The Information Shortcomings of 9/11: One of the Most Important Lessons of September 11, 2001, May Be That Informational-Not Organizational-Solutions Are Necessary as Organizations and Governments Evolve from the Information Age to the Intelligence Age

By Strickland, Lee S. | Information Management, November-December 2004 | Go to article overview

The Information Shortcomings of 9/11: One of the Most Important Lessons of September 11, 2001, May Be That Informational-Not Organizational-Solutions Are Necessary as Organizations and Governments Evolve from the Information Age to the Intelligence Age


Strickland, Lee S., Information Management


On July 22, 2004, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9/11 Commission) released its revealing report on the al Qa'ida assault on the homeland. Among other things, it documents the shortcomings in American law enforcement, intelligence, leadership, and congressional oversight.

According to the commission, the U.S. government did know that such a scenario was possible. It knew of the 1994 hijacking and attempt to crash an Mr France jet into the Eiffel Tower. It knew of Ramzi Yousef's 1995 foiled conspiracy in the Philippines to use multiple U.S. airliners against explicit domestic targets; it applied this threat scenario in the 1996 counterterrorism planning for the Atlanta Olympics. It saw a widely circulated 1999 report from the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) National Intelligence Council that highlighted the potential for terrorists to crash explosives-laden civilian aircraft into critical national targets; and it again applied this threat scenario in 2001 when a no-fly zone was established in Genoa for a G8 meeting of major industrial democracies. Yet, despite these many warnings, over a seven-year period, the U.S. government had not responded with an effective plan that might have prevented the 9/11 attacks.

With 9/11, the nation experienced a classic failure of knowledge management as described by C.W. Holsapple in Handbook of Knowledge Management--a failure to bring together the collective explicit information in its possession, the tacit knowledge of its officers, and the embedded knowledge (i.e., the core competencies of an organization including its processes and services) that it possessed. As a result, new knowledge was not created through effective information management and analysis processes so that this asymmetric threat could be anticipated and mitigated.

The Commission Recommendations and the Fallacy of Reorganization

The commission identified highly detailed shortcomings and issued 41 recommendations that generally set broad policy objectives but most substantively focused on organizational change within the government. (See "Key 9/11 Commission Recommendations," p. 37.) The most concrete recommendations called for the appointment of a new director of national intelligence (DNI) and the creation of a national counterterrorism center as well as an undetermined number of other independent intelligence centers that would focus on key issues (e.g., proliferation or regional issues) and report to the DNI. Information sharing and analysis received much less attention from the commission, although they have been considered in recent executive orders and proposed legislation. (See "Knowledge Sharing Through Enterprise Architecture," p. 38.)

The commission's focus on reorganization and bureaucratic overhead presents challenges: increased costs, decreased agility and speed in intelligence analysis and operations, and diminished diversity and precision of intelligence judgments that together guarantee the nation's safety. Today, for example, there are many intelligence products from the intelligence community and even National Intelligence Estimates that go through a complex but efficient coordination process to ensure that the views of intelligence experts are heard, noted, and made available to policymakers. As Bruce D. Berkowitz and Allan E. Goodman note in Best Truth: Intelligence in the Information Age, avoiding hierarchical rigidity is optimal because "a flexible, decentralized intelligence community managed through market-like mechanisms is better suited to the new environment."

Richard Betts, director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University and a member of the National Commission on Terrorism, also recognized the limited efficacy of organizational change: "The only thing worse than business as usual would be naive assumptions about what reform can accomplish." Indeed, government officials such as U. …

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