Homeland defense demands intelligence sharing

By Justin Palmer

Following the September 11 attacks of last year, many of our officials realized that we had–in a twist on an old phrase–too many Indians and not enough chiefs. We had separate agencies for border control, disaster relief, immigration, and security, with little ability to coordinate their actions. Last week President Bush finally signed a bill authorizing a Department of Homeland Security, which will unify these groups into one department. Now, Tom Ridge has the thankless task of managing a bureaucratic reorganization of nightmarish proportions.

But will this make us safer? Not yet. While our border security may be in better shape than before September 11, our intelligence community still isn’t. It suffers from the same problems mentioned earlier. But, so far, little effort has been made to fix them.

The biggest problem facing U.S. Intelligence is the legacy of Executive Order (EO) 12333, signed by President Reagan in 1981. It came after the Senate’s Church Committee uncovered some egregious abuses committed by the CIA during the 1960s and ’70s. After these hearings, Congress successfully pressured the White House to limit the power of our spies.

EO 12333 accomplished most of this, but also reorganized the way intelligence was gathered. Rather than trusting one or two departments to collect it, the government farmed the job out to six: the FBI, the State Department, the Defense Department (including the DIA and NSA), the Treasury Department, the Energy Department, and the CIA.

This decision should have ensured that the right specialists would get to evaluate the right intelligence. After all, wouldn’t the best experts on money be at the Treasury Department? Wouldn’t they know how to assess international counterfeiting and financial matters better than the CIA?

The answer is yes, but since espionage is so secretive by nature, agencies became reluctant to share data. A department could not guarantee that its information would not be used by an enemy mole at another department. It also led the various government agencies to distrust each other’s security and rely on their own even more. The worst example of this was when the FBI arrested CIA employee Aldrich Ames for espionage in 1994, but didn’t uncover a mole in its own office–Special Agent Robert Hanssen–for another seven years.

If having too many departments was bad, turning domestic intelligence over to the FBI made matters worse. Intelligence work is all about prevention. The FBI, on the other hand, is a law enforcement organization. It works within the framework of the Constitution, which sets strict guidelines on how information can be obtained and used. But terrorists and spies play by different rules and are much harder to catch. The FBI’s own tangles with the Mafia and the Ku Klux Klan show just how hard it is to identify members of clandestine organizations.

These problems–in coordination, investigation, and surveillance–were all evident in the run-up to the September 11 attacks.

When hijackers Khalid Almidhar and Nawaf Alhazmi entered the United States in late 2000, they wound up staying in San Diego with a man who was an FBI informant. The CIA knew that these two men had attended an al Qaeda conference in a Malaysian safe house in January of that year, but when they entered the United States, by law, the CIA had to drop surveillance activities on them. The case should have been passed on to the FBI or the INS. But the CIA waited until August 2001 before it told the Bureau that the al Qaeda agents were in the United States.

In that same month, FBI agents interrogating Zacharias Moussaoui concluded that he might be a foreign-sponsored terrorist. They wanted to search his personal computer. Bureau lawyers pointed out that Moussaoui technically hadn’t done anything other than overstay his visa. The agents’ request was denied on Fourth Amendment grounds. However, the FBI could claim that he shouldn’t have even been in the country because in September 2000 he had stayed in the same Malaysian safe house that Almidhar and Alhazmi had stayed at earlier that year. But the CIA had stopped monitoring the house and failed to spot him.

The basic errors made before September 11 suggest only one practical solution to our intelligence problems: the centralization of espionage duties into one department. A single department could keep tabs on suspected terrorists without having to worry about law enforcement guidelines or inter-agency rivalry. With intelligence responsibilities concentrated in one or two places, instead of a dozen, it would also be easier to catch turncoats, since any leaks would be easier to trace. Admittedly, the failure to monitor the Malaysian safe house would not change, but when Moussaoui was arrested, a single department backtracking his movements might have made the connection much faster.

Many officials in Washington, D.C. favor some sort of intelligence reorganization. Reportedly, the Bush administration is contemplating an American version of Britain’s MI5. But concentration is much more important. Until our foreign, domestic, and military intelligence services are concentrated into only one or two divisions, the United States will continue to be at risk, no matter how many Departments of Homeland Security we create.