When Mohammed Atta and his fellow hijackers showed up at U.S. airports on the morning of 9/11, airport security officials had no information identifying the men as terrorists — and no reason to stop them from boarding the planes they would soon turn into weapons.
Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff says a similar-style attack would now be prevented — even 9/11, he says, could have been stopped if the United States had access to more revealing passenger information.
CBS News correspondent Bob Orr asked Chertoff if the country had used the kind of data points in 2001 that are now used, whether more than half of the hijackers could have been identified. He said they would.
"We would have rapidly discovered the fact that there were connections, among at least 11 of the 19 hijackers, with terrorists, including terrorist financiers, and one of the people we would have identified as a threat was Mohammed Atta," he said. "So if you imagine if we could replay history and take our current program and take it back to 2001, this is the kind of program that quite literally would have averted 9/11."
Since 9/11 the United States has successfully pressed foreign countries to turn over in-depth passenger data. In addition to names, birthdates, addresses and frequent flier numbers, U.S. officials are also analyzing credit card, phone, and travel records. They're looking for information that may link incoming passengers to known — or even suspected — terror cells.
But the current information-sharing agreement with Europe runs out in July — and some allies would like to kill the deal, citing passengers' privacy rights. U.S. officials argue the terror threat has never been more urgent.
British intelligence agents say they are tracking 2,000 suspected terrorists and dozens of plots inside the U.K.
That threat is just one flight removed from the United States. A passenger from Europe can travel here with only a passport — without having to be cleared by a visa investigation.
Terrorists from these so-called "visa-waiver countries" have already exploited that loophole to plan attacks against the United States. Surveillance pictures of New York financial firms were taken by an al Qaeda agent who traveled unimpeded to America on a British passport.
Another al Qaeda operative, Richard Reid, used his British passport to carry his shoe bomb aboard a U.S.-bound jetliner.
Just this week, British authorities admitted they've lost track of three terror suspects who may be traveling abroad.
"What this means is that al Qaeda doesn't necessarily need to have the same kind of robust network of terrorists in the United States that they may already have in the United Kingdom or other European countries. They can insert their operatives into the U.S. simply because they have the right kind of passport," said Georgetown University terrorism analyst Bruce Hoffman.
Chertoff has been personally making that case to European allies, and taking a hard line.
"One thing I've made very clear from the outset is that we're not going to outsource the decision-making on our national security," Chertoff said.
With or without an extension of information-sharing deal, the United States will continue demanding the data from airlines before international flights can land here. The attacks of 9/11 proved there is no other safe option.