9-11 report passes the buck on to IT

The 9-11 Commission has just released its final report on the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It attributes dated IT systems, poor software, mainframes, bad information sharing and even typewriters, as a few of the reasons for the intelligence failure. Ironically the US federal government is one the world's largest IT spenders pumping in US$46 billion this year alone.

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By  Maddy Reddy Published  July 23, 2004

The 9-11 Commission has just released its final report on the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks attributes dated IT systems, poor software, mainframes, bad information sharing and even typewriters, as a few of the reasons for the failure of US government intelligence, which could have prevented the attacks. Ironically the US federal government is the largest IT spender in the world, pumping in more than US$46 billion this year alone. After nearly 20 months and working with a cumulative budget of US$15 million and more than 80 staff members, the Commission claims to have completed the most comprehensive independent government investigation in US history. It interviewed more than 1,200 people in ten different countries wading through more than 2.5 million documents. The 585-page report which can be sourced from the commission’s official website 9-11 commission.gov says that lack of data sharing is at the heart of US government failures responsible for the September 11 attacks rather than single out government officials. The report says, 'The current system is structured on an old mainframe or hub-and-spoke, concept.' It recommends biometrics and radio frequency based ID (RFID) as a solution to track immigrants better. “Exit data are not uniformly collected and entry data are not fully automated. It is not clear the system can be installed before 2010, but even this timetable may be too slow, given the possible security dangers. In order to plug the gap, more work is needed on biometric technology.” “Linking biometric passports to good data systems and decision-making is a fundamental goal. No one can hide his or her debt by acquiring a credit card with a slightly different name. Yet today, a terrorist can defeat the link to electronic records by tossing away an old passport and slightly altering the name in the new one.” The report concedes that the digital divide and low information and communications technology (ICT) penetration in the Middle East, as one of the reasons for the conflict situation. “More vocational education is needed, too in trades and business skills. The Middle East can also benefit from some of the programs to bridge the digital divide and increase internet access that have already been developed for other regions of the world.” The report adds that the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS), which controls the gateway between America and the world is still in the dark ages of technology. “The INS is seriously hampered by outdated technology and insufficient human resources. Border Patrol agents were still using manual typewriters; inspectors at ports of entry were using a paper watch list the asylum and other benefits systems did not effectively deter fraudulent applicants.” It cites the internet as giving easy access to information as one of the contributing factors behind 9/11. “The emergence of the World Wide Web has given terrorists a much easier means of acquiring information and exercising command and control over their operations. The operational leader of the 9/11 conspiracy, Mohamed Atta, went online to research U.S flight schools. For instance, he collected Western aviation magazines; telephone directories for American cities; brochures for schools; and airline timetables and he conducted internet searches on U.S flight schools. He also purchased MS flight simulator software [which Microsoft modified after 9/11]. Targets of intelligence collection have become more sophisticated. These changes have made surveillance and threat warning more difficult.” It concedes that America embracing technology has created a double-edged sword. “Despite the problems that technology creates, Americans’ love affair with it leads them to also regard it as the solution. For example, even the best IT will not improve information sharing so long as the intelligence agencies’ personnel and security systems reward protecting information rather than disseminating it.” The 9/11 report points out instances of software, which reportedly let officials down, leading to the catastrophe. “Radar reconstructions performed after 9/11 reveal that FAA radar equipment tracked the flight from the moment its transponder was turned off at 8:56.But for 8 minutes and 13 seconds, between 8:56 and 9:05, this primary radar information on American 77 was not displayed to controllers at Indianapolis Center. The reasons are technical arising from the way the software processed radar information as well as from poor primary radar coverage where American 77 was flying.” The 7.4-megabyte PDF file, says that George Bush should ‘lead the government wide effort to bring the major national security institutions into the information revolution.’ However, according to the latest Datamonitor report, technology vendors are looking at a projected opportunity of over US$46 billion in the government’s fiscal year 2004 (ending in September) and expect US federal government spend on technology to grow to US$56.5 billion by 2009. The report identifies that the Departments of Defense, Homeland security, transportation, energy and treasury account for over 70% of federal ICT dollars in FY2004. While, the new (2003-2004) federal IT budget is not directly accountable for lapses in US security, the 9/11 commission report does pass the buck on to bad IT systems and processes, when the reality is the Defence department remains the largest buyer of IT products and services. A study released by the US General Accounting Office (GAO) points other wise. The GAO-03-384R marked study says federal spending on information technology doubled between 1997 and 2001, with the bulk of those funds going to larger businesses. Federal agencies in 2001 purchased 62% of their IT services and supplies from large companies. And even the various government agencies (such as NSA, FBI, INS and others) have been increasing spending of IT through the General Services Administration’s (GSA) Federal Technology Service. For instance, IT purchases made through GSA supply schedule contracts grew from US$405 million in 1997 to US$4.3 billion from in 2001. While the public verdict on the 9/11 report is yet to be given and Bush’s re-election will not be confirmed until later this year, records of US government IT spending only slant favour away from the commission’ findings.

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