Rep. Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican, correctly asserts the terrorist attack on America on September 11, 2001, could have been averted.
The assertion was based on his efforts as early as 1999 to create a national collaborative or fusion center. It would data-mine vast amounts of information from U.S. intelligence and law enforcement to confront such asymmetrical threats as terrorism, proliferation, illegal arms trafficking, espionage, narcotics and information warfare and cyber-terrorism.
It was a process that produced, among other things, the Able Danger open-source analysis that reportedly revealed hijacker Mohamed Atta as a potential terrorist before the attack.
Mr. Weldon first sought help from Eileen Preisser, who ran the Information Dominance Center at the U.S. Army’s Land Information Warfare Activity (LIWA) at Fort Belvoir, Va. He then asked this writer to work with Ms. Preisser to see how the Army initiative could be expanded into a national effort.
As Mr. Weldon envisioned it, the national collaborative center would have been comprised of a system of mini-centers or “pods” of some 34 entities from the U.S. intelligence community and law enforcement agencies to function in a common operating environment.
It would not have been just another analytical unit. The effect of data-mining information that had already been analyzed was to game-plan particular issues and offer options to policymakers and national commanders to deal with them.
For example, say terrorists in South America work with drug cartels raise money to buy weapons on the “gray” arms market to smuggle to terror cells in the U.S. Information from independent analytical centers dedicated to the elements in this hypothetical scenario would be fused at the center to determine a course of action.
Potential end-users would have been the White House, Congress, State and Defense Departments, Joint Chiefs of Staff, the regional commanders-in-chiefs (CINCs) and government operation centers.
In a July 30, 1999, letter to then-Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre, Mr. Weldon proposed creating a national entity “that can acquire, fuse and analyze disparate data from many agencies to support the policymaker in taking action against asymmetrical threats. “These challenges are beginning to overlap, thereby blurring their distinction while posing increasing threats to our nation.”
Mr. Weldon pointed out that the Defense Department “has a unique opportunity” to create a centralized national center, which he called the National Operations Analysis Hub (NOAH, to protect against the “flood of threats.”
The NOAH would have been created by presidential executive order as a tool of the National Security Council. The Defense Department would have been designated to run it.
Mr. Weldon’s proposal, however, met with immediate opposition from the Defense Department. The office of the assistant secretary for command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I), now renamed networks and information integration, especially pushed for creating the Joint Central Analytic Group (JCAG). C3I was concerned that money for the national collaborative center would be diverted from the long-sought JCAG counterintelligence analytical center.
Unfortunately, the JCAG, now at the Defense Intelligence Agency at Bolling Air Force Base, doesn’t talk to other analytical centers that deal with various asymmetrical threats.
Nor do the other existing analytical centers dedicated to collecting information on terrorism, proliferation, arms smuggling and other threats talk to each another regularly.
Following the initial DoD turndown, Ellen Preisser and this writer then data-mined unclassified information to report to Mr. Weldon on possible Chinese front companies in the United States seeking technology for the People’s Liberation Army.
It showed how Chinese front companies in the United States listed as U.S. corporations were acquiring U.S. weapons technology from U.S. defense contractors, and improving China’s military capability. Such access to U.S. technology then would allow the Chinese over time to duplicate U.S. military systems down to the widget.
Indeed, a June 27, 2005 article in The Washington Times reported U.S. investigators were concerned with China and its middlemen increasingly and illegally obtaining “sensitive or classified U.S. weapons technology” from U.S. companies.
Reaction to the study on Chinese front companies in the United States from the Army and the General Counsel’s office in the Office of the Defense Secretary was immediate. In November 1999, they ordered the study destroyed, but not before Mr. Weldon complained to then Army Chief of Staff Eric K. Shinseki.
Mr. Weldon also wrote a letter to then-FBI Director Louis Freeh requesting an espionage investigation. Mr. Freeh never responded to the Weldon request.
Then in an April 14, 2000, memorandum from the legal counsel in the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Capt. Michael Lohr wrote that the concern over the LIWA initiative potentially bumped into what amounted to domestic spying.
“Preliminary review of subject methodology raised the possibility that LIWA ‘data mining’ would potentially access both foreign intelligence (FI) information and domestic information relating to U.S. citizens (i.e. law enforcement, tax, customs, immigration, etc,” Capt. Lohr wrote.
“I recognize that an argument can be made that LIWA is not ‘collecting’ in the strict sense (i.e. they are accessing public areas of the Internet and non-FI federal government databases of already lawfully collected information),” Capt. Lohr added. “This effort would, however, have the potential to pull together into a single database a wealth of privacy-protected U.S. citizen information in a more sweeping and exhaustive manner than was previously contemplated.”
In effect, the national collaborative center experiment based on the LIWA example was sidelined.
If the concept of the NOAH had been in effect on September 11, 2001, events may have been different. The cost for such a system would have been minimal compared to the heavy cost in human life and resources the nation suffered.
F. Michael Maloof is a former senior analyst in the Office of the Defense Secretary.
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