The Federal Bureau of Luddites.

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April 6 2006 3:56 PM

The Federal Bureau of Luddites

Why there are still FBI agents who don't have e-mail addresses.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Two weeks ago, the FBI's chief information officer admitted that the bureau couldn't afford to provide e-mail addresses for 8,000 of its 30,000 employees. The e-mail shortfall is only the latest in a series of embarrassed confessions the FBI has made about its information technology. The most significant mea culpa came when an attempt to upgrade the bureau's case-management software had to be scrapped last year after $170 million had already been spent. A Justice Department report listed all kinds of excuses, from poor "enterprise architecture" planning to shifting design requirements. But behind the management analysis is a more implacable problem. Until very recently, being computer-savvy hasn't been considered much of an asset in the FBI, and clues were something you kept to yourself.

Agents say things are changing—that there's a new spirit of cooperation and new task forces designed to dig up what's buried in investigators' files. But decades-old habits die hard. The FBI's old fiefdoms still linger. Some are regional: An agent from Los Angeles would be strongly discouraged from chasing leads in Chicago. Others are functional: The Counterintelligence Division—the investigators assigned to catch the next Aldrich Ames—still gets into turf battles with the Bin Laden-hunters in Counterterrorism.

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For those who do want to share data, it can be more trouble than it's worth. Investigators are supposed to document everything from warrant requests to stakeout summaries in the FBI's Automated Case Support database. But agents can't point and click to add a record to their digital files. Instead, they have to tab through 12 different functions on a pre-Windows-era green screen. Pictures of suspects can't be scanned in. And complex searches are impossible—don't bother looking for "aviation" and "schools" at the same time. Many agents stay away from Automated Case Support and stick with paper. The 100,000 tips that came in during 2002's Washington, D.C., sniper case were circulated by fax.

Until 9/11, the consequences of being backward seemed pretty small. This was an investigative agency, after all—a team of cops looking into crimes after the fact. There was little pressure to stop things before they happened; you don't arrest a bank robber before he orders the teller to stick 'em up. Nor did there seem to be a need to swap clues as they were coming in.

Then, suddenly, the pressure to share information leapt from nonexistent to crushing. Plans begun in 2000 to revamp the bureau's hardware and software—the new system was to be called "Trilogy"—went into overdrive. Funding for FBI information technology jumped from $223 million to $507 million. In 2002, Sen. Chuck Schumer, then the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Trilogy's accelerated schedule was still too slow. "I find it impossible to believe that we cannot, for the safety of our nation, implement Trilogy any faster."

The problem was finding people with enough geek know-how and enough project management experience to get Trilogy done. The FBI's stars are the guys who chase down leads in the field, not the ones keeping servers from crashing. Former Director Louis Freeh reportedly had his PC taken off of his desk. Some agents proudly declared their inability to type.

In November 2001, the bureau named ex-IBM executive Bob Dies its first chief information officer. But Dies had virtually no authority over the FBI's technology budget, which was divided up among the various offices and divisions. He quit in May 2002. In the 19 months that followed, the FBI went through four more CIOs, and 15 key managers rotated through the Trilogy project.

Perhaps that's why many of the basic principles of running a multimillion dollar, high-tech effort were ignored. The bureau didn't bother with an overall assessment of its technology needs. Instead, IT managers made assumptions about what Trilogy should contain. Simple requirements documents, meant to lay out the system's basic functions (like searching multiple phrases at once), became detailed descriptions of logos and look-and-feel. Commercial software was eschewed in favor of complicated, hand-coded alternatives.

Eventually, the FBI got its hardware: new PCs and some higher-speed network connections (although a Congressional report would eventually uncover $10 million in questionable contractor payments and $7 million in missing gear). But Trilogy's software component—Virtual Case File, the system that was going to replace the old "green screen" investigation manager—never came to be. VCF was supposed to let agents import audio and video into its digital files, search all FBI databases simultaneously, and let approval forms be authorized online, instead of by hand or by fax. With a hyper-aggressive, 22-month schedule and a series of ever-shifting demands from the bureau, the contractors were never able to deliver.

Today, agents still struggle with the antiquated system VCF tried, and failed, to replace. According to current and former intelligence analysts throughout the government, the FBI's technological infrastructure is still decades behind that of other agencies.

The bureau is making progress. CIO Zalmai Azmi has been in place since December 2003. Unlike his predecessors, he has control over the FBI's entire technology budget and direct access to FBI chief Robert Mueller. Azmi recently signed a $425 million deal with Lockheed Martin to develop Sentinel, the software the Virtual Case File never grew to be. The company has four years to deliver, not 22 months. The software will rely on commercial components, like Oracle databases, and it will be rolled out in increments rather than a single chunk.

For agents in the field today, these changes still seem like they're a long way off. In New York, only about 100 agents out of 2,000 have BlackBerries—the e-mail-capable phones carried by seemingly every traveling salesman, congressional staffer, and mid-level executive on the East Coast. Headquarters nearly cut off the 100 BlackBerry owners until an assistant director "raised a stink" and saved his G-men from being disconnected. Score one for progress.

Noah Shachtman is the editor of DefenseTech.org.

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