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To combat terrorism, agencies must share information, Webster says

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 4, 2010 - To protect the nation from terrorism, law enforcement agencies in the United States have to move from an attitude of need to know information to one of need to share it, former Judge William H. Webster said Thursday night.

Webster - the only person ever to head both the FBI and CIA - said progress has been made toward the goal of making the United States safer. But he noted that Americans still have an ambivalent attitude when it comes to the intelligence that the government needs to prevent attacks like the one on 9/11.

"The American attitude about security," he said in a speech, "is that it's always too much -- until it's not enough."

Webster, who was born in St. Louis and served on both the federal district and the federal circuit court of appeals here before going to Washington, recalled being presented with two reports when he was named by the Carter administration to head the FBI 32 years ago.

Basically, he said, the reports said that the FBI should worry about domestic crime and the CIA should concern itself with intelligence abroad - and the two agencies should "stay away from each other."

He said such an attitude may have been understandable in that era, but as times have changed, the need for greater coordination among various security agencies has increased. "The most effective weapon against crime," Webster said, "is cooperation."

To that end, he noted the creation of 72 intelligence fusion center across the United States, where first responders learn how to process information to make sure it means something and that it is passed along to agencies that can do something about it.

The goal, he said, is that "instead of charging a terrorist after he has acted, we should find ways to find out what he wants to do and take steps to prevent it.

"The idea is to get there before the bomb goes off."

By the time he left the FBI to head the CIA in 1987, terrorism in the United States had dropped drastically. Now, he said the threat has grown again.

"We have shifted in our attitude from the need to know to the need to share," Webster said. "Some of this we have done well, but other parts of this we have done not so well."

In his role as chairman of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, to which he was named by President George W. Bush in 2002, Webster has advised directors of Homeland Security and tried to create an atmosphere where the 22 agencies brought together under that umbrella can learn how to work together more effectively.

Citing recent incidents like the Christmas Day attempted bombing on an airliner, Webster noted that the nature of threats continues to change, with the emergence of what he called the "lone wolf" who does not appear to be under the direction of an organization such as al-Qaida.

Instead, he said, the threat comes from "an individual who is turned off because of the way he feels he is threatened and the way he feels we have treated others like him."

Combatting such people will not be easy, he said. But the severity of the threat must not mean that the government abandons the principles that the nation stands for.

Saying that we must use our system of government to protect our citizens, he concluded:

"The rule of law says it all."

Webster's speech was the second annual Danforth-Eagleton Lecture sponsored by the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis and the Judicial Learning Center. The first was given by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

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