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Report: Inadequate IT contributed to 9/11 intelligence failure

A 900-page report detailing the findings of a joint congressional inquiry was released today

By Dan Verton
July 24, 2003 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - WASHINGTON -- An antiquated IT infrastructure and cultural turf battles among the FBI and various intelligence agencies resulted in a lack of information sharing and analysis that in turn 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 today.

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.

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