WASHINGTON – The left hand of government didn't know what the right hand was doing before Sept. 11, and the failure to share vital intelligence continues even today.
That's the assessment of Eleanor Hill, the woman leading a congressional probe into pre-Sept. 11 intelligence failures.
Hill told the House and Senate Joint Intelligence panel on Tuesday that examples abound of miscommunication. For example, the FBI did not turn over details of the so-called "Phoenix memo" to the Federal Aviation Administration until long after it became public knowledge in early 2002.
That memo raised concerns that Al Qaeda might be training terrorist pilots in the United States, but since the FAA was unaware of the concern, it never warned airlines of the possibility that terrorists might try to hijack an airplane and crash it into a building.
Intelligence agencies had at least a dozen clues since 1994 that airplanes might be used as weapons, Hill said in an earlier report.
And that is only part of the problem. The Joint Intelligence Committee has come up with an agency laundry list of troubles.
For instance, non-intelligence agencies lack personnel with security clearances to receive classified data. Intelligence gathered by the CIA and National Security Agency is still not trickling down to other front line agencies like the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Customs Service, Department of State and other agencies who have the capacity to put suspected terrorists on various watch lists.
"The reason for these information disconnects can be, depending on the case, cultural, organizational, human or technological. Comprehensive solutions, while perhaps difficult and costly, must be developed and implemented if we are to maximize our potential for success in the war against terrorism," said Hill, staff director for the panel.
One of the biggest hurdles mentioned is that the information systems in government do not talk to one another, meaning that raw data is not easily shared among the various agencies and departments who might make effective use of the potentially life-saving intelligence.
This is backed up by a just-released report from the Justice Department inspector general that outlines several continuing FBI shortcomings, including the fact that the FBI hasn't adequately assessed the terrorism threat, isn't properly training counterterrorism agents and has not identified the chemical or biological agents that terrorists might use in the future.
Officials from the Transportation Department, INS and other agencies told the committees about efforts to improve communications and cooperation, especially since the attacks. CIA and FBI officials have said they did the best they could given the legal restrictions and limited staff and money.
But Baltimore's police commissioner, Edward Norris, said local police chiefs are still not being told of federal investigations in their communities, despite being on the front lines of the fight against domestic terrorism.
"Who do we think needs to know more than the chiefs who protect the cities' citizens?" he said. "We need to know more than anybody in this country what's going on in our cities, yet we don't."
Hill maintained that that fact also applies to intelligence agents who, given the clues, can alert authorities for the need of a heightened state of alert. Such a case could have applied to the State Department, which did not know that two of the hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, had been identified by the CIA as attending a January 2000 Al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia. Had the department known, it could have placed the two on a watch list to deny them visas for entry into the United States.
Lawmakers are trying to follow up on the congressional inquiry with an independent commission to look into the Sept. 11 attacks. In the Senate, though, the commission's fate is uncertain because it is attached to the much-delayed homeland security bill.
In an attempt to bypass the homeland security debate, Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., said Monday he would ask House-Senate negotiators to include the commission as part of the intelligence authorization bill they're considering this week.
Fox News' Brian Wilson and the Associated Press contributed to this report.