Reinventing the FBI

Following the terrorist attacks, the FBI scrambles to put its IT program on the fast track.

by / April 16, 2002
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 to be working on."
Observers point to the FBI's success as a prosecutorial agency as one of its deficiencies in dealing with terrorist threats. The agency has traditionally viewed data collection in terms of an investigation that will result in a prosecution. It doesn't share the data and, thus, warnings of imminent danger have been late.
"How they deal with information works exceedingly well for the law enforcement mission as traditionally defined," said Michele Flournoy, senior advisor of the CSIS International Security Program. "But when you take it into the domain of counter terrorism where success depends on a network between intelligence, law enforcement and other agencies, their culture becomes an impediment to success."

A Herculean Challenge
The new Office of Homeland Security, headed by former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, will be charged with closing the gaps in the country's law enforcement and intelligence operations. Ridge recently challenged law enforcement and intelligence agencies, which have a habit of being stingy with information, to "open the lines of communication like never before."
"I get a sense that you're going to get some real traction and movement from the Office of Homeland Security, which is trying to look at how to fuse and mine information, not just between the feds but between the feds and state and local governments to get down to the tip of the spear," Cilluffo said.
It will be a Herculean challenge; but one that is not really new, Cilluffo said. "If you look at counter narcotics, they've had this challenge for quite some time. The way it started working was through joint task forces," he said. A New York task force comprised of the New York Police Department, the FBI, U.S. Customs and state and local agencies eventually developed a working relationship. "They didn't want to share information before they actually saw who was the user of that information," Cilluffo said. "You need to build trust and you need to build it fast in this case."
It will be difficult, not only culturally but structurally as well.
For the most part, each law enforcement agency has its own unique procedures and protocol. Adapting those to mesh with other agencies will mean changing the procedures and the technology, said Philip Agre, associate professor of information studies at the University of California at Los Angeles.
"Every computer system grows up in a certain ecology and it intertwines with everything around it [in an organization], the language, the procedures, the rules, the politics, everything," Agre said. "That's why it's extremely hard to change. You're not just changing software, you're changing the organization."