The appointment of Bob Dies as assistant director of the FBI's Information Resources Division in July 2000 was an acknowledgment that an information technology infrastructure was sorely lacking within the agency. Dies, who had served in executive positions at IBM for more than 20 years, was brought onboard to sort out the agency's IT status and implement necessary changes.

After a year on the job, Dies introduced Trilogy to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Trilogy is a project aimed at building a new IT foundation to bring the FBI up to speed on electronic record keeping, data sharing and data analysis. That Trilogy is just a foundation, and that more needs to done, and quickly, became front-page news after Sept. 11, as an ill-equipped and unprepared agency set about the task of tracking terrorists who rely heavily on technology.

"Given the state of the national emergency, we've got to try to find a way to do this thing faster than we originally planned," Dies said between meetings with FBI and White House officials. "How much and which parts can be moved up and to what additional risk or expense is all to be determined. But the FBI is all over this and trying to move it up as much as possible."

There were opportunities for the FBI to electronically track some of the terrorists before the attacks, according to observers. The attacks underscored the fact that the FBI needs to be fully equipped to collect, analyze and share data, and it needs to be preemptive in its methods.

Falling Behind

In his address to the Judiciary Committee in July 2001, Dies painted a picture of an investigative agency that is asking its agents and support personnel to do their jobs without technology that most businesses and even home computer users have.

The FBI has had few information technology improvements over the last six years. It counts more than 13,000 desktop computers that are four to eight years old and cannot run today's basic software. Some agents don't even have the luxury of a mouse to navigate the computer screen. Most of the FBI's smaller offices are connected to the internal network at speeds equal to a 56Kbps modem. And agents are unable to store much of the information they collect - photographs, graphical and tabular data - in the agency's primary investigative databases. Some sensitive classified and criminal data are available only on paper.

It's not as though the FBI hasn't tried to upgrade. In 1999, the agency planned a project called the Information Sharing Initiative that would have used $430 million over five years to fund hardware and software and facilitate data sharing. Congress balked, expressing concern over how the FBI would manage the program, and cited the National Crime Information Center 2000 and the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System as examples of technology projects gone awry. Each of those projects was plagued by cost overruns of more than $1 million. The current project is budgeted for around $140 million for fiscal year 2002.

Unprecedented Change

Whether the FBI's information technology infrastructure shortcomings contributed in any way to what happened on Sept. 11 will be debated. This much is clear: the FBI is looking at unprecedented change in both its IT infrastructure and the way it conducts its business.

"It's not only an issue of systems, systems, systems; it's actually culturally putting that information on those systems," said Frank Cilluffo, deputy director of the Global Organized Crime Project and co-director of two homeland defense committees of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The challenge for the FBI, said Cilluffo, is to be able to sift through the multitude of threats and determine which threats pose a real danger. "It's a signal-to-noise challenge," he said. "That's where data mining can come into play. That's been an age-old challenge but it's one that we need

Jim McKay, Editor  |  Editor