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War on terrorism hindered by rules on how countries can share

Sunday, March 28, 2004

More than two years after the Bush administration won pledges of support from dozens of countries eager to join the war on terrorism, Washington and its allies still keep a jealous hold on intelligence -- snarling the information sharing needed to shut down al-Qaida.

With public attention focused last week on the failures leading to the Sept. 11 attacks, officials acknowledged that information-sharing is a problem that will be difficult to change despite a new resolve on both sides of the Atlantic after the deadly bombings this month in Spain.

In his testimony before the bipartisan commission investigating the attacks on New York and Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said this week that countries were cooperating and "sharing intelligence."

But there are rules involved when passing on information and those rules -- designed to protect sources and methods -- make it hard for countries to work together on counterterrorism.

One such restriction, known as the "third-country rule," forbids the country receiving a tip from passing it along to anyone else.

The United States, France, Britain, Russia and other countries with large intelligence services all observe the third-party rule. When they share intelligence, it is done bilaterally and the tips are often watered-down to protect sources.

"The originator of the intelligence controls the dissemination of the intelligence," said Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief. "That's the rule and that's the problem."

Turkey, which suffered a string of four deadly bombings late last year, and has limited intelligence gathering capabilities outside its region, has been particularly frustrated by the rules as it tries to investigate a possible al-Qaida presence in the country.

"There is a controlled flow of information from the U.S.," which makes it hard for Turkey to act, a frustrated Turkish intelligence officer told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Turkey has yet to solve the November bombings that killed 62 people in Istanbul. Several suspects remain in custody, some of whom attended training camps in Afghanistan, but no one has been charged or directly tied to Osama bin Laden's network.

Spain has made several arrests in connection with the train bombings there and has tied one of the suspects -- a Moroccan named Jamal Zougam -- to an al-Qaida cell.

Zougam was known to intelligence services in the United States and three other countries before the attacks that killed over 200 people. But there was no joint investigation underway and Morocco, Spain and France were unaware of information their agencies were gathering independently.

European leaders, hoping to address the problem, named a former Dutch minister Thursday to coordinate counterterrorism efforts and pledged to improve cooperation between their police and intelligence services, enact laws for an EU-wide arrest warrant, beef up border controls and create a European database of terror suspects.

But they stayed away from establishing a European intelligence agency modeled after the CIA.

"The third-party rule makes it impossible to have a European CIA," said Cannistraro, who thinks the rule should be junked in the war on terrorism.

"When you're talking about transnational groups then there is no excuse for keeping the old rules," he said in an interview. "They need to devise a system to share that kind of information, they need to do it multilaterally, and they need to do it right away."

Secretary of State Colin Powell, during his testimony this week before the Sept. 11, commission, said the attacks in Madrid should "cause us to do a better job in intelligence sharing."

Associated Press Writer Selcan Hacaoglu contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey.

William Cohen, who served as President Clinton's secretary of defense, said during his commission appearance that swapping information was key to success.

"We're going to have to start sharing information. That's what's going to be required for the war on terror," Cohen said.

But intelligence services remain reluctant and European officials spoke more candidly about the risks involved in sharing highly sensitive intelligence with all their counterparts in the European Union.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said his country would continue to share intelligence "on a bilateral basis."

"It requires a very high level of confidence and trust when you are going to do that," he said.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin agreed.

"It is a very delicate matter to deal with," he said. "We have to be very careful the way we handle it. Widening the circle is something we should do very carefully."


Associated Press Writer Selcan Hacaoglu contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey.


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