First Line of Defense

Posted 2002-09-10 Print this article Print

A year after Sept. 11, law enforcement far too often finds itself left alone on the front line of defense.

First Line of Defense

The New York City Police Department is the nation's biggest and best law enforcement agency. Its members are unsurpassed at stopping murders, rapes, robberies, burglaries and other violent crimes. Between 1994 and 2002, the NYPD reduced major crime on its streets almost 60%—the only big city police department that has cut crime in each of the past seven years, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports.

But the mission of the NYPD and law-enforcement agencies across the country changed on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when hijacked jets slammed into New York's World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvania. More than 2,800 civilians and emergency workers died in New York.

Since then, the nation's law enforcement and intelligence agencies have made terrorism as much a priority as crime. In New York, for instance, the police department recently created two new deputy commissioner slots: Frank Libutti, a U.S. Marine Lieutenant General, is in charge of counterterrorism; David Cohen, the onetime director of the CIA's Directorate of Operations, now heads the NYPD's intelligence operation. The units gather information and develop strategies to combat terrorist threats.

"The key to preventing terrorism is gathering quality intelligence and acting on that information before the terrorist has an opportunity to strike," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said during an interview in June. "So our priority is to gather the best intelligence we can, enhance our counterterrorism training and work closely with other law enforcement agencies."

Kelly effectively echoed Robert Mueller, who took over as director of the FBI on Sept. 4, 2001. In a post 9/11 world, he testified before Congress, "New technologies are required to support new and different operational practices. We have to do a better job of … collaborating with others and, critically important, managing, analyzing and collecting information."

Communications and computing form the foundation on which the agencies can process and share information to create insight and action. But at a time when it is most needed, the technology infrastructure of the New York Police Department, and the nation's other leading law enforcement and intelligence-gathering agencies—the FBI, the CIA and the National Security Agency—is tattered.

  • The problems in New York are so deep, Kelly brought in a high-powered team of consultants from IBM, Deloitte & Touche, and Merrill Lynch to assess what technology is needed to fight both terrorism and "conventional" crime. The team found the department needed to address its hardware and software infrastructure, its communications network, and its project management skills, which have left NYPD investigators unable to easily mine the department's collection of disparate databases for information and background checks. The difficulty of finding data makes it hard to react at a moment's notice to criminal or terrorist threats.

  • An investigation released in March by the Department of Justice's inspector general found the FBI buried in a blizzard of paper, unable to handle or retrieve documents, even those related to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, because its computer systems are so antiquated and complex. "The FBI is simply too big and the cases are too large to continue to rely on paper as the chief information management tool," Inspector General Glenn Fine told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

  • The House of Representatives' subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security in July issued a report on counterterrorism intelligence-gathering prior to Sept. 11. That report blasts the National Security Agency for failing to upgrade its systems to perform even the simplest task: knowing where individuals suspected of posing threats to security are located. "NSA has been unable to organize itself to define and implement an integrated system that can follow [a] target across the global intelligence network, beyond high-level goals and plans."

  • The House also lambasted the CIA for its inability to collect and disseminate information on suspects in a timely fashion. The report called for a "terrorism watch-listing unit" at the CIA to ensure that the FBI, Homeland Security and other agencies have access to a common database of up-to-date information on suspected terrorists.

    Leaders of these agencies acknowledge weaknesses in computing and communications. Indeed, a New York cop in an emergency can't even consult on the run with an FBI counterpart on the street, because the agencies use incompatible radio frequencies and equipment.

    All agree that their systems need immediate upgrades to be better able to collect and share data that could lead to the apprehension of suspects before—rather than after—attacks on people and property are committed.

    Yet, after years of neglect and technology mismanagement, each agency faces the challenge of not only making their systems work, but of making them work well enough to exchange information on terrorist movements, quickly, securely and accurately, with other law-enforcement and intelligence-gathering services.

    A Justice Department working group, consisting of high-tech industry representatives from IBM, KPMG Consulting, Microsoft, Motorola, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Oracle, Science Applications International Corp., Unisys and others, has been studying the issue of how to integrate information systems between agencies. The group laid out the monumental impediments facing agencies that should be working hand-in-hand, including interagency competition; resistance to change; lack of resources; the absence of an agreed-on technical standard that would allow electronic data to be exchanged; a lack of project management expertise; untrained technology staffs; and a dependence on out-of-date computing systems that can't be easily retrofitted for high-speed collection, analysis and dissemination of information.

    In New York, for instance, police officers fill out at least five paper and electronic forms, containing more than 200 pieces of information, before they complete an arrest. At least 30% of the data has to be entered more than once on the forms, by each officer, for each arrest.

    At the FBI, its post-Sept. 11 attempts to find out more about foreigners in the United States on student visas produced a backlash on university campuses when it asked universities to hand over information on foreign students.

    According to Elizabeth Rindskopf-Parker, who was the general counsel for the University of Wisconsin, the requests should not even have been necessary.

    "The fact is, the FBI shouldn't have had to ask those questions," she says. "They should have been able to go to the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] and ask where the students in on visas were, where they lived, and so on. But the information being collected wasn't being sent to any central place to be analyzed. The INS didn't have the machinery to collect and use the information."

    Then there's the cost of tying together the 146 federal agencies that have law enforcement responsibilities with their fellow state and local agencies. The price: at least $15 billion over five years, according to various government estimates. It will be money well spent, says Ben Gianni, vice president for Homeland Security at Computer Sciences, a computer services firm. Without an efficient law-enforcement information-sharing support structure, he says, there's no way for these agencies to collect, analyze and disseminate information about suspected terrorist activities happening around the country and abroad.

    John Pignataro, chief of the Baltimore City Police Department's information and technology division, warns that the work needed to share data between all of the nation's law enforcement and intelligence gathering services is going to be monumental.

    "It's bigger than the Manhattan Project," he says, referring to the U.S. government's Herculean effort from 1941 to 1945 to develop the atomic bomb and end World War II. "You have a lot of different agencies that all have information—information they have by themselves. You're going to have to cull that out. It's going to be a monumental feat."

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