Tuesday, September 28, 2004
Too much secrecy: Overclassification hampers cooperation
By EILEEN SULLIVAN
In tracking terrorists before the 9/11 attacks, perhaps the biggest hurdle federal agents faced, it turns out, was each other.
In 2000, the CIA had classified intelligence that Khalid al-Mihdhar was affiliated with a terrorist who participated in the U.S. embassy bombings and the USS Cole attack. The CIA also did not give the FBI access to its internal reports that contained this information so the FBI’s agents could watch for Mihdhar in the United States, where, at times, he lived with another hijacker.
At a meeting of FBI and CIA analysts three months before the 9/11 attacks, vital intelligence about al-Qaida suspects from the National Security Agency was not shared by one participant because she did not have NSA’s permission. Had she shared her information, the other analysts would have made a link to leads in the Cole attack, and started tracking Mihdhar, the 9/11 Commission concluded in its report.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Mihdhar helped hijack American Airlines Flight 77 and crash it into the Pentagon, killing 189 people.
In short, the commission concluded, excessive secrecy in government sabotaged attempts to find, track and catch terrorists.
“Current security requirements nurture overclassification and excessive compartmentation of information among agencies,” the 9/11 Commission report found.
The problem is a big one, many experts agree. Too much information gets classified that doesn’t need to be. Rules and practices used to maintain official secrets are inconsistent and misapplied. And keeping official secrets is incredibly expensive: The government spent $6.5 billion on it in fiscal 2003.
But the biggest problem is that excessive government secrecy is undermining homeland and national security, many experts argue.