- The Washington Times - Monday, August 5, 2002

About two months before he spearheaded the most deadly domestic terrorist attack in United States history, Mohammed Atta should have been in police custody. On July 5, 2001, Atta was stopped in Palm Beach County, Fla., for a traffic violation. The incident was handled as a routine matter and Atta was released. Yet, in neighboring Broward County there was an outstanding bench warrant for Atta for failure to appear in court on an invalid license charge.
Atta remained free because police in Palm County weren't able to access the records of their counterparts in Broward County. The simple, horrible truth is this: Atta wasn't detained because the CIA, FBI, INS and Florida law-enforcement agencies didn't have the technology to share information. They still don't.
Much of our homeland's insecurity comes down to this: America's law-enforcement community has an inventory management problem. Target Corporation has better information systems to track the socks at its 1,028 stores than law-enforcement agencies have for tracking criminals and potential terrorists.
The Florida information breakdown is symptomatic of what occurs in every police department throughout the country. Police and sheriffs often lack the technology to share information with other law-enforcement agencies within their state, with other states or with federal agencies. Courts often don't have complete records when they sentence criminals. Consequently, criminals are able to move freely throughout our country.
Unless all law-enforcement agencies from the smallest county sheriff's office to the FBI have the means to share information, homeland security will remain at risk.
Atta is not an isolated example. The CIA tracked two al Qaeda operatives who were also part of the September 11 attack as they entered the United States. The CIA, though, did not let the FBI know the al Qaeda soldiers were in the country. The two lived openly, listing their address and phone in a local phone book, obtaining drivers licenses, Social Security cards, credit cards, and opening bank accounts in their own names. One of the terrorists was even stopped by an Oklahoma state trooper prior to September 11 for speeding but was released with a ticket when a computer check came back clean.
The FBI insists that had they known about these two terrorists, they may have been able to tie all 19 hijackers together, potentially preventing the September 11 attacks.
According to Sen. Evan Bayh, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, "I really do think we need a thorough, top-to-bottom reorganization improvement of our ability to collect information, both internationally and domestically. If we don't do that, then we're really not going to be in as good a position to protect America, regardless of whoever is heading these agencies."
Reorganizing the federal government alone won't work. We need to restructure business practices, adopt common technology and language and change how information is collected and shared at every level, from the FBI, to the states, to the cities and counties.
And while much of our nation's attention is focused on stopping foreign terrorists, homeland security also should protect us from the criminals in our own communities. Every day in the news there are stories about criminals who manage to elude capture for years.
There is a solution. A unique criminal justice information system now is being constructed and tested in Minnesota. It could be the nationwide model for enhancing public safety and our country's homeland security efforts. Called CriMNet, the system is a secure Intranet that will connect together the state's 1,100 law-enforcement organizations and the information they have. It is the only system in the country that will give law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, probation and correction officials current and complete criminal history information on suspects and criminals throughout Minnesota from the state down to the county and city levels.
The Minnesota business community has partnered with law enforcement to support legislative funding for CriMNet because the private sector has the expertise and resources to provide assistance. We have a stake in safe communities for our employees and customers, and we have a responsibility to invest in our communities.
The president and Congress are on the right track with improving the nation's inventory management problem by improving collaboration and information-sharing to better track terrorist and criminal activities. But we won't approach the type of safety this nation deserves until tracking terrorists and criminals is as effective as tracking inventory at a Target Store. We need to know exactly where they are.

Charlie Weaver is Minnesota's commissioner of public safety and director of homeland security. Robert Ulrich is CEO of Target Corp.

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