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Days before the Sept. 11 attack, an FBI field agent in Phoenix sent a memo to FBI headquarters relaying concern over Middle Eastern men training to fly jets at aviation schools. But the information was never formally evaluated. Earlier this summer, Minneapolis FBI field agent Coleen Rowley testified before a congressional committee about how hard it is to process information at the agency. Her office had also drafted a memo about a Middle Eastern man -- Zacarias Moussaoui -- who had enrolled in a flight school before Sept. 11, but the memos were never linked.
The agency's records are so voluminous, Rowley said, that they're nearly useless. Intelligence analysts sometimes call it drinking from a fire hose.
Analysts working the Pentagon war room are equally flooded with information. Sometimes they get one message a second, says U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL), a former Naval intelligence officer.
"An analyst from South America would get 1,400 messages a day," Kirk tells Joyce. "There are huge vacuum cleaners in the sky sucking in information for the foreign intelligence agents, but sometimes we get so far behind in collecting information that we find it too late, as we did with Sept. 11."
The billions of dollars spent on homeland defense will inundate intelligence analysts with information: photos from satellites, intercepted e-mails, banking records. Someone -- or something -- has to separate the information from the noise. There's a growing industry to figure out the best solutions.
The government has created an Information Awareness Office at its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to do just that. And researchers with the National Science Foundation are working with the CIA on systems that dig through mountains of information, looking for patterns.
But there is a danger to improving information gathering and analysis. Better technology will give the government more information -- about everybody. At the moment, laws such as the Federal Privacy Act limit how much personal information federal agencies can share with each other. But Ben Shneiderman, a computer scientist at the University of Maryland, warns that may change.
"The mood is somewhat shifted, and the feeling is, well, if one state agency collects certain data they should share it with another agency," Shneiderman tells Joyce. "In fact, the criticism of the FBI and the CIA was for not sharing."
The imminent danger is that the government's disorganized database system could actually get much better, according to many computer experts. Scientists are ready to fix the database, and money is on the way. What those experts worry about is whether the technology will outrun the public's ability to control it.