By Jordy Yager - 09/30/09 07:42 PM EDT
Communication among the various national security agencies charged with preventing future terrorist attacks has yet to reach a satisfactory level, Homeland Security officials told senators Wednesday.
While interagency information-gathering and -sharing has improved tremendously in the eight years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on Wednesday that communication between federal, state and local law enforcement “is still in the developmental stage.”
“In some instances the information may be spread among different departments still. So our ability to not only collect information but [also] to diffuse it is really part and parcel of where the department is moving so you have that direct connectivity with an officer on the street.”
Mike Leiter, director of the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC), which serves as the information hub for all terrorist-related intelligence gathered by U.S. agencies, said that NCTC has all of requisite information for officers to access, but it’s a matter of educating them as to how to contact his agency to share or obtain intelligence.
Leiter told the panel that his biggest concern was trying to maintain a balance between the civil rights of the American public and the NCTC’s effective intelligence-gathering, saying that remains a “significant” challenge.
“I think what keeps me up at night … is how do we do that in a way that is not invasive of that other 300 million-plus [Americans]?” he said.
“And how do we ensure that you as a Congress … trust in our organizations that we can do this and that we can do this with a level of secrecy so that it’s not played out in the press but that individuals such as yourselves and the public believe that we are not invading their privacy and their civil liberties in a way that should not be done.”
The travel of Americans and Europeans to terrorist hot spots like Afghanistan and Pakistan or Somalia was also of particular concern to Leiter, who said that because they are Westerners, they may not be as highly scrutinized for suspicious terrorist activity as would be foreign nationals from Middle Eastern countries.
“They obviously bring with them an understanding of our society, which enables them to operate more easily here,” he said. “They don’t have to go through the border controls that non-Westerners have to go through and their ability to travel allows them a level of education or training that they might not otherwise be able to obtain.”
FBI Director Robert Mueller, who also testified before the committee, agreed with Leiter’s assessment.
“Over the last several years we’ve picked up intelligence that al Qaeda has been making a concerted effort to recruit Europeans and Westerners, understanding that they can fly under the radar in their passing through border controls,” he said.
Mueller cited the recent example of Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan immigrant and U.S. resident whom federal officials have charged with plotting to use weapons of mass destruction to wage an attack against the U.S. Officials allege that the technical training Zazi possesses was learned in an al Qaeda training camp in Pakistan, where he still had family and to which he would travel periodically.
“It was training in Pakistan that gave him the capability of undertaking the attack,” Mueller said. “And the ability to obtain intelligence and reduce the threat from that area is, to my mind, absolutely key to protecting the homeland.”