Terror alerts and intelligence gathering remain faulty

The city of Boston was placed on high alert, based on intelligence that suggested terrorists were planning a nuclear attack for last weekend. The warning also caused hysteria in other cities, where residents feared that the attack might also happen in their own back yard. Tuesday the FBI admitted the whole incident had been a “hoax.” In order to ensure such threat warnings will be taken seriously in the future, it is vital that warnings have a basis in fact. But to ensure this, intelligence gathering systems will likely need considerable upgrades.

The FBI acted quickly, shutting down a Web site Wednesday that had allowed tipsters to anonymously submit “threats.” Yet recent news about the computer system used by the FBI to manage the data collected is hardly re-assuring.

During the 9/11 Commission hearings it became public that the FBI system (called Carnivore) was not capable of the most rudimentary cross searches. It did not allow for two words to be entered simultaneously to cross-reference different files. This became a painfully evident flaw in the system when it was also revealed that an FBI field agent in Phoenix had filed a report that contained information about young men of Arabic descent attempting to gain admittance to flight schools.

It is not certain if the Sept. 11 attacks would have been prevented had the FBI possessed better equipment, but it is safe to say that not having such abilities did make any chance to foil the plot in its infancy considerably more difficult.

By the time the Commission filed its official report, the FBI had vowed to update its equipment, announcing plans to invest $170 million to overhaul the system. Earlier this month, though, the FBI announced that most of the planned upgrades, which it called “critical to the mission,” had to be scrapped, as there had been problems in the implementation.

When John Kerry came to USF last summer, he was asked if he believed the terror alerts that seemed to pop up whenever “bad news” made President George W. Bush’s approval rating slip had political intent. He responded by saying that he did not have basis on which to believe that was the case, nor did he ever suggest such a thing himself. He then added that the fact that the question was even asked illustrated that the doubt the general public has regarding the accuracy of the system was already deeply rooted.

Hearing that a major threat turns out to be a hoax definitely does not help to establish trust. By not upgrading the system, such occurrences are sadly also in the cards for the future. Considering the grave effect such errors could cause, though, such a gamble is hardly acceptable.