Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Detecting the next terror attack


This week's blitz of 9-11 hearings, press conferences and high-level testimony circled back to FBI inadequacies in preventing terrorist attacks. In the midst of all this we should remember that our country's first objective should be how to prevent the next attack, not the last one.

One unmistakable conclusion from this week's hearings is that both the FBI and CIA need to speed up training and beef up staffing to professionalize U.S. counterterrorism units.

Monday, President Bush said now may be the time to revamp U.S. intelligence services. Critics accuse him of trying to shift blame onto U.S. intelligence agencies and away from his administration's failures before Sept. 11 and recent mistakes in Iraq. Whatever the motives, it's clear that although improvements have been made and the FBI and CIA are sharing more intelligence, major changes still are needed. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testified last week before the 9-11 panel: "The real lesson of Sept. 11 is that the country was not properly structured to deal with the threat that had been gathering for a long period of time."

Tuesday, a prepared statement by 9-11 investigators read like a multi-count indictment of FBI bureaucratic barriers that kept it from detecting the 9-11 plot and stopping it. The president, other Bush officials and members of Congress already are testing the political winds to see if a new stand-alone domestic intelligence agency like Britain's MI5 should be created or if a semi-autonomous division would be better within the FBI. Opponents of a MI5-type agency insist Americans would never stand for a "secret police." Congress should exercise great care if plans move in that direction.

The likelier result is a new division within the FBI, but the report on the FBI by 9-11 commission investigators should be required reading for all those contemplating yet another anti-terrorist center. The FBI before 9-11 did create several counterterrorism divisions, but they were sorely underfunded and regarded as the agency's "backwaters." The day before the Sept. 11 attack, Attorney General John Ashcroft rejected a budget request of an extra $50 million to hire more counterterrorism agents and intelligence specialists. After 9-11, the Bush administration not only created the mammoth new Homeland Security Department but also a new Terrorist Threat Integration Center at which FBI and CIA agents are supposed to work alongside Pentagon analysts.

On Sept. 11, 2001, only about 1,300 FBI agents, 6 percent of total personnel, worked on counterterrorism. The agency lacked strategic analysts who could see the bigger picture. The FBI's computer systems were antiquated, agents were promoted without training and policy barriers blocked information sharing. The undeniable conclusion: This nation still needs a crash program to gear up for protecting the home front in the war on terrorism.



Carl Lindner originally gave $1.5 million toward the capital fund drive for the West End YMCA, and in March he gave another $1.5 million as an endowment for children to attend the facility. An incorrect figure was given on the "Making Life Better" feature on Monday's Opinions page.

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