Time for the Next Manhattan Project

By Tom Steinert-Threlkeld Print this article Print

The U.S. needs to commit resources to the Manhattan Project of the 21st Century: a unified, highly secure information network for our cops, FBI agents and CIA spies to share data.

Haven't we seen enough?

Two towers could still be standing, if our intelligence-gathering agencies were able to share what they know with each other, instantly; or were trusting enough of each other to allow reputable researchers to peer into each other's databases.

Here's just a partial litany of the pitiful state of this nation's information infrastructure and technical trustworthiness:

  • In May, the FBI picked up electronic mail from targets inside the al Qaeda terror network. But the FBI's software also picked up e-mail from "noncovered targets." So a rattled FBI technician destroyed it all.
  • A year earlier, the U.S. government couldn't put the nation's worst homegrown terrorist, Timothy McVeigh, to death for the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. Why? The FBI's databases couldn't find 3,000 pages of evidence, when needed.
  • Today, in New York City, a street cop has no idea if the glassy-eyed individual that has stopped an 18-wheeler in the middle of Park Avenue traffic and put down a shopping bag is a possible terrorist. The lineup of known terrorists is hanging on a clipboard back at a precinct house.

    The president has declared a war on terrorism. But, so far, he has failed altogether to acknowledge the obvious truth: that this war is being fought on our turf.

    As such, the cop should be equipped to fight a war that will be won through information—battlefield intelligence about the enemy—as much as any other single factor. You will find, instead, when you read Baseline's 20-page package on law enforcement information systems ("The Disconnected Cop"), that the street cop is almost on his or her own, day to day. Disconnected from the databases at the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency and the FBI. But also disconnected from the precinct house.

    It's time for the president to take his war seriously, on our shores. In a previous worldwide war, a predecessor launched something called the Manhattan Project. The four atom bombs that won that war cost the equivalent of $20 billion to produce, in current dollars. That's about what the federal government is already committed to spend, just to rebuild New York. We have greater wherewithal than that. And greater need.

    This generation's Manhattan Project ought to be to redeploy all that great talent engendered by Silicon Valley. Use the best employed (and unemployed) talent. Commit this country to a clear goal: a unified, standardized, highly secure information network with state-of-the-art digital imaging and data exchange technology that can make our street cops, FBI agents and CIA spies the intelligent infantry a war like this will always require.

    In the meantime, we can all start small, and support our local police. In New York, spending on information technology is going up, from $9 million to $92 million, a year. But that's a drop in the bucket, in a city that still has mobile data terminals of any type in only half its patrol cars. And Mayor Michael Bloomberg has yet to unveil his plan for overhauling his "technologically bereft" police department, as former Police Commissioner William Bratton characterizes it.

    You're in the technology business. You know the value of good information systems. You can contribute to the cause. If you want to make Mayor Bloomberg's task easier, send monetary contributions to the NYC Police Foundation, 345 Park Ave., New York, NY 10154. It's the quickest, easiest way to get the ball rolling.

    If you feel you have current, non-obsolete technology that could be of use, inventory it and send a description to the foundation's president, Pamela Delaney. The foundation will vet the potential contribution with the police department, before accepting. Ziff Davis Media, the publisher of this magazine, is prepared to contribute at least 20 personal computers to the cause, if the city wants them.

    Or you can support your own municipality's department, with financial and technical contributions.

    Whatever the source, whatever the city, the time has come to regard the nation's police departments as our first line of defense, until this war ends.

    This article was originally published on 2002-09-11
    Tom was editor-in-chief of Interactive Week, from 1995 to 2000, leading a team that created the Internet industry's first newspaper and won numerous awards for the publication. He also has been an award-winning technology journalist for the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He is a graduate of the Harvard Business School and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
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