Information Warfare: April 19, 2004


Urban mythology attributes Orwellian skill and efficiency to Federal government information technology, portraying the feds as an all-seeing, all-knowing Big Brother. As with all myths, the painful reality is  far from the truth. Last week's September 11 Commission hearings aired out the FBI's dirty little failings in computer technology and data management, flaws in the system that needed to be fixed years ago. 

According to testimony by former FBI directors and attorney generals of two different administrations, the agency's computer systems are hopelessly out of date and can't share information freely. Efforts over the years to inject cash into upgrading the FBI to an Internet-like infrastructure have failed due to a lack of political will and leadership, as well as a skepticism in Congress that money spent for upgrading computer systems would be wisely spent. 

Former FBI Director Louish Freeh has recently touted his creation of overseas FBI liaison offices to gather intelligence and work with foreign governments. Freeh didn't discuss why he failed to implement a modern computer infrastructure during his tenure from 1993-2001. But it is known that the first thing Freeh did as director was to order that the computer on his desk be taken out, since he never used e-mail.

Former Attorney General Janet Reno described FBI information management when she arrived in town as "We didn't know what we didn't know," with disconnected and old systems unable to talk to each other. By the time she left and was replaced by John Ashcroft, the Bureau had 42 separate information systems, none of which were connected together. Field offices were linked together with 56 Kbps leased lines and the systems were so slow as to make using in-house e-mail systems unworkable. A key memo warning terrorist were training in commercial aviation was also lost in the maze of FBI systems. 

After the attacks on September 11, Bureau agents had to ship pictures of the hijackers via overnight mail because the FBI didn't have the capability to e-mail them. A year later, the FBI was still behind the curve during the "Beltway Sniper" case. During October 2002, FBI trainees manned an 800-number telephone tip line, taking down information by hand on carbon copy forms. Thousands of tips flooded the line. How was all the paper handled? Sorted by location, then driven over to police departments in the various districts of Maryland and Virginia each day. 

The FBI is building a tool called the Virtual Case File System as a part of the nearly half-billion dollar Trilogy IT modernization project. The Virtual Case File System will allow FBI field offices to hold all notes and share them in one Web-based environment. In late November 2003, a Bureau official stated that "about 3,000" FBI employees need computer literacy training in basic skills such as how to use a mouse, copy and paste, and how to work in a Windows environment. It was also noted that some FBI employees still use dictation machines "and we have typing pools." 

Both Trilogy and the Virtual Case File System are behind schedule and over-cost. Trilogy was initially priced at $379 million and has racked up an additional $200 million in cost overruns. A good chunk of the funding has gone to deploy 21,000 desktop PCs; 622 LANs; 2,612 switches and routers; 291 servers; and a wide-area network to serve users at 595 sites. The Virtual Case File System is supposed to be deployed by the end of 2004, if the contractor doesn't miss another deadline. Doug Mohney


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