20 May 2002
As members of Congress prepare to investigate what they call intelligence failures associated with the September 11 terrorist attacks, policy makers and average citizens alike are asking why U.S. intelligence agencies don't cooperate more closely. But getting the FBI and the CIA to share information is not quite as simple as it sounds.
In July 2001, an FBI agent in Phoenix sent a memo to Washington warning that Osama bin Laden may be using U.S. flight schools to train terrorists. The memo was never acted on or widely shared with other intelligence agencies.
The so-called Phoenix memo has now become a symbol of U.S. intelligence agencies failing to share information and is sure to be a focal point in the upcoming congressional investigation of what went wrong before September 11.
It is an issue drawing concern from the highest levels of the U.S. government. "What has been lacking, I think, was effective coordination between our international intelligence collecting operations and our domestic law enforcement," said Vice President Dick Cheney Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. "I think also in terms of our ability to analyze data."
Some members of Congress have been upset with the inability of intelligence agencies to cooperate for sometime. Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama is the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He said on the CBS program Face the Nation that President Bush has been poorly served by the intelligence agencies.
"He didn't know a lot of things because the FBI and the CIA and other people have not done their job, at least not shared information, not done it properly," said Sen. Shelby.
Part of the problem is that the CIA is restricted by law to focus on international terror threats, while the FBI is responsible for counter-terrorism efforts at home.
So what you have is a system that has basic structural flaws in it," according to Neal Livingstone, a terrorism expert based in Washington. "You have a director of central intelligence, but he can't really operate effectively in the United States. You have an FBI, which does not operate [overseas] except in certain criminal activities abroad."
Despite the bureaucratic intelligence divide, the CIA and FBI do share some information. But Buck Revell, a former counter-terrorism chief for the FBI, said any expansion of information sharing would require congressional action.
"I had daily contact with the agency [CIA] and with NSA [National Security Agency] and DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency]. We had exchanges on the very highest levels. We had mechanisms set up that ensured that we did have an exchange. Now, there were certain compartments and certain limitations on all sides. Some of those are legal. Some of those are through regulations such as Attorney General guidelines and the Privacy Act."
Some experts believe that it would be a mistake to centralize all intelligence gathering and analysis into one government department.
Terrorism expert Neil Livingstone argues that it is better to gather as much intelligence from as many different sources as possible.
"Some independence of viewpoint is important in the various intelligence agencies and if you try to homogenize this process and make everyone accountable within the same system, often times you will only get one viewpoint. And sometimes what you are looking for is numerous viewpoints from numerous different organizations," said Mr. Livingstone.
He also contends that agency limits on intelligence sharing are a sound precaution against spies. For example, he says that former FBI agent turned Russian spy Robert Hanssen could have been even more destructive had he been privy to classified information from the CIA.