collective "shock" reminded me of the classic line uttered by Claude Rains in Casablanca. Rains, as Captain Renault, says "I am shocked shocked to find that there is gambling going on here!" Then the casino employee hands Rains some cash and says, "Your winnings, sir."
Why the mock horror? Political parties have been mining similar data for cash and votes for over a decade, maybe longer. They have been using many of the same databases, and many of the same techniques, with very effective results.
We have gamma-ray detectors for looking into tractor trailers without opening the doors. We have thousands and thousands of bomb suits, anthrax response suits, atom bomb detectors the size of a pack of Marlboros, and huge chem/bio truck depots in places so remote that terrorists couldn't find them with a Garmin and a Navaho scout.
But we can't unify all the nation's jail booking systems, and all the bench warrant systems, and all the other data systems, because it costs too much, or people are fearful of losing their control over the data, or they don't want to lose the ability to take credit for something.
One thing's for certain: These criminals -- and terrorists are criminals -- will continue to make small mistakes. And until we can link the small mistakes with the Bigger Picture, I guess we will need all that other stuff.
Related Articles and Blogs:
- Robert L. Mitchell: Big Brother and FBI data sharing
- Robert L. Mitchell: Criminal negligence: The sorry state of law enforcement data sharing
- Robert L. Mitchell: Image gallery: The sorry state of law enforcement data sharing
- Robert L. Mitchell: FBI wields blades to catch bad guys