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Americans yet to come to terms with a changed world

September 19, 2002

Military firepower has been boosted, but not the vital information intelligence services

 

THIS TIME last year we were all still trying to come to terms with the horror of the terrorist attacks on New York. The Economist sensed the mood with its cover headline 'The day the world changed' over a photograph of the collapsed twin towers.

 

And what, we all wondered, would be these changes? Maybe Hollywood would be shamed into curbing excessive urban violence in blockbuster movies. Perhaps the USA would become more sensitive to the tone of its relationships with the rest of the world, particularly in the Middle East? Maybe the US would switch military resources away from planes and missiles (which provided no protection to the workers in the World Trade Centre) and towards the surveillance, detection and confining of terrorist groups?

All of these seemed rather likely outcomes at the time. So when I found myself on business in Washington DC last week, in the days around September 11th, I expected to sense a different mood.

 

My first surprise came before I even arrived. The in-flight movie on my US-owned airline was Spiderman, a Hollywood blockbuster shot high among the skyscrapers of New York City. I couldn’t believe my eyes when the villain in this movie flew a plane into a high building, causing many people to fall to their deaths. Surely I wasn't the only one who found this grossly offensive – this film must have actually been in the middle of production at this time last year.

 

My next surprise shouldn’t have been a surprise really. I had wondered if the events of '9/11', as Americans label them, would have led people to try to understand better the causes of the frustration that led to the suicide attacks.

 

I discovered, instead, a nation that seemed to be more isolated and ignorant than ever. The actions taken in response to 9/11: blocking visas for students and business people from the Arab world; the holding of hundreds of Arabic and Muslim prisoners without trial; and the support for Israel in its fierce repression of Palestine, are storing up huge resentment and frustration in the Middle East. 

 

The USA remains a strong supporter of the repressive family that runs Saudi Arabia – keepers of the world’s largest oil reserves, despite the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi’s, as is Osama bin Laden himself. We can only guess at the future anti-American terrorists which are right now being generated by US policy in Saudi Arabia, a country where over half the population is under 20 years old. 

 

Meanwhile, Americans wrap themselves in their flag, as if it has become bullet-proof.

Then there is the military response. Defence spending has been ramped up, and the military hardware has been mobilised in Afghanistan, and soon, it seems, in Iraq. Ignoring the fact that 9/11 was not a failure of military firepower - it was an intelligence failure. So how well have the intelligence failures been tackled?

 

The intelligence activities are currently split between many agencies: the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency (NSA), Customs, Transportation, Internal Revenue (IRS), and so on. All of whom have separate, and mostly poorly designed information systems which don’t communicate with each other. “Virtually every corner you turn, you see problems”, says Mark Forman, the top IT official at the Bush administration.

 

It is reported that the FBI is unable to search information sources for more than one term – you can search for 'shoe' or 'bomb', but not the combination of both. The House of Representatives committee on Terrorism and Homeland Security issued a report in July which blasts the NSA for failing to upgrade its systems to perform even the simplest task. The House also lambasted the CIA for its inability to collect and disseminate information on suspects in a timely fashion.

 

The new Department of Homeland Security, which is supposed to unify a range of agencies and coordinate anti-terrorist intelligence, will probably have a 2003 information technology budget of $2.1 billion. But right now it has no budget at all, and is preoccupied with trying to sort out the union recognition for its employees. Meanwhile, the various constituent agencies are currently blocked from making any significant investment in new systems in advance of the creation of the new Department.

 

Winston Churchill once said “the Americans will always do the right thing… after they've exhausted all the alternatives”.

 

I wonder how much longer it is going to take.

 

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