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Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining, Cato Policy Analysis No. 584

Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining, Cato Policy Analysis No. 584

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Published by Cato Institute
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001,
spurred extraordinary efforts intended to protect
America from the newly highlighted scourge of
international terrorism. Among the efforts was the
consideration and possible use of "data mining" as
a way to discover planning and preparation for terrorism.
Data mining is the process of searching
data for previously unknown patterns and using
those patterns to predict future outcomes.

Information about key members of the 9/11
plot was available to the U.S. government prior
to the attacks, and the 9/11 terrorists were closely
connected to one another in a multitude of
ways. The National Commission on Terrorist
Attacks upon the United States concluded that,
by pursuing the leads available to it at the time,
the government might have derailed the plan.

Though data mining has many valuable uses,
it is not well suited to the terrorist discovery
problem. It would be unfortunate if data mining
for terrorism discovery had currency within
national security, law enforcement, and technology
circles because pursuing this use of data
mining would waste taxpayer dollars, needlessly
infringe on privacy and civil liberties, and misdirect
the valuable time and energy of the men and
women in the national security community.

What the 9/11 story most clearly calls for is a
sharper focus on the part of our national security
agencies
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001,
spurred extraordinary efforts intended to protect
America from the newly highlighted scourge of
international terrorism. Among the efforts was the
consideration and possible use of "data mining" as
a way to discover planning and preparation for terrorism.
Data mining is the process of searching
data for previously unknown patterns and using
those patterns to predict future outcomes.

Information about key members of the 9/11
plot was available to the U.S. government prior
to the attacks, and the 9/11 terrorists were closely
connected to one another in a multitude of
ways. The National Commission on Terrorist
Attacks upon the United States concluded that,
by pursuing the leads available to it at the time,
the government might have derailed the plan.

Though data mining has many valuable uses,
it is not well suited to the terrorist discovery
problem. It would be unfortunate if data mining
for terrorism discovery had currency within
national security, law enforcement, and technology
circles because pursuing this use of data
mining would waste taxpayer dollars, needlessly
infringe on privacy and civil liberties, and misdirect
the valuable time and energy of the men and
women in the national security community.

What the 9/11 story most clearly calls for is a
sharper focus on the part of our national security
agencies

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Published by: Cato Institute on Mar 27, 2009
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The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001,spurred extraordinary efforts intended to protect America from the newly highlighted scourge of international terrorism. Among the efforts was theconsideration and possible use of “data mining” asa way to discover planning and preparation for ter-rorism. Data mining is the process of searchingdata for previously unknown patterns and usingthose patterns to predict future outcomes.Information about key members of the 9/11plot was available to the U.S. government priorto the attacks, and the 9/11 terrorists were close-ly connected to one another in a multitude of ways. The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States concluded that,by pursuing the leads available to it at the time,the government might have derailed the plan.Though data mining has many valuable uses,it is not well suited to the terrorist discovery problem. It would be unfortunate if data miningfor terrorism discovery had currency withinnational security, law enforcement, and technol-ogy circles because pursuing this use of data mining would waste taxpayer dollars, needlessly infringe on privacy and civil liberties, and misdi-rect the valuable time and energy of the men andwomen in the national security community.What the 9/11 story most clearly calls for is a sharper focus on the part of our national securi-ty agencies—their focus had undoubtedly sharp-ened by the end of the day on September 11,2001—along with the ability to efficiently locate,access, and aggregate information about specificsuspects.
 Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining 
by Jeff Jonas and Jim Harper
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________
 Jeff Jonas is distinguished engineer and chief scientist with IBM’s Entity Analytic Solutions Group. Jim Harper isdirector of information policy studies at the Cato Institute and author of 
Identity Crisis: How Identification IsOverused and Misunderstood
.
Executive Summary 
No. 584December 11, 2006
� 
 
Introduction
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001,spurred extraordinary efforts intended to pro-tect America from the newly highlightedscourge of international terrorism. Congressand the president reacted quickly to the attacks,passing the USA-PATRIOT Act,
1
which madesubstantial changes to laws that govern crimi-nal and national security investigations. In2004 the report of the National Commissionon Terrorist Attacks upon the United States(also known as the 9/11 Commission) providedenormous insight into the lead-up to 9/11 andthe events of that day. The report spawned a further round of policy changes, most notably enactment of the Intelligence Reform andTerrorism Prevention Act of 2004.
2
Information about key members of the 9/11plot was available to the U.S. government priorto the attacks, and the 9/11 terrorists wereclosely connected to one another in a multitudeof ways. The 9/11 Commission concluded that,by pursuing the leads available to it at the time,the government might have derailed the plan.What the 9/11 story most clearly calls for issharper focus on the part of our national secu-rity agencies and the ability to efficiently locate, access, and aggregate informationabout specific suspects. Investigators shoulduse intelligence to identify subjects of interestand then follow specific leads to detect andpreempt terrorism. But a significant reactionto 9/11 beyond Congress’s amendments tofederal law was the consideration and possibleuse of “data mining” as a way to discover plan-ning and preparation for terrorism.Data mining is not an effective way to dis-cover incipient terrorism. Though data mininghas many valuable uses, it is not well suited tothe terrorist discovery problem. It would beunfortunate if data mining for terrorism dis-covery had currency within national security,law enforcement, and technology circles be-cause pursuing this use of data mining wouldwaste taxpayer dollars, needlessly infringe onprivacy and civil liberties, and misdirect the valuable time and energy of the men andwomen in the national security community.We must continue to study and analyzethe events surrounding the 9/11 attacks sothat the most appropriate policies can beused to suppress terror, safeguard Americans,and protect American values. This is all themore important in light of recent controver-sies about the monitoring of telephone callsand the collection of telephone traffic data by the U.S. National Security Agency, as wellas surveillance of international financialtransactions by the U.S. Department of theTreasury.While hindsight is 20/20, the details of the9/11 story reveal that federal authorities hadsignificant opportunities to unravel the 9/11terrorist plot and potentially avert that day’stragedies. Two of the terrorists who ultimately hijacked and destroyed American Airlines flight77 were already considered suspects by federalauthorities and known to be in the UnitedStates. One of them was known to have associ-ated with what a CIA official called a “majorleague killer.”
3
Finding them and connectingthem to other September 11 hijackers wouldhave been possible—indeed, quite feasible—using the legal authority and investigative sys-tems that existed before the attacks.In the days and months before 9/11, new lawsand technologies like predictive data miningwere not necessary to connect the dots. What wasneeded to reveal the remaining 9/11 conspiratorswas better communication, collaboration, a heightened focus on the two known terrorists,and traditional investigative processes.This paper is not intended to attack thehard-working and well-intentioned membersof our law enforcement and intelligence com-munities. Rather, it seeks to illustrate thatpredictive data mining, while well suited tocertain endeavors, is problematic and gener-ally counterproductive in national security settings where its use is intended to ferret outthe next terrorist.
The Story behind 9/11
Details of the run-up to 9/11 providetremendous insight into what could have
2
Though datamining has many  valuable uses, it isnot well suitedto the terroristdiscovery problem.
 
been done to hamper or even entirely avertthe 9/11 attacks. Failing to recognize thesedetails and learn from them could com-pound the tragedy either by permittingfuture attacks or by encouraging acquies-cence to measures that erode civil libertieswithout protecting the country.In early January 2000 covert surveillancerevealed a terrorist planning meeting in Kuala Lumpur that included Nawaf al-Hazmi,Khalid al-Mihdhar, and others.
4
In March 2000the CIA was informed that Nawaf al-Hazmideparted Malaysia on a United Airlines flightfor Los Angeles. (Although unreported at thetime, al-Mihdhar was on the same flight.) TheCIA did not notify the State Department andthe FBI.
5
Later to join the 9/11 hijackings, bothwere known to be linked with al-Qaeda andspecifically with the 1998 embassy bombingsin Tanzania and Kenya.
6
 As the 9/11Commission reported, the trail was lost with-out a clear realization that it had been lost, andwithout much effort to pick it up again.
7
In January 2001, almost one year afterbeing lost in Bangkok, al-Mihdhar was onthe radar screen again after being identifiedby a joint CIA-FBI investigation of the bomb-ing of the USS
Cole
, the October 2000 attackon a U.S. guided missile destroyer in Yemen’s Aden Harbor that killed 17 crew membersand injured 39.
8
Even with this new knowl-edge the CIA did not renew its search for al-Mihdhar and did not make his identity known to the State Department (which pre-sumably would have interfered with his plansto re-enter the United States).
9
 Al-Mihdharflew to New York City on July 4, 2001, on a new visa. As the 9/11 Commission reported,“No one was looking for him.”
10
On August 21, 2001, an FBI analyst whohad been detailed to the CIA’s Bin Laden unitfinally made the connection and “graspedthe significance” of Nawaf al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar’s visits to the United States. TheImmigration and Naturalization Service wasimmediately notified. On August 22, 2001,the INS responded with information thatcaused the FBI analyst to conclude that al-Mihdhar might still be in the country.
11
With the knowledge that the associate of a “major league killer” was possibly roaming freein the United States, the hunt by the FBI shouldhave been on. The FBI certainly had a valid rea-son to open a case against these two individualsas they were connected to the ongoing USS
Cole
bombing investigation, the 1998 embassy bombing, and al-Qaeda.
12
On August 24, 2001,Nawaf al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were added tothe State Department’s TIPOFF
13
watchlist.
14
Efforts to locate Nawaf al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar initially foundered on confusionwithin the FBI about the sharing and use of data collected through intelligence versuscriminal channels.
15
The search for al-Mihdharwas assigned to one FBI agent, his first evercounterterrorism lead.
16
Because the lead was“routine,” he was given 30 days to open anintelligence case and make some effort tolocate al-Mihdhar.
17
If more attention hadbeen paid to these subjects, the location anddetention of al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmicould have derailed the 9/11 attack.
18
Hiding in Plain Sight
The 9/11 terrorists did not take significantsteps to mask their identities or obscure theiractivities. They were hiding in plain sight. They had P.O. boxes, e-mail accounts, drivers’ licens-es, bank accounts, and ATM cards.
19
For exam-ple, Nawaf al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar used theirtrue names to obtain California drivers’ licensesand to open New Jersey bank accounts.
20
Nawaf al-Hazmi had a car registered, and his nameappeared in the San Diego white pages with anaddress of 6401 Mount Ada Road, San Diego,California.
21
Mohamed Atta registered his redPontiac Grand Prix car in Florida with theaddress 4890 Pompano Road, Venice.
22
Ziad Jarrah registered his red 1990 MitsubishiEclipse as well.
23
Fourteen of the terrorists gotdrivers’ licenses or ID cards from either Florida or Virginia.
24
The terrorists not only operated in plainsight, they were interconnected. They livedtogether, shared P.O. boxes and frequentflyer numbers, used the same credit card
3
The 9/11terrorists did nottake significantsteps to masktheir identitiesor obscuretheir activities.

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