Access, sharing of data vital to anti-terrorism

Friday, May 10, 2002

How information about potential terrorism in the United States might have been used in ways to avert the Sept. 11 attacks will be the subject of debate for a long time.

Recently, the FBI disclosed that its own agents raised questions last July -- two months before the September attacks -- about Arabs who were training at a U.S. aviation school. That memo urged that other agents look into other flight schools where Middle Easterners might be taking flight training.

There was reason to be concerned about Middle Easterners and their interest in learning to fly commercial aircraft. As early as 1995, authorities in the Philippines had warned the FBI that several Middle Eastern pilots were training at American flight schools and that at least one Arab had proposed the hijacking of a commercial jet in order to fly it into government buildings.

As it turns out, none of the Arabs that caught the attention of FBI agents last July were among those who actually took part in the Sept. 11 hijackings.

But a month before the attacks, FBI agents in Minnesota arrested Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, after a flight instructor became wary of his interest in learning how to fly a commercial jet. Moussaoui is now the government's key defendant as charges are brought against those believed to have had some role in September's terrorism.

Even though the FBI had not alerted other federal agencies before Sept. 11, it was considering a nationwide canvass of flight schools when the hijackers struck.

Former FBI director Louis Freeh was recently asked about the FBI's internal information systems. He said the nation's chief law enforcement agency has antiquated systems that impede the speedy exchange of key information and that limit access to huge databases of criminal activity. Only recently, Freeh said, has funding been appropriated for major upgrades in vital information systems, but it will take months to fully implement the new equipment.

At about the same time the FBI issued its warning about Arabs in flight schools and Moussaoui was being arrested in Minnesota, other U.S. intelligence agencies were issuing a warning of an increased risk of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. As we've learned in the post-Sept. 11 days of homeland-security alerts about potential attacks, it is extremely difficult to know exactly what to do when the attacker or the location of an attack or the timing of an attack are unknown.

But that is the backbone of terrorism: uncertainty and surprise. Clearly, the ability for U.S. agencies to have the latest information and the ability to share that information widely is of vital importance to our future security from any more terrorist attacks.

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