Information Overload?

Posted Jan. 22, 2010, at 5:44 p.m.

Congressional committees that held hearings on the Christmas airplane bomb plot heard from many government officials about what went wrong — an unwieldy no-fly list, lots of data but inadequate ways to search it, and treating the suspect as a criminal, not a potential terrorist. What they didn’t hear is how these failures would be fixed. That is where House and Senate committees must focus their attention.

On Christmas Day, a 23-year-old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to blow up a plane as it neared Detroit. The explosive chemicals hidden in his underwear failed to detonate and he was subdued by passengers.

The Nigerian’s father went to the U.S. embassy there in November to warn that his son had expressed radical views. His name was added to a database of more than 50,000 people with suspected terrorist ties, but he was not moved to a much smaller list of people who should undergo additional security screening nor to the even shorter no-fly list.

A major problem is the vast amount of data that intelligence and law enforcement agencies must sift through. Michael E. Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, acknowledged that billions of dollars and more than eight years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there is still no simple way to quickly and easily search the reams of information the agencies have collected. In the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, there was talk of a Google-type search system that would even look for misspelled names. If the government is having so much trouble building such a system, should it just sign a contract with Google to do the work?

“Whether this failure was caused by human error, poor judgment, outmoded systems or the sheer volume of data that must be analyzed, we must, we simply must develop systems and protocols to prevent these failures,” Sen. Susan Collins said at the start of Wednesday’s hearing before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. A fuller discussion of fixes is expected at future committee hearings.

The senator was also concerned that Mr. Abdulmutallab wasn’t adequately questioned by a anti-terrorism interrogation group before being turned over to the civilian court system. She introduced a bill Thursday to require consultation with intelligence officials before making such a decision in the future.

The bottom line is that gathering intelligence is worthless if the information can’t be readily found by people who must decide if someone should be able to board a plane or should have his visa revoked. Lawmakers should focus their attention on ensuring barriers to information sharing, technical and otherwise, are removed.

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