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Connecting the Dots

May 17, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Why didn’t anyone in the U.S. government connect the clues in the months leading up to 9/11?

For insight into how America’s counterterrorism agencies collect and deal with information, we turn to Don Clark, a 25-year veteran of the FBI. He headed the criminal division in the FBI’s New York office in the 1990s, where he managed all counter-terrorism investigations. He was also special agent in charge of both the San Antonio and Houston field offices. Kris Kolesnik, former director of investigations for a Senate Judiciary subcommittee with FBI oversight. He’s now executive director of the National Whistleblower Center here in Washington. And, Michael Sheehan, former coordinator for counter-terrorism at the State Department. He also served on the National Security Council in the first Bush and Clinton administrations. And earlier he was with the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s intelligence arm.

Welcome to you all, and Michael Sheehan, beginning with you.

Knowing what you do about how this whole system works, were you surprised that no one assimilated and analyzed and basically connected all these clues in those months leading up to 9/11?

MICHAEL SHEEHAN: First of all I’m not surprised because in retrospect, it’s easier to put together dots that make a picture that bring events of 9/11 into clearer focus.

I think even with the dots as they were known ahead of time would have been difficult to predict the exact events of 9/11. I can say the counter-terrorism community was very concerned about the delivery of all kinds of bombs against U.S. targets — car bombs, boat bombs and even aircraft were considered. So, this was not a great surprise in terms of the use of aircraft, but the use of a civilian airliner filled with fuel did surprise the community.

MARGARET WARNER: Kris Kolesnik, though, what is it about the way these different agencies interact that made it impossible or at least it didn’t happen that the information was coordinated?

KRIS KOLESNIK: Well, a lot of it has to do with the missions.

The CIA has a mission of putting together information and disseminating it. The FBI, on the other hand, has a mission to crack down on crime.

And they don’t like to share information because of that, because they have ongoing cases. So they keep a close hold. And so the very culture of that organization is inimical to providing that information to other organizations.

MARGARET WARNER: Don Clark, then, what about within the FBI itself?

For instance, Director Mueller said last week that essentially the information from the Phoenix field office, the sort of alert about flight schools, wasn’t ever even coordinated with the suspicions about Moussaoui in Minnesota. Is there not much interaction even within the agency?

DON CLARK: There’s a significant amount of interaction within the agencies.

And what we’re talking about here is a process and, yes, the FBI does have a criminal responsibility but that’s separate and apart from the intelligence responsibility. And there’s a significant amount of sharing in that intelligence responsibility.

As to why that one did not exactly get to Minneapolis, which is the division that handles that, I think time will tell as to what reasons may have been for it not to get there — but it wasn’t because that there’s a break or a disconnect in the process because clearly the agencies do coordinate together frequently — especially when there’s a mutual interest to them in an investigations, whether it’s an intelligence investigation or a criminal investigation.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Sheehan, how would you rate the coordination?

MICHAEL SHEEHAN: I think the CIA and the FBI do coordinate fairly well. Several years ago, they exchanged deputies at the counter-terrorism center at CIA and the counter-terrorism center of the FBI in Washington. They sit in each other’s offices and have clear pipelines and flow of information across agency. That works pretty well.

What I think needs to be looked at is how inside the domestic law enforcement agency reports are written and assimilated and put in the computer systems and then can be read by analysts across lines.

I think in the international intelligence community that’s a far more mature and developed system. I think in the domestic side not just within the FBI but in all the other federal law enforcement agencies there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.

MARGARET WARNER: So you mean that within the FBI, a report such as the Phoenix memo… well, let me ask Mr. Clark about that.

Mr. Clark, since you were in several field offices, if you’d had information and suspicions such as this unnamed agent had in Phoenix, how would you have gone about sharing that with someone? Who would you have wanted to get that information to, and how would you have gone about it?

DON CLARK: Well, the first objective would have been to determine if there was any real immediacy that was determined at the field level for that information to get out. And had that been the case, then the information probably would have been transferred through some type of secure telecommunications means.

Nonetheless, if it’s just general information that agents who are the backbone of the FBI, who work on the street to collect this intelligence information, it would have been massaged at the field level and it would have been processed up through that chain and sometimes even maybe come into the head of division, myself included, and it would have been relayed to the FBI headquarters.

Now, there’s a system back at the FBI headquarters for the intelligence information on various groups that one may be interested in, and there are analysts who are there looking at that information and reviewing it for pertinency and for where it might be sent to in the future.

I can’t sit here and say that someone should have picked this up and automatically knew it should have been sent to some other location. But I know that those mechanisms are in place. Are they perfect? Absolutely not. They’re not perfect. Are we a little bit behind on technology? It was when I left and I’m sure it probably is, but I think there are gains being made to try to smooth out those imperfections.

MARGARET WARNER: Pick up on that, Kris Kolesnik. What would happen to a memo like this?

KRIS KOLESNIK: Well, in my experience I’ve seen this happen a lot of times. I know there’s a process for the way it’s supposed to work but usually or sometimes I should say it does not work that way. And I’ve seen that in so many cases that I’ve investigated.

What happens is you get the information from the Arizona office and it goes to headquarters and there’s some people there working at headquarters who are working on a case. That’s the USS Cole case….

MARGARET WARNER: The bombing of the USS Cole.

KRIS KOLESNIK: Right. They have an ongoing case there. And the FBI is a reactive organization, and they react to a particular incident. They follow up on that.

They spend a lot of time on that particular case and they don’t see the significance of the piece of information that comes in that has to do with preventing a case. So they put it aside.

Then you get the information from the Moussaoui case. That goes into somebody at headquarters, and the information is not put together for that individual making a decision on a FISA warrant.

MARGARET WARNER: The warrant to what? Examine his computer?

KRIS KOLESNIK: Well, to examine the computer but also to put him under surveillance so that they could see what he’s up to.

So there are two disconnects. One is the analysis is not… where you put the dots together is not being done for the person approving the FISA warrant and so that the person, the FBI agent out in Minnesota, does not have the benefit of all the information that the FBI has.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, Michael Sheehan, let’s bring in another report that we heard about today, something prepared for the National Intelligence Council, which, as I understand it, advises the director of Central Intelligence.

A report like that — and we heard Ari Fleischer say that was just a psychological profile of terrorists, but it did specifically say al-Qaida might take a plane and crash it into the pentagon or the CIA.

How does that get into the information stream and flow and get coordinated with other bits of information?

MICHAEL SHEEHAN: Well, the National Intelligence Council does strategic far thinking types of analysis for the intelligence community. And those reports are very well disseminated throughout the intelligence and the policy community.

And I remember that report well. I think it was well understood in the counter-terrorism community that al-Qaida was looking for various ways to strike at the U.S., including car bombs and truck bombs and boat bombs, and it was no surprise that he was going to try to use aviation as another means so I think that was understood.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me interrupt you for a second. When you said it went throughout the agencies, would it have, for instance, gone to the FBI?

MICHAEL SHEEHAN: Certainly. That report is distributed in Washington to the FBI offices directly as well as the CIA offices, and even if it wasn’t done directly to the FBI, the deputy for the CIA’s counter-terrorism center is an FBI person. If he saw a report that might not have gotten to the FBI, he would certainly be able to forward it.

So there is a process to disseminate it and there’s checks and counterchecks to make sure the information flows.

MARGARET WARNER: One other question for you, from your years at the NSC, is this then… then there’s this group at the NSC, the counter terrorism security group — does that have essentially authority over the CIA and the FBI? I mean, do they in any way have to answer it, or is it just a coordination mechanism? In other words, whose job is it to put all of this together?

MICHAEL SHEEHAN: The NSC is a coordinating body. Obviously since 9/11 there’s been a great review on how the U.S. government organizes itself for domestic threats because it wasn’t that clear before.

Internationally it was always very clear. The delineation of responsibilities between CIA, Defense, State and the NSC, but domestically there were some gray areas.

I think the Bush administration has moved quickly on that to try to organize a homeland defense office and other agencies into a coherent structure that can pull together the appropriate pieces in an effective manner.

MARGARET WARNER: So Don Clark, what do you think… first of all from your understanding of what has been done and what needs to be done to ensure that signals aren’t missed in the future, as must as can be guaranteed anyway?

DON CLARK: Well, I think what the first thing we need to be clear on is that the FBI is not just a reactive organization. Sure, it reacts to bank robberies but not to a lot of other things. There is on record a significant number of terrorist attacks that’s been thwarted to prevent them from happening because of the activities that’s taken place in their collection efforts. I think they need to make sure that the process is as airtight as we possibly can make it.

There is coordination with the other intelligence agencies.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean, see, let me interrupt you. You said for instance needs better technology. What do you mean? A whole new database? What are you talking about specifically?

DON CLARK: Well, the technology needs to be improved. We were always behind, lagging behind, in terms of technology. I think that’s probably relatively true for most of the other government entities that we just did not keep up faster. We’re not able to keep up fast enough so that we could make sure that it’s even more efficient than it is. It has come a long ways in terms of being efficient. Can it be more? Of course it can, but I think we can work towards that.

But I think the process is in place for that information to be moved from where it’s initially collected up to the end user. And it does get there to the end user. In this case, I think somebody will tell us in due course why this particular memo didn’t get to where it was, but it’s not because the process is not there. But it does… it could stand some tweaking.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Briefly, Kris Kolesnik, what do you think has to be done?

KRIS KOLESNIK: First of all I think the director would agree with me that the FBI is reactive. He said as much last week.

What I think has to be done is to take the steps that Mr. Mueller has taken with respect to beefing up intelligence analysis, but I think you’re going to have a real problem if the field offices think that the headquarters is in control now of counter terrorism cases.

MARGARET WARNER: This is Mueller’s new idea -

KRIS KOLESNIK: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: — of a super terror task force?

KRIS KOLESNIK: Right. And that they don’t have to support headquarters on counter-terrorism cases because there’s a real potential that that could happen. We don’t want to see that.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Gentlemen, we have to leave it there. Thank you all.